The Concept of Liberty and the Place of Power: A Feminist Perspective

Nancy J. Hirschmann, The University of Pennsylvania

The relationship between freedom and power is one that has con-cerned feminists from the seventeenth century to today. Feminists have sought to free both men and women from the constraints of gendered roles, rules, expectations, and stereotypes, but have noted that women are generally more constrained than men, who generally have more power than women (if we hold race and class constant).

As Locke’s contemporary Mary Astell asked, “If all Men are born free, how is it that all Women are born slaves?” and she attributed women’s lack of freedom to the pow-er that laws, norms, and institutions gave men over women’s lives. Such concerns continued into the eighteenth century with Mary Wollstonecraft’s calling women’s condition in the family and society one of “slavery” because of their lack of education and rights to their own property, a theme that John Stuart Mill continued in the nineteenth century with his advocacy of women’s suffrage and the Married Women’s Property Act.

But it was not until the late twentieth century that second-wave feminists began to complicate the relationship between freedom and power, with the “linguistic turn” that was ushered in by the widespread influence of Michel Foucault. Freedom was seen by feminists to be intertwined with many other concepts, such as justice, autonomy, equality, and difference.

But its relationship with power is arguably the most complex, if not most significant. In this paper I will use the postmodern understanding of how desire and subjectivity are socially constructed through relation-ships, practices, and language to show that the simplistic understanding of freedom often proffered in the West — doing what I want without interference — is inadequate to understand the role of power in women’s struggle for freedom, as well as that of other subordinated groups. But social construction also entails a paradox that presents a philosophical challenge for politics that must be recognized if we are to have a theory of freedom that does not perpetuate sexism and racism. This paradox entails the necessity of recognizing the role of “internal barriers” to freedom, and simultaneously that such barriers are never solely internal.


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University of Florence

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The University of Florence is an important and influential centre for research and higher training in Italy

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