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Mary Wollstonecraft, Social Constructivism, and the Idea of Freedom

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 December 2018

Nancy J. Hirschmann
Affiliation:
University of Pennsylvania
Emily F. Regier
Affiliation:
University of Pennsylvania
Corresponding

Abstract

This article considers Mary Wollstonecraft as a theorist of freedom for women through the lens of social constructivism. Previous republican readings of Wollstonecraft as promoting a vision of freedom as independence or non-domination are compromised by their underpinnings in liberal individualism. Instead, we suggest her theory displays elements of positive liberty and particularly what we call “subjectivity freedom.” Reading Wollstonecraft as an early social constructivist, we show her grappling with how women's subjectivity is constructed in patriarchal societies such that they desire the conditions of their own subordination. This troubles the very notion of domination and its putative opposite, freedom-as-independence. Paradoxically, while noting how women's sense of self was profoundly and intimately shaped by the patriarchal structures they inhabited, Wollstonecraft's own argument was limited by these same constructions. Nonetheless, she struggled to conceive a radically emancipatory vision of women's lives, aspirations, and desires from within the confines of a context and discourse premised on their devaluation. A social constructivist approach shows that Wollstonecraft sought not simply to change women or specific structures of male dominance, but rather the processes within which men and women defined gender, the family, and personal identity: in short, their subjectivity.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © The Women and Politics Research Section of the American Political Science Association 2018

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Footnotes

This essay was first presented at the 2017 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. Thanks to the conference participants, and particularly Eileen Hunt Botting and Alan Coffee for their comments and suggestions. Thanks also to Mary Caputi. Nancy Hirschmann also wishes to thank the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Humanities Center, and the European University Institute, for support at various points in this article's composition.

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