The State of the State of Feminism

Martha C. Nussbaum’s new book, “Sex and Social Justice,” makes a case for liberal feminism.

More than a generation ago, women’s rights established a foothold in U.S. politics. Women’s rights included primarily, though not exclusively, a concern for equal treatment under the law; this in turn focused down to two areas of central concern: equality in access to educational opportunity and equality in compensational structure and career opportunities.

Persons, male as well as female, who supported and campaigned for women’s rights were, and are, feminists. There are few persons today who would openly oppose the general principles of equality that drive feminism.

Feminist political theory has since developed apace. Feminists who believe in the power of legislative and case law to promote equality are known as “liberal feminists,” an apt label owing to their concern for the promotion and protection of individual rights, and their belief that a focus on individual women’s rights via legal reform will ultimately achieve equality.

Perhaps surprisingly, liberal feminism is opposed – and, by feminists. The opposition is multivaried, but it advocates the generic feminist agenda that would promote women’s rights and so is “feminist,” but it rejects the notion that legal reform will achieve women’s rights and so it is “radical.”

One of the most provocative aspects of radical feminist argumentation is the way in which it highlights what it calls women’s special capacities for caring, nurturing and attachment, and a communitarian focus.

Radical feminists argue that the individualistic politics that are championed by liberal feminism thinly mask male-oriented social and political aims, and that these predominant aims block a genuine, positive transformation in political goals and social organization that affect both women and men.

Liberal feminism, so the argument goes, merely parrots the very sort of political agenda that legitimizes and perpetuates less than equal status for women; feminist theory should set an agenda that ceases to use the “male voice” from women’s mouths.

As famously said by one radical feminist, “take your boot off our necks and then you’ll hear women’s voice!”

Into this rather contentious milieu steps Professor Martha C. Nussbaum with her newest book, a collection of essays on the joint topics of being female and striving for social justice.

Nussbaum defends liberal political theory as the best political and social agenda for achieving feminist aims.

Happily, Nussbaum’s book amounts to far more than jottings by an old guard feminist on the present state of women’s rights. Nussbaum carefully details the main tenets of liberalism and then argues the case-sometimes at the level of political theory, more often by means of carefully detailed real life circumstances-for allegiance to liberal principals and practice. Perhaps less happily, Nussbaum tries but is unsuccessful at meeting theoretical challenges against liberal political theory itself.

So, for example, against radical feminists Nussbaum persuasively argues that the very politics of caring and communitarianism that is central to the radical feminist should entail an allegiance to the liberal principles of individual rights.

This is because, Nussbaum points out by means of a look at real cases, when political theory is refocused onto the group then the group runs roughshod over women’s interests and obscures internal hierarchies that exist in any group. Both of which outcomes are anathema to the radical feminist stance. That all of this is so, Nussbaum asserts, remains the case, no matter how strongly professed is the communitarian nature of any group.

However, while Nussbaum may land a swift blow against anti-liberalism, the thorny question about how to resolve, on the basis of liberal theory, a clash of individual desires and goals with the predominating goals are left without answer. But, definitive answers are not always the only good thing that an essay can provide. Of equal importance is clarification of issues and implications.

Nussbaum does a remarkably good job at detailing what it will mean for feminists to reject liberalism in favor of any anti-liberal political theory.

For her U.S. readers, Nussbaum considers women’s issues on a heretofore unmatched global scale. Her arguments are especially important where she attempts to show that there are reasoned grounds to either condemn, or support, cultural practices from an outsider’s perspective.

According to Nussbaum, we can do more than have a negative emotional reaction to cultural practices such as forbidding widows to support the surviving family, effectively condemning the family to death. We can, she argues, present reasons that condemn these practices, and such reasons ought to constrain individual choices no matter what the culture.

Nussbaum’s claims concerning cross-cultural critique are of course in sharp contrast to certain other arguments that would foreswear reasoned grounds to praise or condemn the practices and mores of a different culture.

Nussbaum fails to advance the debate concerning cross-cultural critique at the fundamental level. For example, despite the theoretical side of her arguments, she ignores the abiding problem of how to delineate culture.

Nussbaum is not uniquely remiss in failing to clarify these kinds of theoretical matters, but readers should be on the alert that she rather blithely ignores them altogether. in truth, readers will find that throughout the book, Nussbaum has an unaccountably high level of confidence in social science.

The powerful parts of Nussbaum’s book are where her essays wield the tenets of political liberalism against flawed reasoning in recent legal decisions, and in the manner in which she shows that whatever merits political liberalism ought to enjoy within the U.S. for matters of sex and social justice, consistency demands its extension on an international scale for women everywhere.

So, while there may not be new theory to mine in the essays, the book is a sound, entry level critique in favor of liberal feminism.

Reviewed by Cassandra L. Pinnick, Department of Philosophy and Religion, Western Kentucky University.

This review first appeared in the “Daily News” Bowling Green, Kentucky, Sunday July 18, 1999, p9-C, and is reprinted by permission of the author and that newspaper.

Cassandra L. Pinnick’s book (edited with Noretta Koertge and Robert F. Almeder) Scrutinizing Feminist Epistemology, has recently been published.

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