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content of human rights. It entails, roughly speaking, that the grounds

74
Rawls 1993; Jones 2001.
75
Beitz 2001, pp. 273À4; Cohen 2004, p. 200.
210 duncan ivison
for human rights can be found not in a particular doctrine of individual
autonomy or Lockean natural law, but in terms that are accessible
from within the vantage points of various different moral and religious
traditions. But at the same time, that the language of human rights
discourse can help shape these local traditions and practices too, faced
as they are with the challenges of the global political structure. To justify
human rights in this sense is to accept that it is a constructive task; of
constructing, in Joshua Cohen™s helpful phrase, a ˜shared terrain of
argument™ (and obligation) between different moral traditions and
societies about the kind of standards suitable for holding political
societies to account for their treatment of individuals and groups.76
In fact, for these reasons talk of minimalism is misleading. We should aim
for a common standard, not a minimal one.
What does this mean? ˜Common™ falls somewhere between compre-
hensive and minimalist and implies the ongoing activity of constructing
a common point of view, not simply positing one. All rights regimes
are culturally mediated in various ways. They rest on a structure of
moral beliefs about the urgency or appropriateness of the interest in
question to receive the institutional and political attention sought by
identifying it as a ˜right™ in the first place. And so we need to explore
much more carefully the dynamic relation between rights and social
and cultural norms; the way rights not only reshape local norms and
practices, but also how these in turn (for better or worse) shape the
language of rights. Why is this important? If we want rights to be
effectively enforceable claims À ˜real freedoms™, in other words À then
we require effective institutions that can allocate and enforce the rights
we care about. And we need people with the appropriate dispositions,
attitudes, knowledge and resources to be able to make claims in the first
place, and respond appropriately to those made by others.77 We tend
to associate these conditions above all with the well-defined authority
and political and legal order of a state. And this is one reason why the
state is far from dead, despite the claims of globalization enthusiasts.
But it is also the case that the conditions required for realizing the
effective enforceability of the most urgent interests of many people in
the world today À including those basic civil, political and economic
interests often associated with citizen™s rights À will require collective
action and institution-building across borders as much as within them.

76 77
Cohen 2004, p. 195. James 2003b.
The Nature of Rights and the History of Empire 211
And the struggle to articulate the moral grounds of modern human
rights, as well as to question the adequacy of existing human rights
instruments and institutions is part of the process of trying to realize these
conditions.
Michael Ignatieff has referred to arguments over human rights in
these contexts as involving the construction of a kind of ˜hybridized
moral vernacular™, not necessarily cut loose from liberalism, but not as
dependent on it in the way critics suppose. He seems to mean this is
a descriptive claim, which may well be overly optimistic. But I think
it offers a potential normative vision too, and one that is well worth
trying to spell out in greater detail.78 Studying the development of the
language of subjective rights in tandem with changing conceptions of
the justification of empire between 1600 and 1800 helps us see the
cluster of assumptions that surround rights claims; theories of rights
always exist within broader discourses of state-formation, citizenship
and international order. Taking the history of rights seriously helps us
see both the possibilities À and crucially the constraints À this lan-
guage offers us today, as we try to make sense of and respond to new
conjunctions between rights and imperium.79

78
Ignatieff 1999; Ivison 2006.
79
I am grateful for the comments and advice I received from the participants in the Folger
conference, and especially to David Armitage, Nicholas Canny, Kirstie McClure, Karen
O™Brien, John Pocock and Quentin Skinner.
c h a p te r 1 1

Reading the Private in Margaret Cavendish:
Conversations in Political Thought
Joanne H. Wright


In a recent essay on women writers and the early-modern British political
tradition, Hilda Smith identifies the ˜perpetual state of schizophrenia™
that arises from working at the intersection of women™s intellectual
history and British political thought in the early-modern era.1 There is
little agreement between these fields of inquiry on approaches, significant
texts or accepted interpretations. Emblematic of this scholarly schizo-
phrenia is the literature surrounding the dichotomy of public and private
and its proper use and interpretation. If we are to achieve some synthesis
of this disparate literature toward a more nuanced understanding of
public and private, we need to generate further conversation among
feminist political theorists, historians of political thought and gender
historians.
The meanings of public and private À including their gendered
character À are contested in at least three scholarly conversations about
early-modern Britain. First, beginning in the 1970s, feminist political
theorists drew attention to the gendered power relations inscribed on the
traditional division between the two spheres. Second, historians of social
and political thought have examined male early-modern theorists and
their ideas of the private in context and primarily in connection to
politics, religion and economic relations. And third, early-modern gender
historians have enhanced and refined our perspectives on the fluidity of
public and private life for women and men in this period. Within these
three literatures, there has not been, however, sustained investigation of
how the private might look different, and be experienced differently, from
the perspective of women thinkers. This chapter will illustrate how such
an investigation might be more broadly conducted by examining the
reflections on the private offered by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of
Newcastle.
1
Smith 1998b, p. 1.

