Feminist Interpretations of Thomas Hobbes
Edited by Nancy J. Hirschmann and Joanne H. Wright
Feminist Interpretations of Thomas Hobbes
Edited by Nancy J. Hirschmann and Joanne H. WrightFeminist Interpretations of Thomas Hobbes features the work of feminist scholars who are centrally engaged with Hobbes’s ideas and texts and who view Hobbes as an important touchstone in modern political thought. Bringing together scholars from the disciplines of philosophy, history, political theory, and English literature who embrace diverse theoretical and philosophical approaches and a range of feminist perspectives, this interdisciplinary collection aims to appeal to an audience of Hobbes scholars and nonspecialists alike.
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
As a theorist whose trademark is a compelling argument for absolute sovereignty, Hobbes may seem initially to have little to offer twenty-first-century feminist thought. Yet, as the contributors to this collection demonstrate, Hobbesian political thought provides fertile ground for feminist inquiry. Indeed, in engaging Hobbes, feminist theory engages with what is perhaps the clearest and most influential articulation of the foundational concepts and ideas associated with modernity: freedom, equality, human nature, authority, consent, coercion, political obligation, and citizenship.
Aside from the editors, the contributors are Joanne Boucher, Karen Detlefsen, Karen Green, Wendy Gunther-Canada, Jane S. Jaquette, S. A. Lloyd, Su Fang Ng, Carole Pateman, Gordon Schochet, Quentin Skinner, and Susanne Sreedhar.
Nancy J. Hirschmann is Professor of Political Science at The University of Pennsylvania. She is also co-editor with Kirstie McClure of Feminist Interpretations of John Locke (Penn State, 2007).
Joanne H. Wright is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of New Brunswick.
Introduction: The Many Faces of “Mr. Hobs”
Joanne H. Wright and Nancy J. Hirschmann
1 Hobbes, History, Politics, and Gender: A Conversation with Carole Pateman and Quentin Skinner
Conducted by Nancy J. Hirschmann and Joanne H. Wright
Part 1 Classic Questions, New Approaches
2 Power and Sexual Subordination in Hobbes’s Political Theory
S. A. Lloyd
3 Defending Liberal Feminism: Insights from Hobbes
Jane S. Jaquette
4 Hobbes and the Bestial Body of Sovereignty
Su Fang Ng
Part 2 The Gendered Politics of Gratitude, Contract, and the Family
5 Thomas Hobbes on the Family and the State of Nature (1967)
Gordon J. Schochet
6 Gordon Schochet on Hobbes, Gratitude, and Women
Nancy J. Hirschmann
Part 3 Hobbes and His(torical) Women
7 Margaret Cavendish and Thomas Hobbes on Freedom, Education, and Women
8 When Is a Contract Theorist Not a Contract Theorist? Mary Astell and Catharine Macaulay as Critics of Thomas Hobbes
9 Catharine Macaulay’s “Loose Remarks” on Hobbesian Politics
Part 4 Hobbes in the Twenty-First Century, or What Has Hobbes Done for You Lately?
10 Thomas Hobbes and the Problem of Fetal Personhood
11 Choice Talk, Breast Implants, and Feminist Consent Theory: Hobbes’s Legacy in Choice Feminism
Joanne H. Wright
12 Toward a Hobbesian Theory of Sexuality
Notes on Contributors
The Many Faces of “Mr. Hobs”
Joanne H. Wright and Nancy J. Hirschmann
The very idea of a volume of feminist essays on Hobbes may seem at first glance to be puzzling, if not futile. As a theorist whose trademark is a relentlessly logical argument for absolute sovereignty, Hobbes may seem initially to have little to offer twenty-first-century feminist thought. Hobbes makes few references to women throughout his corpus, being explicitly concerned with political power, which—in seventeenth-century England, a period in which Elizabeth’s recent reign was fodder for a burgeoning literature on patriarchal theories of politics—for the most part excluded women from its concerns. Unlike Locke, who explicitly recognized women’s entitlement to authority and respect in the bourgeois family (and explicitly recognized their need to work in poor families), Hobbes’s comments on women, sex, and the family are scant. Readers of Hobbes might interpret his remarks on gender as offhand, made in passing as he moves through “larger” arguments about power, freedom, and order.
