II. The Public and the Private

A primary reason that the struggle for gender equality has been a difficult one, in both theory and practice, is the way gender was assigned in the composition of society itself. Traditionally, the family was considered a building block of civil society, and women were primarily responsible for caretaking in this realm. What happened in the family was important, but the realm of politics was widely considered to be that which occurs outside the home, and men were traditionally responsible for conducting matters in this other sphere of life. In this way, gender differences were tied to an ongoing tension between the area of life protected from politics and the realm of life in which political thinking and political action was expected. In the modern world, this tension has led to the notion of two distinct realms in which individuals carry out their lives. First, there is the “public” realm: the common world in which individuals interact with each other to purchase or to sell goods, to make a living, or to help make public policy. The "private” realm is the setting of friends, family, religion, sexual relations, and voluntary associations.

Imagining these two realms has been particularly important for recognizing individual rights in modern civil society, because it is widely regarded that we ought to have freedom to make choices about our private lives away from the restrictions of government or other individuals. The distinction between the “private” and the “public” is not clear-cut, however. Even though we recognize that certain rights of the private realm must be protected in public, we also must acknowledge that many of the values that guide our public decisions are formed and cultivated in the private realm. Additionally, decisions about what belongs in the private realm, and those things that we ought to have a right to do even if others disagree, often are decided in the public realm. Questions about the proper role of government, the relationship between religion and politics, and the virtues that are necessary for a healthy society all address important areas of the tension between the private and public realms.

The public-private dichotomy is also problematic in a civil society if it perpetuates injustice and unfairness, such as when it is used to justify the exclusion of certain individuals from participating fully in society. Our discussion of feminism in this chapter, like our discussion of Marxism in Chapter 13, examines the claim many political theorists make that the private realm in a civil society can be used to exclude whole groups of people from the public realm. Whereas in the case of Marxism the people excluded are workers, and the reason for this exclusion is class, in the case of feminism, the people excluded are women, and the reason is gender.

Many political thinkers in recent years have exposed the way in which much of traditional political theory has denied women a chance for full participation in the public realm. One such thinker. Jean Bethke Elshtain, argues that, in large part, the history of political thinking demonstrates a commitment on the part of political thinkers to refuse to recognize that women have a legitimate place in the public realm? Elshtain’s analysis of the history of political theory exposes ways in which women are too easily associated with the private realm, where they are connected to “sexuality, natality, the human body (images of uncleanness and taboo, visions of dependency, helplessness, vulnerability).”3 Within this way of thinking about women, they are not allowed into the public realm to participate fully as equals with men. Indeed, the public realm exhibits a tendency to define and to limit the private realm in such a way that women’s voices go unheard in the political world. “Politics is in part an elaborate defense against the tug of the private, against the lure of the familial, against evocations of female power.”4

The political implications for women are unmistakable. A civil society is supposed to be a contract that provides the same rights to all citizens. But on Carole Pateman's reading of the social contract, similar to Elshtain’s diagnosis, civil society is designed as a contract among men, a fraternal contract, that excludes women from any significant role in the public realm and that defines their lives as occupying a subordinate relationship to men politically, socially, and economically? The fraternal social contract, in essence, maintains a patriarchy, or a society ruled by and for the advantage of men. If people are truly committed to a free and equal civil society, the feminist critique argues, people must understand the ways in which the history of political thought, and the institutions of politics and civil society, have excluded women over time. People must also understand the details of the critique itself, and the controversies that exist even among feminist political thinkers. Once people do this, they will have a better sense of the ideal of civil society for which they aim and how they might better include all members of the society in its consideration and discussion.

The question we want to address for the rest of this chapter pertains to how civil society might need to be rethought so that the goals of a civil society can be met for all and, in particular, allow women to participate fully in public life. In the following sections, our intention is to demonstrate several different approaches of feminist thinkers to criticizing traditional modes of political thinking, reconceptualizing the public and the private, and rethinking civil society. It will become clear that feminism itself represents a diversity of voices. In our discussion, we can only hope to highlight several important contributors to this conversation. To this end, we will consider Carole Pateman's treatment of the social contract as a sexual contract; Susan Okin's and Martha Nussbaum’s advocacy of a modified liberal conception of feminism; Catharine MacKinnon’s arguments about the extent of social oppression and the sources of empowerment; Jean Bethke Elshtain’s elaboration of a feminist discourse; Nancy Hartsock’s Marxist feminist critique; and the Nietzschean perspective that Camille Paglia and Judith Butler advocate. We then conclude by discussing several writers for whom the quest for gender justice is linked politically, socially, and ethically to racial and economic justice.

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