Feminist Political Philosophy

Here’s a glimpse of my recent contribution to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Feminist political philosophy is an area of philosophy focused on understanding and critiquing the way political philosophy is usually construed, often without any attention to feminist concerns, and to articulating how political theory might be reconstructed in a way that advances feminist concerns. Feminist political philosophy is a branch of both feminist philosophy and political philosophy. As a branch of feminist philosophy, it serves as a form of critique or a hermeneutics of suspicion (Ricœur 1970). That is, it serves as a way of opening up or looking at the political world as it is usually understood and uncovering ways in which women and their current and historical concerns are poorly depicted, represented, and addressed. As a branch of political philosophy, feminist political philosophy serves as a field for developing new ideals, practices, and justifications for how political institutions and practices should be organized and reconstructed.

While feminist philosophy has been instrumental in critiquing and reconstructing many branches of philosophy, from aesthetics to philosophy of science, feminist political philosophy may be the paradigmatic branch of feminist philosophy because it best exemplifies the point of feminist theory, which is, to borrow a phrase from Marx, not only to understand the world but to change it (Marx and Engels 1998). And, though other fields have effects that may change the world, feminist political philosophy focuses most directly on understanding ways in which collective life can be improved. This project involves understanding the ways in which power emerges and is used or misused in public life (see the entry on feminist perspectives on power). As with other kinds of feminist theory, common themes have emerged for discussion and critique, but there has been little in the way of consensus among feminist theorists on what is the best way to understand them. This introductory article lays out the various schools of thought and areas of concern that have occupied this vibrant field of philosophy for the past thirty years.

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By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. Congratulations! This is really great! I’m a big fan of SEP, and I’m glad you’re supporting them.

    A request for clarification (in the entry as well as generally): in what sense are agonistic and deliberative political theorists feminists? Obviously those commitments overlap in the authorship of many of the great political theorists of the last decade or two, (Young, Mouffe, Benhabib) but I’d like to hear more about why we ought to think of their brands of political theory as feminist, rather than as the coexistence of feminism and other commitments.

    For Mouffe, for instance, agonism seems to come at the expense of substantive political commitments. This has also led some feminists to repudiate Hannah Arendt’s classic account of agonistic politics.

    Some of the same issues emerge in Young’s work on deliberation and activism, and arguably there’s something anti-feminist about Benhabib’s work on democratic iteration. in my opinion, Honig deserves perhaps more attention for making the connections explicit.

    Anyway, I hope you’ll keep your readers up-to-date with major revisions to the entry. For instance, I hope you’ll eventually add the kind of analytic criticism-response work that the many other thematic SEP entries contain. A couple of possibilities: some back-and-forth on Wendy Brown’s criticisms of agonism and civic republicanism, for instance, or Anne Phillips and Jean Bethke Elshtain on privacy/publicness. Perhaps you’ll also consider dividing the entry into themes rather than movements as it grows?

    This is an exciting project! Congrats again!

  2. Noelle– This is excellent! Thanks much for providing it. I too am a big fan of SEP and like to send my students there.

    If you are looking for potentially contestable points (if not, do not read on), then I might say that it strikes me as odd to focus on Zerilli as the main figure for ‘performative politics’. You mention Butler there but if I had to present that to my students I would say that all of that really starts with Butler and then others have taken off from there. The mode of presentation you have makes it seem as if Butler is only sort of proto-performative. That can’t be right. But this may just be how it reads to me.

    I also second the other comments’ call for expanding out an additional section maybe on “key themes and debates” since what you have right now (very useful!) is mostly a “taxonomy of positions”. I definitely would be eager to see something about pub/priv, but also identity/difference, intersectionality (race/gender), and other key debates of the past twenty-ish years. That’s a more long-term suggestion though.

    Btw, Joshua, could you point a link to where you see the “analytic criticism-response work” you mention in your post? What’s the best example of that on SEP b/c I’m not sure what you are referring to.

    1. Thanks, Josh, and thanks, Colin, for your incisive and helpful comments. Let me indicate here how I will flesh out these points in my next round of revisions to the entry — and as you know authoring a SEP entry is an endless task. My job is to continuously update and expand it.

      Josh asks: In what sense are agonistic and deliberative political theorists feminists? Agonistic feminists are concerned with the situation of those who have been excluded from the center of politics, and quite sensibly they see women as one group of those who have been excluded. Deliberative political theorists are sensitive to the ways in which some supposed norms of deliberation tend to effectively exclude women and other others who don’t play by the rules of the rationalist deliberative game. (My own view of deliberative democracy is Deweyan and definitely not rationalist, so I tend to think Young and company’s criticism slightly miss their mark. The problem is not that deliberative democracy tends to exclude women but that THEORISTS of deliberative democracy misconstrue what deliberation is and so their theories make it possible to think that women’s voices might not be heard. I’d argue instead that a truly deliberative setting, if it’s being deliberative, will be open to other voices. Much more to say here, but that’s enough for now.)