Further, Hobbes is often cast as the founding figure of a rationalist hyperindividualistic political vision that is inimical to a twentieth- and twenty-first-century feminism committed to democracy, participation, and mutual relations of care and community. Consider, for example, Jean Bethke Elshtain’s early characterization in Public Man, Private Woman in 1981: “If Hobbes’s epistemology is methodological individualism, his ontology is abstract individualism.” This understanding of Hobbes dominated feminist interpretations; as Christine Di Stefano noted in her influential Configurations of Masculinity, Hobbes’s ontology demonstrated a “distinctively modern masculinist orientation to the realm of social life.”
Yet despite Hobbes’s stark language and unsentimental portrayal of the social and political world—or possibly because of it—he has held a fascination for feminists since the early days of feminist political thought. This is especially evident in Teresa Brennan and Carole Pateman’s “‘Mere Auxiliaries to the Commonwealth’: Women and the Origins of Liberalism” (1979) and in Pateman’s later work The Sexual Contract (1988), both of which pay particular attention to Hobbes as a figure relevant to unpacking the politics of gender, sex, and the family. At the same time, however, Hobbes has been undertreated in the history of feminist thought. None of the other early feminist classics treat Hobbes as significant enough to warrant a separate chapter. From Susan Moller Okin’s Women in Western Political Thought and Lorenne Clark and Lynda Lange’s The Sexism of Social and Political Theory, to Elshtain’s Public Man, Private Woman and Zillah Eisenstein’s The Radical Future of Liberal Feminism, Hobbes’s work only merits a few pages.
Did early feminists not deem his thought patriarchal enough to require deeper investigation? Or did they perhaps think that he was so far beyond rescue for feminism that a deeper investigation would be fruitless? Our contributors show that the exercise of unpacking Hobbes’s assumptions about gender is worth the trouble. But the dearth of feminist analysis of Hobbes is also a product of his larger reception in political thought. In his book Hobbes: A Very Short Introduction, Richard Tuck suggests that Hobbes is the most undertreated of great Western thinkers—not just by feminists, but by historians of political thought of all stripes. As unbelievable as this might seem, especially in light of his frequent designation as the greatest philosopher in the English language, it may be that Hobbes’s status as a theorist of absolute power writing at the outset of more liberal and, later, democratic ideas about politics has contributed to this eclipse.
As we endeavor to give Hobbes his due, as well as to acknowledge a huge debt to some of the important ground broken by the early feminist interpretations, this volume of feminist interpretations seeks to investigate more deeply what his significance for feminism might be. Ranging from an argument that the right to self-preservation may leave room for a defense of modern abortion rights, to a radical and libertarian theory of sexuality, to an understanding of the will and consent that choice feminism can deploy, to a portrayal of the powerful mother in the state of nature who becomes an outcast in civil society like the she-wolf displaced by the swineherd, feminists have plumbed a rich trove of possibility from the brilliant writings of the man from Malmesbury. This is a Hobbes who will excite some readers, horrify others, but hopefully challenge all.
Most emphatically, there is no “straw Hobbes” here, no caricatured picture of Hobbes as theorizing the “atomistic individualism,” “possessive individualism,” or “abstract individualism” of which feminists were enamored in the 1970s and 1980s; there is no reductionist Hobbesian man incapable of relationship, peace, or love. Rather, emerging from this collection is a picture of Hobbes that is, on the one hand, nuanced and complex, and, on the other, potentially surprising for readers, feminist and nonfeminist alike. Each one of these essays plumbs the depths of Hobbes’s political thought and legacy, and each reveals a dimension or aspect of the man and his thought that broadens and renders more nuanced our overall image. As a result, we present a collection of essays, almost all original to this volume, that we hope will be of interest to a wide audience, from political theorists to specialists in early modern intellectual history and philosophy, and from feminist political theorists and philosophers, some of whom have been interested in Hobbes and others not, to Hobbes specialists, some of whom have been interested in questions of gender and others perhaps not. And like the diversity of these essays, the authors included here represent a range of disciplines, including philosophy, political science, English literature, and history—an interdisciplinarity needed to obtain the complex portrait of Hobbes that we sought.
