U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Thinking about Feminist Political Thought and Historicizing Liberalism

 PersonalPoliticalThat the personal sphere of sexuality, of housework, of child care and family life is political because the underpinning of most feminist thought. We have strong and persistently challenged the long-standing underlying assumption of almost all political theories: that the sphere of family and personal life is so separate and distinct from the rest of social life that such theories can justifiably assume but ignore it.

Susan Moller Okin, Justice, Gender, and the Family,1987

In 1987, political theorist Susan Moller Okin, known for challenging giants of the Western philosophical tradition such as Aristotle and Rousseau for their unenlightened views on women, published a provocative book in which she argued that women in America have foolishly fought for equality in the public sphere– suffrage, equal pay, the Equal Rights Amendment– while keeping the private sphere– the home– free from public evaluations of justice. According to Okin, “’How political is the personal?’ and ‘In what ways is the personal political and the political personal?’ are important questions within the feminist argument.”1 They are also important questions for the historian examining past claims about justice, gender, and the ideal society. 

Linda Kerber’s seminal Women of the Republic, published in 1980, demonstrates how the historian can contribute to these questions. “The freedom or repression, equality or inequality in a state is a function, not of its merely political organization, but of the structure of its personal and social life as whole,” Kerber argues.Going further, Kerber claims that in a liberal state– one that rests upon the distinction between a public sphere and a private sphere– the political can only exist because of the existence of an opposing sphere. “Emile needs Sophie,” insists Kerber, referring to Jean Jacques Rousseau’s ideal democratic man and his intended wife, “the society in which he functions cannot exist without her.”2

By making explicit the artificiality of the public-private distinction and by insisting that the public sphere exists because of the private sphere, Kerber warns historians agains treating women as an isolated topic in American history. In fact, she compares this mistake to treating slavery as simply on separate topic in the antebellum south. “Just as planters claimed that democracy in the antebellum South rested on the economic basis of slavery,” Kerber explains, “so egalitarian society was said to rest upon the moral base of deference among a class of people– women– who would devote their efforts to service.”3

Kerber’s work suggests that historical investigation can contribute to challenging the public-private distinction. A decade after Women of the Republic, Robert Westbrook continued Kerber’s line of investigation in an article about women and political obligation. According to Kerber, “to the extent that women attract men’s attentions, they always, in some measure, counteract the state’s claim on men’s emotions and loyalty.”4 Westbrook examined how women’s claims on men’s emotions and loyalty became a tool with which the state constructed political obligation in the Second World War. Women, embodying the private and the personal, became a mediating force between the individual and the liberal state. “Liberal states,” argues Westbrook, “bereft of a compelling argument for political obligation, will attempt to exploit private obligations in order to convince its citizens to serve its defense.”5 Westbrook thus reveals “the cultural construction of women as objects of [political] obligation,” just as Kerber examined the the private sphere to serve and legitimize the public sphere.6 Kerber and Westbrook point to more work that can be done not just on gender and women’s history, but on liberalism and political thought, as historians question the relationship between the personal and the political.

Ultimately, in Kerber’s narrative, the ideology of Republican Motherhood emerges as the only option for women of the early Republic wishing to claim some stake in the political. This ideology grew out of the close connection between public and private, but still relied on a clear distinction between the two. The tragic irony of Kerber’ story is that Repbulican Motherhood, while important in framing arguments for women’s political equality throughout American history, also reinforced the domestic sphere and thus contributed to female subjugation. As Susan Moller Okin argued– accepting the main premise of Republican Motherhood, that the family is the school of virtue– injustice within the home lies that the root of all political injustice. By protecting the home as a private sphere safe from public scrutiny and regulation, Okin complained, Americans would never be able to correct both private injustices, such as the gendered division of labor within the home, and the public inequalities these private injustices create. Offering a narrative of the origins of Okin’s dilemma, Kerber writes that “in refuting charges that free love and masculinization would follow from increased sophistication and improved learning, defenders of female education found themselves developing a strident prediction of continuing domesticity.” “So long as the literature of domesticity persisted,” Kerber added, “it would always embody an anti-intellectual connotation, a skepticism about the capacities of women’s minds.”7

Here intellectual historians should take note that theories of liberalism, the public, and domesticity, which have centered around the question of women’s role in democratic society, have also involved claims about intellectuals and and the act of thinking. An examination of gender and liberal thought in American history, therefore, can reveal the history of our national schizophrenia regarding the role of the intellectual in democratic society. While there are a number of interesting works on women, reading, and the education in nineteenth-century America, most notably by Caroline Winterer, historians have yet to thoroughly connect this excellent work to larger insights about the construction of gender along a public-private dichotomy and the resulting problems for intellectual life in a liberal state.

In 1879, Julia Ward Howe, author of the “Mother’s Day Proclamation” advocating a national holiday honoring mothers, delivered a public address on the equality of women in Plato’s Republic. In the Republic this equality is achieved by completely destroying the family. Surprisingly, Howe embraced Socrates’ destruction of the family, explaining that though she honored motherhood, she understood that it could often condemn women to slavery. Thus, while embodying Republican Motherhood, Howe acknowledged what Kerber and Okin (and Plato!) recognized: that the ideal of motherhood and domesticity also served to subjugate women.

Howe’s speech on Plato’s Republic is most important, however, for the radical statement she made simply by her presence as a women discussing justice and politics on a public platform. Like Socrates, who tells his interlocutors in the Republic that women, if they are to be equal, should be brought out into the public, right into the palaestra to exercise– naked– alongside men, intellectual historians should restore women to their proper place at the center of questions of justice, democracy, and political obligation in the liberal state.

1Susan Moller Okin, Justice, Gender, and the Family (Basic Books, Inc., 1987), 128.

2Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 20.

3Kerber, 19.


5Robert B. Westbrook, “’I Want a Girl, Just Like the Girl That Married Harry James’: American Women and the Problem of Political Obligation in World War II,” American Quarterly Vol. 42, No. 4 (Dec., 1990), pp587-614, 591.

6Westbrook, 589.

7Kerber, 231.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Hi Rivka,

    These triangulations around gender, liberalism, and republicanism, are very interesting. A question that is sort of off to the side of what you’ve written here: what about the experience of the revolution/war of independence?

    I know the French context best, and have been reading (for teaching) some classics on the 18th century (Dena Goodman, Sara Maza). In France, these very dilemmas about gender, intellectuality, and public action, are, arguably, driving forces into and through the Revolution itself. And the experience of the Revolution has a profound shaping/solidifying effect on republican gender discourse. So does something similar happen on the other side of the Atlantic across the 1770s-80s?

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