212
Conversations in Political Thought 213
In several of her works, Margaret Cavendish reveals her perception of
the potentially dichotomous nature of the private realm for seventeenth-
century women. Perhaps most striking are her reflections in the drama,
The Convent of Pleasure (1668). For the female protagonists of the
play who have chosen to establish a life of communal retirement in
the company of women only, the retreat into the private affords them
the pleasure of freely cultivating their minds in the absence of marital
and societal pressures. This choice is framed by the entirely negative
experiences of marriage and male companionship, which, for these
particular women, are associated with violence, infidelity and relentless
breeding. While The Convent of Pleasure invites many readings, and
goes some measure to re-establish the validity of heterosexual marriage
at its conclusion, the premise of the play rests on the contention that
domesticity brings such misery to women that they must construct an
alternative to free themselves from its most pernicious aspects.2
Although Margaret Cavendish did not publish a systematic analysis
of politics À the political treatise being a genre that she considered
inappropriate for women writers À she was nonetheless a political
thinker and an acute observer of social and political life. Evidence of
her critical eye for power relations in early-modern society is woven
throughout her literary and dramatic works as well as her orations and
letters. Taken together, these diverse published works are no less apt an
arena for investigation of political ideas as they formed part of a broader
public discourse À an ˜inter-generic conversation™, as Karen O™Brien
describes it À in which political questions were ˜meaningfully contested™.3
In particular, Cavendish™s writings offer us a view of the private that is
distinct from that of male political theorists as well as that of the domestic
advice manuals of the seventeenth century. Indeed, in Cavendish™s many
published writings we see a persistent and incisive critique of oppressive
private relations and their effects upon women. Yet Cavendish™s powerful
analysis of the darker side of the private is counter-balanced by her
frequent assertions of the virtue of a carefully constructed, closeted,
intellectual life for women. Through her defence of a retired life,
Cavendish actively and publicly constructs an alternative meaning of the

2
What Cavendish intended in the conclusion of the play has been thrown into question by the
discovery of an inserted note by her in some of the existing versions informing readers that the
play™s final two scenes were ˜Written by my Lord Duke™. For a synopsis of interpretation, see
Wood 2004, pp. 435À7.
3
O™Brien, in this volume, p. 168.
214 joanne h. wright
private and its potential benefits for women. In this reading of
Cavendish, I suggest that it is her understanding of the dichotomous
character of the private realm À its dangers and its possibilities À that is
politically (and epistemologically) significant.
The origins and popularity of the feminist analysis of public and
private relations in Western public discourse are inseparable from the
politics of the Second Wave feminist movement itself. In its earliest
writings in the 1960s and ™70s, the Women™s Liberation Movement in
North America declared that ˜the personal is political™, thus politiciz-
ing formerly private relations and exposing their injustices to public
scrutiny. The development of the analysis of public and private was
connected to the radical feminist practice of consciousness-raising,
wherein women began to connect their own private experiences of
subordination with those of other women. As Redstocking Carol Hanisch
argued, consciousness-raising was not a form of group therapy meant
to make women feel better about their circumstances: ˜One of the first
things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political
problems. There are no personal solutions at this time. There are only
collective solutions™.4 Indeed, consciousness-raising politicized women
into feminists, causing them both to interrogate private relations and
to organize to disrupt long-standing and unjustified male privilege in
the intimate sphere.
Influenced by the attention to public and private within the Second
Wave Women™s Liberation Movement, early feminist political theorists
made the gendered division between the two realms the subject of
academic study. For example, in her influential Public Man/Private
Woman (1981), Jean Bethke Elshtain sought to enhance the debate,
to elevate its theoretical and historical sophistication by using the dis-
course of public and private ˜as a conceptual prism through which to
see the story of women and politics from Plato to the present™.5 Elshtain
understood public and private as conceptual categories that have been
deployed ˜in some form™ by most thinkers; as deeply-felt imperatives,
˜public and private ordered and structured diverse activities, purposes,
and dimensions of human social life and thinking about that life™.6