Indeed, the diverse contributors to this volume demonstrate that Hobbesian political thought provides fertile ground for feminist inquiry. It is fertile in that, in engaging Hobbes, feminist theory engages with what is perhaps the clearest and most influential articulation of the foundational concepts and ideas of modernity: freedom, equality, human nature, authority, consent, coercion, political obligation, gratitude, and citizenship. Hobbes’s rigorous and provocative interpretation and analysis of these concepts are distinctive in the modern canon, demanding the attention not only of his contemporaries but of twenty-first-century scholars as well. Certainly, other political theorists have had more to say on the subject of women; for example, Aristotle’s theory of the household in Politics offered considerable material for feminists to chew on, as unpalatable as it may taste to feminists today. Rousseau devoted entire chapters, such as “Sophie, or the Woman” in Emile, and even entire books, such as Julie, or The New Heloise, to commentary on women, sexuality, and the family—but again, putting forth views that arguably make him the figure whom feminists most love to hate. This certainly could explain why volumes on these figures appeared much sooner in the Re-reading the Canon series than the present Hobbes volume.
At the same time, however, Hobbes stands with Plato as one of the relatively few thinkers in the canon of Western political philosophy who entertained the idea that women’s subordinate position might be the result of convention rather than nature. While we would be overstating the case if we concluded that Hobbes was a feminist any more than was Plato, Hobbes’s ability to consider the issue of human equality in a non-gender-specific way is a significant starting point for feminist analysis.
Hobbes’s political writing is fertile ground for another reason as well. Hobbes is not only a foundational thinker but also an immensely creative and rhetorically skillful one. Since the work of Quentin Skinner, David Johnston, Richard Tuck, and others, gone is the acceptance of the earlier commonplace view of Hobbes as only interested in rational argumentation or a science of politics. Why do we still read and debate chapter 13 of Leviathan if not for Hobbes’s ability to create a lasting image of the state of nature as “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short”? In the passages in which he recounts Amazons entering sexual contracts with men of neighboring countries, who would keep the male issue, and in those in which he writes of queens and describes powerful mothers as the “lords” of their children, are many possible references, meanings, and intentions, all ripe for feminist assessment and evaluation. Thus, we believe that Hobbes does have something quite valuable to offer twenty-first-century feminism, even if it is not a progressive theory in support of women’s liberation: at his best, he offers a vision of strong, powerful women who can contract with men, raise children independently (maternity being the first political right), and protect their own interests in the state of nature. At the very least, he offers an opportunity to engage and analyze some of the most provocative, problematic, and challenging arguments of Western modernity concerning the place of women in the family—which, admittedly, are highly ambiguous—and the meaning of gender itself.
As the first collection of essays dedicated exclusively to feminist interpretation of Hobbes, this volume is meant to redress his frequent absence from feminist interpretation. The book is a testament to how far the enterprise of feminist political theory has come, from posing the initial questions about women’s absence from political texts, and mining the brief references to women in those texts, to querying a whole range of other issues, such as: What are the gendered implications and legacies of Hobbes’s political thought, especially his ideas of the citizen, the commonwealth, freedom, equality, and the social contract? What women did Hobbes have in mind when he wrote about Amazons and queens, and what powerful women did he encounter who might have influenced his thinking? Also, were there women writers and thinkers whom Hobbes might have seen as interlocutors but whom we have written out of intellectual history and especially the history of political thought? By asking different questions of Hobbes, feminist political theory shows its maturity and generates a range of different answers, not all of which can be fully reconciled.
Thus, we make no claims to presenting a unified image of Hobbes in the way that Hobbes sought a unified sovereign. Indeed, we are not sure that Hobbes can be all of the things our contributors say he is at one and the same time: Can he be a political theorist interested in forging bonds of community, as some contributors suggest, while also seeking to close opportunities for resistance, as others assert? Can his arguments open avenues for libertarian sexuality, as some provocatively demonstrate, while also using the concept of gratitude to suggest that subjects owe the sovereign their obedience because they owe him or her their lives, as others argue? Yet what we are sure of is that each of these authors stakes out a strong theoretical position that is worthy of exploration and that leads us down fruitful paths of interpretation.
