intimate liberties: spaces of freedom and refusal in feminist thought

'Intimate Liberties' traces the theme of refusal in contemporary feminism to its early modern predecessors. The project unearths the ways in which proto-feminist thinkers in the seventeenth century defined the principles and practices of liberty and how they understood the relationship between liberty and resistance. 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. Ultimately, ‘Intimate Liberties’ brings its analysis to bear on modern debates about the nature of freedom and what it means to be free to refuse. With an archive of materials that is several centuries old, the project is nonetheless 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 'Locating Freedom and Bondage 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 ‘Political Freedom and Spaces of Refusal in Astell.’ Interpretations of Astell’s work tend to focus on the tensions between her conservatism and her avant la lettre feminism. This chapter offers an alternative interpretive framework and argues that, instead of forces that must be disentangled, her conservatism and her feminism collide to produce a unique model of political freedom and refusal, which unfolds over the course of Astell’s two major works of political philosophy. In A Serious Proposal to the Ladies… Wherein a Method is offer’d for the Improvement of their Minds (1694), she imagines a private retreat where young women might be free of the pressures of custom and able to cultivate both their souls and their sociability. The key to the retreat’s emancipatory potential is its provision of a space in which women might defer or avoid marrying altogether.

Astell’s second major work, Some Reflections upon Marriage, Occasion’d by the Duke and Duchess of Mazarine’s Case; which is also considered (1700/06), builds on this notion of a spatially bounded political freedom. Reading the Reflections alongside Audra Simpson’s Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States and Kathi Weeks’ The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, I argue that Astell’s text possesses a nascent theory of refusal grounded in political freedom as she defines it in A Serious Proposal. Ultimately, the notion of refusal I extract from Astell is best understood as defending the freedom to take up space, both metaphorically and literally, as a political subject. 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 own purported reclusiveness can thus be read as a politically powerful example of refusal as liberty.

A third chapter draft is tentatively titled ‘Suchon and the Interior Spaces 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.