4 5
Hanisch 2000, p. 85. Elshtain 1993, p. xv.
6
Elshtain 1993, p. 9. Elshtain explains that she tried to think ˜˜˜really honestly™™ from the vantage
point of a political theorist who has been influenced, for over fifteen years, by her involve-
ment with the feminist movement™. The result, she warned, is that ˜Public Man/Private Woman
is a nasty book™ (p. xi).
Conversations in Political Thought 215
Public and private were, in fact, so deeply rooted, and so fundamental
to Western societal organization, in Elshtain™s view, the point was not
to eradicate the distinction but to address its gendered dimensions.
Also seizing upon the political moment of the Second Wave, Carole
Pateman™s The Sexual Contract (1988) took aim at the ideological
association of women with the private realm of naturalized subordina-
tion. For Pateman, men in liberal societies had been able to construct
themselves as individuals and citizens to the extent that they could shed
their association with private, familial work and obligations, a fact that
creates serious problems, in her view, for admitting women into full
liberal citizenship in any straightforward way.7 Pateman drew attention
for the first time to the fact that, in accounting for the birth of the
public realm, the early-modern social contract had missed half the story.
The social contract had nothing whatsoever to say about the origins of
the private realm or how the relationships within it came into being.
And for their part, contemporary political theorists had done little to
shed light on this question. Rather they continued to treat public and
private as divisions ˜within civil society itself, within the world of men™.
The debate about public and private in political theory, she argues,
had often been wrongly cast in terms of a bifurcation of ˜ ˜˜society™™ and
˜˜state™™, or ˜˜economy™™ and ˜˜politics™™, or ˜˜freedom™™ and ˜˜coercion™™ or
˜˜social™™ and ˜˜political™™ ™, thereby completely eliding the other, shadowy
private sphere on which the public sphere rests.8
Spawned by the politics of the Second Wave, then, feminist political
theory developed critical insight into the gendered discourse(s) of public
and private. Of course, as Elshtain and Pateman, among others, make
clear, the relationship between public and private has a long history in
Western culture, dating as far back as ancient Greece and the writings of
Plato and Aristotle. However, what is distinctive about the feminist
approach is that it exposed the power relations within the private realm,
treated them as politically significant, and integrated them into the larger
story about the public. Moreover, feminist theorists argued that an
analysis of the division between public and private was necessary because
the process of articulating the line between the two was essential to
a thinker™s conception of what was properly considered political.
No picture of women™s (or men™s) relationship to the state À or to
citizenship À could be complete without it.

7
Pateman 1988. See also Brennan and Pateman 1979.
8
Pateman 1989, p. 122.
216 joanne h. wright
While the early analyses developed in Second Wave feminist political
thought are still recognized as groundbreaking, Joan Landes points out
that ˜feminists are no longer united in their evaluation of the public/
private split, or in their approach to its study™.9 While the critiques of
public/private analysis are multifarious, my concerns with its efficacy as
a conceptual tool are historical. In my own analysis of Hobbes, for
example, I have identified the problems that arise in Pateman™s straight-
forward imposition of the idea of a masculine public sphere and
a feminine private one onto early-modern England.10 Although Hobbes
(along with his contemporaries) certainly used gender to think about
politics, at this point the private realm was not womanly in the way that
it came to be for later social contract thinkers such as Rousseau. While
rightly focused on the politics of public and private, early feminist analysis
may not have been as attentive to differences in historical contexts as it
could have been.
A departure from the early analysis of public and private is particularly
evident within the field of women™s or gender history. In that field,
attempts to understand public and private as divisions between the worlds
of men and women À the ˜separate spheres™ analysis À has given way to
a general dismissal of the utility of the terms altogether. For women™s
historians, looking at women™s experiences through the lens of public
and private imperatives À in the way that Elshtain suggests À has the
effect of keeping our inquiry purely at the level of ideology, accepting
a view of the past that is constructed, for example, through the works
of political thinkers and the domestic advice literature. As Laura Gowing
points out, ˜[t]he gulf between prescriptions for the ideal household

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