The volume opens with a conversation between two centrally important interpreters: Carole Pateman and Quentin Skinner. Among feminist interpretations of Hobbes and other canonical “fathers,” Pateman’s is the most influential in drawing attention to the ellipses in Hobbes’s thought with respect to gender. Hobbes is notorious for his rather unconventional suggestion of women’s and men’s equality in the state of nature, a line of argument that is quickly left behind once he makes his case for the necessity of the social contract. In The Sexual Contract, as well as in her article “‘God Hath Ordained to Man a Helper,’” Pateman argued that Hobbes retained some aspects of patriarchalism in his political thought while eschewing others, and that the social contract was preceded by a hidden sexual contract that subordinated all women to all men. Pateman’s reading of Hobbes exposed the ways in which political theorists’ arguments about vital concepts, such as freedom and citizenship, are embedded with assumptions about gender and women’s status—assumptions that will remain invisible unless they are deliberately drawn out. The Sexual Contract also opened the door for broader feminist inquiry into social contract theory itself (as well as influencing critical race theory, such as Charles Mills’s The Racial Contract) and led feminists to take notice of this important device as a mechanism of patriarchal thinking. Indeed, virtually all contemporary feminist interpretations of social contract theory and of Hobbes—even those that question her approach or conclusions—build upon the important foundation laid by Pateman, expanding its parameters and bringing a variety of disciplinary and theoretical perspectives to bear on Hobbes’s texts.
Approaching Hobbes’s texts from a different angle and with a different set of interests and questions is Quentin Skinner, the leading thinker of what can loosely be called the “Cambridge school.” If we are to truly understand Hobbes, according to Skinner, we must see him as a writer engaged in a political conversation with his mid-seventeenth-century Civil War contemporaries, using the terms and language available to him in the period. For Skinner and other historical interpreters of Hobbes, what matters most is understanding how Hobbes saw his own enterprise, uncovering, to the extent possible, what his own intentions and motivations might have been. It is this approach that has guided Skinner’s most important works on Hobbes, and the results of this approach have fundamentally changed the dominant reading of Hobbes. Far from being a straightforward apologist for bourgeois property relations, or a cold rationalist or international realist, Hobbes was a writer equipped with the tools of a Renaissance humanist—tools he found to be as important as rational argumentation, if not more so, in the effort to persuade his contemporaries about his theory of politics. Just as Pateman initiated new discoveries with regard to the political significance of social contract theory, Skinner has given us a new sense of Hobbes the man and the writer, one far more nuanced and interesting than was evident previously.
Although these two illustrious scholars of political thought engaged in a critical exchange on democratic theory of the 1960s and early 1970s in the journal Political Theory in 1973 and 1974, they have never dialogued in this manner about Hobbes. In their conversation here, Pateman and Skinner highlight what are, from their perspectives, the central problems to be addressed. For Pateman, it is most important to shine a bright light on “aspects of [Hobbes’s] argument that are typically glossed over” in traditional analysis, while for Skinner the central need is to “treat individual texts essentially as contributions” to “some preexisting tradition of discussion and debate.” One of the reasons we proposed this conversation was that the two schools—feminist approaches to political theory, and the so-called Cambridge school—have not generally intersected. Indeed, the approach to reading historical texts that has most influenced Pateman—a combination of the analytical and neo-Marxist approach evidenced by C. B. Macpherson—is the very approach with which Skinner’s earliest work on Hobbes took issue. Like other historians of political thought, Skinner was concerned about anachronistic readings of Hobbes that had him responding to and thinking about things well outside his field of vision. Pateman’s forward-looking conclusions, that Hobbes remained committed to a modern form of fraternal patriarchy even as he did away with the older, paternal variant, are bound to be in tension with Skinner’s, since the historical sensitivity associated with the Cambridge school prevents consideration of a seventeenth-century theorist through twenty-first-century lenses.
This conversation is one we find valuable and remarkable on several levels. The differences not only between the two schools represented, but also between our respondents’ respective disciplines of political science and history, mark various productive tensions about the roles, place, and even possibility of feminism in the history of political thought. Is scholarship in the history of political thought becoming more attuned to gender, as Skinner claims, and is there more of an accepted background assumption that gender matters? Or are the majority of scholars still tone-deaf to feminist arguments about the centrality of gender, as Pateman claims? How do answers to those questions differ by disciplinary norms of history, political science, philosophy, and literature—all represented in this volume? What are the best approaches to take for those interested in questions of gender in canonical figures? How should we combine the attention to context that Skinner urges with the attention to the logic of the argument that Pateman insists on, when it seems that these different approaches reveal different interpretations of the place of gender in canonical texts?
