intimate liberties:
spaces of freedom in early modern feminist thought

“Intimate Liberties: Spaces of Freedom in Early Modern Feminist Thought” unearths the ways in which proto-feminist thinkers in the seventeenth century defined the principles and practices of liberty through an examination of four sites of debate: the convent, the home, the school, and the courts. It focuses on the relationship between liberty and resistance and how, for most of the figures whose lives I analyze (most, but not exclusively, women), to claim their liberty was necessarily an act of refusal - a refusal of social expectations, of norms, and often enough, of the law. Building on my previous work on Rousseau, I look to the civic rituals and political spectacles that women transgressed and rewrote in their public pursuits of physical, intellectual, legal, and spiritual liberty. Of particular interest is the appearance of female defendants and petitioners in the courts and the ways in which testifying can be understood as a kind of performance that demands recognition of one’s status as a political subject.

Though the central figures of this project lived before the advent of modern liberalism, they were engaged with contemporaries, such as Hobbes and Locke, whom we now consider to be its progenitors and, I would contend, could themselves also be considered as such. In examining the records and writings of a range of thinkers across England, France, and the Netherlands, I have three goals. First, I aim to expand the scope of liberty as it is conventionally understood in early modern thought. Second, I intend to reconsider contemporary feminist political thinking on freedom in light of a more fully developed history of the concept and its practices. Third and finally, “Intimate Liberties” aims to explore the ways in which freedom has been not only an abstract principle but a lived experience pursued by those ostensibly excluded from its protection.

The first paper from this project is titled “‘The error of his own bonds’: Contract, Freedom, and Gender in Milton’s Divorce Tracts,” in which I argue that, while historians of political thought have taken interest in Milton as a republican thinker, few have considered the relationship of his republicanism to his writings on divorce, or the implications of his writings on divorce for his understanding of liberty. I develops the relationship between liberty and contract, most recently theorized by Victoria Kahn, to show how Milton argues in favor of granting the right to divorce by critiquing compulsory acquiescence to a contract. Specifically, I examine Milton’s rhetoric around the ‘proper’ roles of men and women in order to show how he formulates an understanding of marriage and divorce as models of reciprocal obligation compatible with his emerging republican views, as would later appear in “The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates.” 

I suggest, moreover, that Milton’s politicizing of the domestic, particularly in the second edition of “The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce,” plays an unappreciated role in influencing the familial metaphor employed by John Locke in his Second Treatise. This paper builds on the work of scholars of English literature including Kahn, Sharon Achinstein, and Diane Purkiss, who have put the divorce writings of the early 1640s into the context of the English Civil Wars and contemporary political debates about the nature of contracts and obligation.