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Book Preview – Women in Political Theory by Jane Duran

[Prof. Jane Duran, Lecturer in the Department of Black Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara, previews her new book, Women in Political Theory (Ashgate, 2013).]

The contributions of women to philosophy in general are now receiving much more attention than in decades past, and various books, anthologies and so forth have been published that seek to draw attention to women thinkers and their offerings. The specific area of political theory, however, has remained recalcitrant – not least because of the fact that, within philosophy itself, this area has a reputation as one that straddles so many disciplines as to be questionable. There has been a dearth of written work on the various women who might be thought to have contributed to political philosophy, or who might have been thought to have worked philosophically, but largely within a political vein.

Women in Political Theory aims to rectify this oversight, while attempting to be specific about the contributions of at least three women whose work might not be deemed to be theoretical enough (at least in the standard sense) for inclusion. The writings of five women are examined – Sarah Grimké, Anna Julia Cooper, Jane Addams, Rosa Luxemburg and Hannah Arendt – with an eye toward making the case for their inclusion in the canon, while still articulating points of difference between them and other thinkers.

Remarkably, the first three thinkers, whose work might seem non-political to some, are the very thinkers whose work most reflects, at least to some extent, elements of the Christian tradition and the desire to speak to a social gospel. Although Luxemburg and Arendt are canonical, and although their work has long been taught at colleges and universities, it requires a bit of effort to make the case for the inclusion of the first three authors. One might well pause, for example, at the inclusion of Sarah Grimké, since her sister Angelina was the more noted of the two, and since both are thought of primarily as abolitionists and activists rather than theoreticians. But Grimké’s Letters on the Equality of the Sexes is quintessentially a political document, and it is informed, as is much nineteenth-century work, by a close reading of the New Testament.  The same might be said about Anna Julia Cooper, whose work is motivated both by Christian and historical concerns. As one of the primary Black women intellectuals of her time, her writings more than merit examination.

This work also tries to spell out why it is that, with the tradition in Western political thought (developed by the ancients and furthered during the Renaissance and even the early Enlightenment) of taking the state as a large-scale version of the home, much was left unsaid and undone with regard to women. Filmer, Machiavelli and other thinkers simply gave us various versions of Aristotelian thinking in this regard, and it proved to be extraordinarily difficult for women philosophers to move forward. Recent work in political philosophy by such authors as Susan Moller Okin and Jean Bethke Elshtain does a great deal to speak to the intransigence of the tradition and its need for change. The twentieth-century thinkers examined in this work – Jane Addams, Luxemburg and Arendt – all strove to move past the historical barriers, and they were at least to some extent more successful than those of preceding eras.

If it is possible to make the claim that a social justice perspective, certainly an overview that is at least minimally related to our quintet of authors, derives at least partly from Christian and other religious traditions (one thinks, for example, of Gandhi’s satyagraha), it is also possible to weave a thread through the range of feminist concerns in political thought today and the writings of these five women. Grimké’s desires for justice extended to both women and Africans, and Cooper was especially concerned about the plight of Black women in the nineteenth century, not a topic that received a great deal of attention. Addams’s works, such as Peace and Bread in Time of War and Democracy and Social Ethics, show a pronounced desire to extend the Hull House generosity to groups around the world. Although Luxemburg is thought of today as working only in the Marxian tradition, it is important to remember the very early origins of that tradition in, for example, Marx’s own 1844 manuscripts, and to think about the concern for justice manifested there. Arendt, perhaps, remains more difficult to classify, but it is a salient feature of her Eichmann in Jerusalem that she refused to see Eichmann as anything other than a human being. His conscience, as she noted, had a duration of about three weeks. But in her controversial remarks on Eichmann and his comparatively anonymous persona, Arendt reminds all of us that evil is a capacity well within the range of a great deal of human behavior.

Women have long been excluded from the ranks of political thinkers, just as their place in the polity has long reflected a strident adherence to the views of the ancients that saw women as defective examples of personhood. But the advent of feminist theory, its growth throughout the humanities and social sciences, and the rise in awareness of such more traditionally philosophical women thinkers as Anne Conway, Mary Astell and Simone de Beauvoir, has meant that the time has now come for an overview of women who thought or conceptualized philosophically but primarily in a political vein.

As we have seen, especially in times past, much of the work of these women was motivated by a desire to extend the very equality that they saw as stated explicitly in the teachings of the New Testament to those excluded by the politics of the time, particularly women, slaves and Native Americans. When more contemporary thinkers such as Okin have asked questions about Plato’s concept of the female Guardian, they have been motivated by a concern to spell out these constructs in ways that moved theory forward. It is important to examine the work of the women political philosophers whose writings are readily available to us – whether or not they are currently part of the canon.

Women in Political Theory examines the writings of five women, and tries to make the claim that their thinking is not only political, but relevant today.

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