In terms of Hobbes interpretation specifically, the dialogue leads to additional challenging questions: Is all feminist interpretation of Hobbes historically anachronistic because it considers the role of gender, a concept unfamiliar to seventeenth-century writers? Does adherence to a historical reading risk overlooking important power dynamics at work, dynamics that may remain invisible unless we locate ourselves in our own time and political context? How are Hobbes’s patriarchalist aspects to be measured against his gender-egalitarian ones? Are these two approaches represented by Pateman’s and Skinner’s work immiscible, or the source of some productive tensions? We ourselves found the interaction to offer fascinating insights into possibilities for both feminist and historical interpretation, Hobbesian analysis, and political theory more generally. In discussing these different approaches explicitly, we gain greater insight into each of them and have opportunities to see areas of overlapping interest, including a consideration of how Hobbes viewed the gender of sovereignty, the significance of his concept of the family, the impact of our increasing awareness of seventeenth-century women political writers on the enterprise of Hobbes interpretation, and, finally, the future of Hobbesian interpretation and his ongoing relevance to the politics of the twenty-first century. As the interviewers and editors, we chose to edit this conversation as little as possible in the hope that the reader will enjoy seeing firsthand what these two important intellectuals had to say to each other, in an effort to preserve the freshness of the conversation, and in the desire to leave openings to provoke further thinking.
The essays that follow this interview explore a wide range of approaches and substantive topics that reflect the changes that have taken place in feminist re-readings of the canon and particularly of Hobbes. Building upon this conversation and especially upon the classic questions posed by both Pateman’s and Skinner’s work, the first section of essays focuses on some of the key concepts of political theory, such as sovereignty and the meaning of commonwealth, as well as women’s absence from civil society, but with some significant differences. Sharon Lloyd’s essay begins by posing the question that confronts all feminists reading Hobbes: Did women freely consent to their own subordination and, if so, why? This question was, of course, the animating source of Pateman’s (and before that, Brennan and Pateman’s) earlier work, but Lloyd’s essay will give the reader who is unfamiliar with feminism a good introduction to many of the central issues that feminists have highlighted over the past several decades and will set the stage for the articles that follow. Lloyd runs through the textual evidence of Hobbes’s use of gender but, in contrast to many earlier feminist analyses of Hobbes, posits that there is nothing inherently misogynistic about his concepts or thought—although she does find evidence of a stowaway sexism. What Lloyd calls her “just so” analysis centers on the working of power in Hobbes’s thought; she argues that there may be enough small differences of power and strength between the sexes, which, when added up, create an even larger gulf and cause women to enter into pre-civil contracts to ensure their own survival. Yet Lloyd’s conclusion is not Pateman’s, and she is clear that there is nothing in Hobbes that necessitates that things move in favor of institutionalized patriarchy—it might have gone the other way, maybe even toward matriarchy.
Jane Jaquette takes up similar themes of exploring the degree to which patriarchy is inevitable for Hobbes, or just happenstance, and she writes in a similar, if more provocative, vein of trying to recuperate a more sympathetic reading of Hobbes out of the standard observations and criticisms that feminists tend to emphasize. Most theorists, intellectual historians, and philosophers would not consider Hobbes a liberal, given his advocacy of absolute authority, and many feminists reject both Hobbes and liberalism as not adequately serving the interests of women. In contrast to Elshtain and others, however, Jaquette positions Hobbes as an important contributor to liberalism and thereby to contemporary liberal feminism. Jaquette wishes “to defend the core liberal values present in Hobbes” and urges feminism to come to terms with the debt it owes him, to discover how it depends on liberal political values. Critiquing “radical” feminist interpretations of Hobbes—readings that throw out the baby of freedom, equality, and individual choice with the bathwater of abstract individualism, authoritarian patriarchalism, and the natural subordination of women—she seeks to develop a reading of Hobbes that can be useful for feminists of the twenty-first century.
By contrast, drawing on Skinner’s discussion of the gender neutrality of sovereignty, a topic that surfaces in the conversation between Pateman and Skinner, Su Fang Ng considers what she calls its “bestial nature” and comes to a somewhat less favorable conclusion than either Lloyd or Jaquette. Hobbes’s portrayal of the original sovereignty of mothers in the state of nature, she suggests, is influenced by the myth of the suckling she-wolf who becomes an important marker of the boundary between the natural and civil states. In a parallel move, she argues, the state itself becomes ungendered and women are excluded from it. This creates more than just an ambiguity about women’s place in Hobbes’s theory; it shows that gender both underwrites and threatens incoherence for the Hobbesian state—which may be why Hobbes’s consideration of women is not explicitly elaborated in his text but is instead buried inside other stories, leaving today’s feminist scholars to unearth and decipher it. Yet, Ng’s conclusions nevertheless leave spaces for an optimistic reading; specifically, she suggests that Hobbes finds gendered forms of sovereignty to be primitive, and that in degendering political right, Hobbes “leaves room for new forms of civil engagement by men or women.”
