intimate liberties: spaces of freedom and refusal in feminist thought

'Intimate Liberties' unearths the ways in which proto-feminist thinkers in the seventeenth century defined the principles and practices of liberty. It focuses on the relationship between liberty and resistance and how, for most of the figures whose works I examine, to claim their liberty is simultaneously an act of refusal - a refusal of social expectations, of norms, and of the law. I am particularly interested in how these discourses of freedom are operationalized with respect to the body and to spatial practices, Though the archive of materials I work with is several centuries old, the project is motivated by twenty-first century concerns about bodily autonomy, freedom, and resistance.

The project possesses three goals. First, I aim to expand the scope of liberty as it is conventionally understood in early modern thought by attending to voices often excluded from the public sphere. Second, I am particularly interested in the ways in which physical space shapes, and is in turn conditioned by, different understandings of liberty and subjectivity, and what Henri Lefebvre calls “the social production of space.” In so doing, I explore the ways in which freedom has functioned not only an abstract principle but as a lived experience pursued by those ostensibly excluded from its enjoyment. Third, I aim to reimagine freedom as the experience of one’s ethical orientation toward the world and other persons, rather than a status enshrined in law.

The first chapter draft from this project is titled 'Freedom, Bondage, and Gender in Milton’s Divorce Tracts.' Though 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. Without arguing that Milton possessed anything like feminist commitments, I argue that his attention to relationships between men and women in the divorce tracts ought to be read as a reflection of Milton’s increasing commitment to republican values, particularly liberty. I begin by distinguishing between Milton’s use of a rhetoric of bondage on the one hand and a rhetoric of slavery of the other, and their shared inverse, freedom, as Milton employs them to depict the unhappy marital union.

I then analyze the ways in which Milton describes bondage and liberty as possessing particular spatial associations. Focusing on the second edition of The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1644), I demonstrate that Milton associates bondage with the home and the ‘mariage-bed,’ and depicts the public sphere as a potential site of liberty. I argue that this combination of rhetoric and imagery casts Milton’s argument in a specifically republican, rather than liberal, light. To that end, I conclude by reading the Doctrine’s interpellation of the domestic and the public against the tendency in the republican tradition to reify the realms as distinct and self-sufficient, and suggest that Milton refuses what I call the Roman model of public and private while still maintaining a republican attitude toward freedom.

A second chapter draft is titled 'Mary Astell, Recluses, and the Politics of Refusal.' Established interpretations of Astell’s work focus on the tensions between her conservatism and her avant la lettre feminism. This paper offers an alternative interpretive framework and argues in favor of reading Astell as a theorist of refusal. I focus on two dimensions of Astell’s life and work: her under-appreciated comments on the choice to remain unmarried and her supposed reclusiveness toward the end of her life. With regard to marriage, I examine Astell’s commentary on the infamous divorce of the Duke and Duchess of Marazin found in Some Reflections upon Marriage (1706). There Astell argues that women who chose to marry put themselves in a position of subservience that they were bound to maintain. Yet little attention has been paid to the caveat made by Astell: a woman could also choose not to marry.

I offer an extended consideration of the ways in which Astell’s own life - specifically, her own choice not to marry and her refusal to entertain visitors in her last days - echoed her philosophical positions. Thus I recast the notion of Astell as reclusive. Instead, I posit that her reclusiveness, long practiced by female religious orders and intellectuals including Julian of Norwich, ought to be interpreted as an act of refusal. I argue that while the choice to inhabit certain spaces has frequently been conditioned by patriarchal authority, it has also been a way for women to refuse social expectations, most of all marriage. Astell’s purported reclusiveness can thus be read as a politically powerful example of refusal as liberty.

A third chapter draft is tentatively titled ‘Suchon Between Love and Attention.’ In it, I plan to use the work of Simone Weil, the twentieth-century philosopher and mystic, to interrogate the claims of Gabrielle Suchon, a seventeenth-century French Catholic feminist and former nun, about the affective grounding of freedom. Suchon argues that in order to be free, one must commit to what she terms a “neutralist” life, characterized by celibacy, solitude, and a disengagement from worldly concerns in favor of the pursuit of knowledge. In refusing the demands placed on women of her era, however, Suchon also tends to deny the importance of affective connections in so far as they tend to nurture “constraints,” or the inverse of freedom. The only affective exception seems to be love rooted in disinterested friendship. 

Reading Weil alongside Suchon allows me to ask what a neutralist life that nonetheless embrace a range of emotions might look like. I anticipate juxtaposing Suchon’s philosophy of freedom as found in retreat and “neutralism” with Weil’s concept of attention. Neutralism and attention are both self-abnegating orientations toward the world, and others, but I suggest that the latter offers a richer sense of being in the world, such that one remains open to the possibility of love and flourishing for both the self and others. The major texts to be examined are Suchon’s Traité de la morale et de la politique (Treatise on Ethics and Politics, 1693) and Du Célibat volontaire (On the Celibate Life Freely Chosen, 1700), and Weil’s La Pesanteur et la grâce (Gravity and Grace, 1947) and Oppression et liberté (Oppression and Liberty, 1955), both of which posthumously collected Weil’s many essays.