      One of the constraints of writing a SEP entry is that I’m supposed to not bring in my own take on things but try to give an account of how the topic has been approached. You know — be dispassionate, objective, etc., values that a pragmatist finds a bit hard to take.

      Josh, you point to the value of Honig’s work. I think I did mention it. But if there’s something in particular you think I’m overlooking, please let me know what it is.

      I second Colin’s request that you specify what you mean by “analytic-criticism response work.” I have only a vague sense of what you mean by this.

      Josh, you also suggested looking at Wendy Brown’s criticisms of agonism and civic republicanism. Do you mean from her recent book? I reviewed that for Constellations and so I know the book pretty well. But again let me know what you mean by this.

      Josh, was there a back-and-forth debate on the private / public distinction between Anne Phillips and Elshtain? I’d love a reference that I could pursue.

      Colin, I hear what you are saying about Butler being the obvious champion of performative theory. But here’s my take: Butler is talking about performativity in terms of gender issues, not directly political philosophy issues. Of course gender is always political, but that’s a bit of a tangent for what I’m doing in this entry.

      When I talk about performative politics I mean something closer to what Jeffrey Goldfarb describes as happening in Poland that ultimately helped bring down the Berlin Wall. On page 33 of his book The Politics of Small Things, he writes:

      “When a democratic opposition developed in the 1970s in Poland, crucial to its definition was that its participants published their names and addresses in their illegal publications. In the words of the most articulate leader of this movement, ‘they acted as if they lived in a free society,’ and a free society resulted. They presented themselves to each other as independent citizens and in the process they created an independent public.”

      I think this is absolutely beautiful and astounding. This is what I mean by performative ethics — acting “as if” and helping something come into being. Butler’s work on performativity may well have paved the way for it, but it wasn’t as central to political life as what Zerilli is doing in her work, even if she’s not as famous.

      I do love Butler’s more recent political work, especially her little book, Precarious Life, but I don’t see performativity as being a central theme there.

      In any case, I can see that I definitely need to clarify these matters in the next round of revisions, as well as include discussions of the other themes that Colin mentions. (I do already have a brief discussion of public / private and identity / difference, but nothing much on intersectionality.)

      I thank you both! And if more thoughts come to mind on this, please pass them along.

  3. (I’m just seeing this now. Came back to the site to check out your new book project. It looks great, btw!)

    Let’s see…

    Here are some entries that have ‘analytic criticism-response’: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/intentionality/
    Those are entries I’ve looked at recently. I know that many of the person entries are full of this. Aristotle & Descartes come to mind.

    On looking back, I guess I would agree with Colin that the taxonomy of positions is very useful, but that in addition it would be helpful to clearly label disagreements among positions. However, as he says that’s the long-term project. You are ‘the keeper of the entry’ so you’ll have plenty of time for all this: I’ve watched some really great entries develop over several years!

    For instance, the commentary on Elshtain’s _Public Man, Private Woman_ in _Engendering Democracy_ is so interesting because Elshain abuses the liberal distinction between private and public, and Phillips very thoughtfully grants that some of her concerns are on point but seeks to redraw the lines in ways that aren’t quite as skeptical of the emancipatory potential of political engagement. It’s a friendly disagreement: Elshtain blurbed the book, but I haven’t seen any other rejoinder. I’d guess (though I’d appreciate correction) that they’ve both acknowledged that Phillips won the argument, which is also what I meant by analytic criticism-response work: there are historically important positions that have been superseded in feminist political philosophy and it would be good to see that in the entry.

    For Wendy Brown I had _States of Injury_ and to a lesser extent _Manhood and Politics_ in mind, and also a SPEP talk I saw her give. Is some of this in the new book on tolerance? I haven’t read it yet. Not sure if there’s a single slam-dunk critique of agonism there, but she does supply most of the pieces. Any time small-r republicanism and fraternity are too closely allied I think of Brown.

    As for Honig, I think of her contribution to Benhabib’s _Another Cosmopolitanism_, as well as her intro and essay “Towards an Agonistic Feminism” in _Feminist Interpretations of Hannah Arendt_. Perhaps the connection was already well-worked out elsewhere in 1995, but her essay was where it first struck me that the opposition of agonism and feminism was a problem to be overcome.

    I look forward to updates. I’d also love to sit down to coffee and talk out the feminist deliberation “rightly construed” you’ve teased here. I worry that some of the concerns theorists like Young raise on ‘uptake’ issues seem tragically insurmountable: empirically true and yet fatal to an egalitarian deliberative theory that resists agonism.

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