The second section of the volume in many ways contributes to the project of the first, but with a specific thematic focus. As influential for feminist scholarship on Hobbes as was The Sexual Contract is the early work of Gordon Schochet, whose groundbreaking essay on Hobbes, patriarchalism, and the family is included here. “Thomas Hobbes on the Family and the State of Nature” appeared in Political Science Quarterly in 1967—before “feminist theory” was even a bona fide subfield in the academy. It was subsequently included as a chapter in his equally groundbreaking book Patriarchalism in Political Thought. Schochet himself, of course, did not write this piece as a work in feminist theory; as Nancy Hirschmann points out in her commentary on the essay, Schochet did not have specifically feminist questions in mind when he first plumbed Hobbes’s thought on the family. But his work nevertheless led feminists down the important road of investigating what Hobbes was trying to do with his familial analogy. Influenced by, but not wedded to, the methodologies of historical interpretation, he is cited in many early feminist interpretations of Hobbes, including Pateman’s The Problem of Political Obligation and Christine Di Stefano’s Configurations of Masculinity, as well as significant journal articles by feminist scholars such as Elizabeth Fox Genovese, Mary Shanley, Virginia Sapiro, Ruth Bloch, and Ruth Perry. Acting as a bridge between these different approaches within political thought, Schochet’s essay is also important for having raised the issue of patriarchalism and the role of the family among a generation of Hobbes scholars who paid these issues little attention. In later work, Schochet went on to address more explicitly the gendered dimensions of Filmer’s and Locke’s thought and the “significant sounds of silence” surrounding the gender question—sounds that get replicated in the work of historians of political thought as well. For all these reasons, it is fitting to include this original essay that influenced and indeed arguably motivated decades of feminist analysis.
In her chapter, Hirschmann links Schochet’s earlier essay with his more recent work through the concept of gratitude. Gratitude is Hobbes’s fourth law of nature, but as such it has received much less attention than Schochet and Hirschmann believe it deserves. Hirschmann takes Schochet’s original essay and teases out its various claims and inconsistencies, pushing it to answer to more explicitly feminist interests, including the question of what happens to women once the civil contract is in place and why. Hirschmann and Schochet agree that gratitude is the “linchpin of Hobbes’s theory” and that the family serves as a foundation for the state, but Hirschmann argues, against both Schochet and Pateman, that marriage does not precede but rather follows the social contract. If Schochet and thereby Pateman are correct that marriage does precede the social contract, then the only possible explanation for women’s ultimate subordination in civil society must stem from their gratitude toward men who spared their lives in the state of nature. Hirschmann finds this possibility useful for its explanatory ability, but ultimately problematic for a feminist recuperation of Hobbes.
Taking up the current scholarly interest in women’s political thought, the third section of the book includes three essays dealing with Hobbes and the historical women who read and responded to him. Signaling an important development in feminist political theory, this scholarly trajectory is guided by the recognition that for too long we have read male thinkers as the only authoritative sources on key political issues facing all human beings. Although feminists have long understood women to be active political subjects, and have demonstrated how women have exercised political agency throughout history and into the present, the move to integrate women’s writings on politics into the history of ideas has been slow to follow. The essays in this section survey three women whose critiques of and responses to Hobbes resonate nicely with later feminist analysis: Margaret Cavendish (1623–1673), Mary Astell (1666–1731), and Catharine Macaulay (1731–1791).
In the first of these chapters, Karen Detlefsen considers the one woman philosopher and writer who knew and conversed with Hobbes, even if it was only because of her marriage to one of Hobbes’s patrons, William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle. Margaret Cavendish had direct access to the most learned circle of individuals in the seventeenth century, which included figures such as Descartes, Gassendi, and Hobbes. There is immense scholarly interest in Cavendish today, primarily among literary historians but also increasingly among philosophers interested in the early modern period. Thus, an examination of Cavendish’s and Hobbes’s mutual intellectual influence and relationship has potential to yield a different kind of feminist interpretation of Hobbes. As William’s friend, employee, and interlocutor, Hobbes spent time in the Cavendish household but likely exchanged little in the way of conversation with Margaret. As she put it, “I never spake with Master Hobbes twenty words in my life.” This is in no way surprising since women in the seventeenth century were not supposed to be the intellectual equals of men and were often limited by their inability to understand or read Latin; and Cavendish, by her own account, was reserved and shy around people outside her immediate family. Cavendish might have caught more of the male conversations than she let on, however, for according to Detlefsen, Cavendish’s thoughts on freedom were in direct response to Hobbes, and they offer a “proto-feminist” conception of freedom and the individual. Detlefsen treats Cavendish’s plays as relevant texts of political philosophy, particularly revealing Cavendish’s theory of freedom, and draws on her more overtly philosophical writings to justify her interpretation. She thereby shows that whereas Hobbes’s theory takes a strong individualist view, as has been argued and documented by many scholars of Hobbes, Cavendish assumes a more social individual, one who “freely chooses to pursue actions conceived of in terms of how the agent relates to others, close and distant,” in keeping with twentieth- and twenty-first-century feminist accounts of “relational autonomy.” Yet her account of free will is much more robust than that of Hobbes, who reduced will to desire and saw it paradoxically entwined with necessity. Detlefsen maintains that Cavendish “provides a view of women’s freedom that escapes some of the less advantageous aspects of Hobbes’s own view.”
Drawing on the ideas of both Mary Astell and Catharine Macaulay as early and cogent critics of Hobbes’s social contract theory, Karen Green, like Jane Jaquette, questions the tendency of contemporary feminists to dismiss liberalism as having no value for the feminist project. But in contrast to Jaquette, Green’s intent is not to defend Hobbes and liberalism but rather to drive a bigger wedge between the two. Green posits the need to look beyond Hobbes to a broader tradition of women intellectuals who contributed vitally to the foundation of liberal democracy. For example, neither an advocate of rights nor an easy figure for feminists to celebrate, Astell anticipated later feminist critiques of Hobbes by questioning his portrayal of human beings as perfectly autonomous in the state of nature as well as his equation of consent and coercion. In looking back to women’s political thought, Green makes a case for a more complex understanding of the roots of liberalism as lying especially in the eighteenth-century republican ideas of Macaulay. In her little-known Treatise on the Immutability of Moral Truth, Macaulay offers a non-Hobbesian argument for a social contract between the people and their rulers based not on consent but on trust. Keeping alive a negative reading of Hobbes for his “egoistic, instrumental rationality,” Green’s chapter encourages feminist readers to like Hobbes less while perhaps liking liberalism a little bit more.
Wendy Gunther-Canada’s chapter continues the conversation on Hobbes with both Pateman and Schochet, centering on Macaulay as an early Hobbesian interpreter who offers her own “challenge to the metanarrative of patriarchy in early modern political thought.” Gunther-Canada draws our attention to the historical antecedents to Pateman’s critique of Hobbes: in her Loose Remarks on Hobbes, Macaulay had also noted the convoluted dimensions to Hobbes’s patriarchalism. Cleaving more to the view of Hobbes as a rational individualist thinker, this chapter develops a contrast between what Gunther-Canada calls the calculus of force, which lies behind Hobbes’s social contract, and the calculation of care, which she sees lying behind Macaulay’s contractual vision. The contrast between force and care that Gunther-Canada identifies is, indeed, evident in a number of the chapters in the present volume.
In the final section of the book, we move some distance away from questions that could have been of interest to Hobbes and more directly into the territory of feminism’s current preoccupations. Of course, it can be a challenge bordering on anachronism to theorize about canonical thinkers in terms of issues that press on our contemporary political consciousness. Our students often ask what Hobbes, or Plato, or Hegel, would have thought about the invasion of Iraq, or gay marriage, or other issues of twenty-first-century significance, and we often caution them about making conjectures on a theorist’s position on a problem he or she could never have even imagined, much less ever actually addressed. Yet feminist analysis is always concerned with issues facing the women of today, and the project of drawing lessons from the canonical thinkers in ways that may help us think through those issues is a valid and important one. Joanne Boucher and Joanne Wright are less concerned with what Hobbes would think about abortion or breast implants, but rather more with how feminist thinking about Hobbesian concepts and categories of analysis can help us, as twenty-first-century feminists, think about those issues.
Boucher locates Hobbes’s argument about self-defense as a potential source of support for abortion rights, noting that even though the sovereign has absolute authority, derived from his or her subjects’ consent, to make whatever laws he or she wants—including laws to outlaw abortion—Hobbes also allows that if such laws endanger citizens’ lives, they revert to a state of nature. Since it is never in the sovereign’s interest to create such conditions, the sovereign would likely permit abortion. Such a position has particular resonance for contemporary thinking about the Supreme Court’s decision in Gonzales v. Carhart, which outlaws certain kinds of late-term abortions—specifically, the “intact” D&C, or “partial-birth” abortion—even though it is notably safer for the woman than the “standard” D&C, which the court let stand and which requires the repeated insertion of sharp instruments into the woman’s vagina to dismember the fetus in utero, thus greatly increasing the chances of perforation, infection, and death. The court’s romanticized concern with the potential well-being of a fetus at the expense of the actual well-being of the female citizen is one that Hobbes would have likely decried on grounds of consistency, if nothing else, since in either procedure the fetus is being killed. What seems more important to the court is the “gruesomeness” of what the male observer is obliged to see. Hobbesian thinking about the sovereign’s responsibilities to subjects is well worth consideration by feminists today as they engage with women’s status as citizens denied the rights of protection that the liberal state is supposed to provide.
Joanne Wright similarly takes up issues of immediate political concern for feminism: the rise of choice feminism and its defense of elective cosmetic surgery. In particular, she is interested in the legacy left to contemporary liberal society by Hobbes’s analysis of consent and the will. For his own political reasons, Hobbes was interested in decentering the problem of coercion and demonstrating through his materialist understanding of the will and freedom that all of our actions are voluntary and a direct reflection of our own will. Yet, from the beginning, feminism has sought to problematize such a collapse of consent and coercion and to show that, although women may appear to be consenting to the dictates of patriarchal society, their consent is underwritten by relations of power and oppression, and so should not necessarily be understood to be an accurate reflection of their abstract “free will.” To draw a line between legitimate and illegitimate consent, while nonsensical to Hobbes, is essential to the project of feminism. Yet this distinction has been all but abandoned in this new era of choice feminism, a feminism that is both liberal and Hobbesian in its celebration of choice as the benchmark of freedom, and which is used to justify women’s participation in a pernicious “makeover” culture.
Susanne Sreedhar returns us to more traditional terrain of exegetical analysis of Hobbes’s texts, but by focusing on a topic that is central to twenty-first-century feminism, namely sex and sexuality. She mines Hobbes’s various remarks about sexuality, particularly his references to the Amazons, finding no normative basis for a specific sexual practice and no indication of his moral judgment on sex. Sreedhar uncovers evidence for a more positive vision of Hobbes than we might expect, as potentially sexually progressive and, reminiscent of Lloyd’s essay, as “neither irredeemably nor even consistently misogynistic.” Indeed, this is perhaps the most positive light cast on Hobbes in this volume. Yet Sreedhar is also mindful of the countervailing evidence for such a portrayal, especially the fact that, once the sovereign is in place, Hobbes would have no quarrel with any positive law that severely limits sexual freedom—a fear linking Sreedhar’s and Boucher’s chapters and echoed in Hirschmann’s suggestion about how patriarchy comes to be. Nor does Hobbes have any moral objection to sexual coercion, for, as we have seen, he strategically blurs the distinction between consent and coercion. Thus, once again, a nuanced understanding is called for, one that sees Hobbes’s writings—at least in this respect—as potentially but not necessarily an ally to feminism.
Indeed, a multilayered reading is what we hope to have achieved in this volume. If readers come away from these essays with a more complicated vision of what Hobbes has to offer, on the one hand, and the multiple ways in which feminists can read, interpret, and use Hobbes’s texts and ideas, on the other, we will consider the exercise of Feminist Interpretations of Thomas Hobbes a success. Of course, there may be no clear answer to the question of what exactly Hobbes offers to feminism, as the opinions here are divided and in some cases the feminist critique of his system of thought is deepened. But what is clear is that there is something to be gained in engaging with Hobbes, on his own terms as well as on ours, as we continue the process of clarifying and analyzing feminist priorities.
Also of Interest
Subscribe to our mailing list and be notified about new titles, journals and catalogs.