Summary: ... In this paper I want to examine, in some detail, the identification of one such villain: the "public/private distinction." ... For these reasons, my focus on the feminist challenge to the public/private distinction should be relevant and useful to those posing broader challenges to distinctions and vocabularies. ...
... Feminist analyses of the public/private distinction include both internal challenges, which most feminists accept, and external challenges, which some feminists endorse and others criticize or reject. ... The feminist challenge to the public/private distinction is both insightful and important. ... Legal scholars have used such an argument in the realm of labor law, and Clare Dalton has challenged the distinction in a similar way from a feminist perspective. ... MacKinnon argues that the abortion issue should be viewed in terms of equality rather than privacy or liberty. ... It seems, therefore, that with respect to abortion there is no necessary connection between the use of the public/private distinction or privacy terminology in Roe, and the unfortunate holding of Harris. ...
First, "private" may indicate the highly personal and intimate reasons for the presumptive entitlement of families to be free from interference. ... The feminist challenge to the public/private distinction and the ways in which the distinction has reinforced social trends is fascinating and revealing. ...
It has become fashionable to expand the list of villains in social, political, and legal thought. The list now includes not only criminals and malfeasors of all sorts, but also theoretical perspectives and complex human practices such as language and science. In this paper I want to examine, in some detail, the identification of one such villain: the "public/private distinction." Although my main purpose is to discuss the specific feminist challenge to this distinction, feminists have not been the only critics of this distinction, nor have feminists limited their criticism to this distinction alone. For these reasons, my focus on the feminist challenge to the public/private distinction should be relevant and useful to those posing broader challenges to distinctions and vocabularies.
Different claims concerning the relationship between public and private realms are central to feminist theory as a whole. n3 But only some of these claims voice positions that may be interpreted as challenges to the distinction itself, rather than challenges to social arrangements dubbed "private" or "public." One powerful, and representative, challenge to the distinction is that presented by Catharine MacKinnon:
For women the measure of the intimacy has been the measure of the oppression. This is why feminism has had to explode the private. This is why feminism has seen the personal as the political. The private is public for those for whom the personal is political. In this sense, for women there is no private, either normatively or empirically... To confront the fact that women have no privacy is to confront the intimate degradation of women as the public order. The doctrinal choice of privacy in the abortion context thus reaffirms and reinforces what the feminist critique of sexuality criticizes: the public/private split.
To assess such calls for the abolition of the public/private distinction, we must do at least three things: explore the meaning of the challenge; ask whether we accept the descriptive and normative judgments implicit in the challenge; and analyze the utility of the distinction as a conceptual tool.
In Part I, I discuss the differences between internal and external criticisms of distinctions. Internal challenges are criticisms of specific uses of terms like "public" and "private" or of specific arrangements designated by these labels.
External challenges invite us to abolish or delegitimate such distinctions altogether. Feminist analyses of the public/private distinction include both internal challenges, which most feminists accept, and external challenges, which some feminists endorse and others criticize or reject.
In Part II, I examine one factor which makes this particular distinction so difficult to challenge externally: that the terms "private" and "public" assume a variety of meanings, with differing normative implications, within the relevant literature. Understanding and assessing both the contexts in which the distinction is used as well as the external criticisms of the distinction requires close attention to these differences.
Finally, in Part III, I seek to explain the grounds for the feminist challenges to the public/private distinction, both external and internal. I will conclude by reconstructing and evaluating those arguments fundamental to the external challenge.
The feminist challenge to the public/private distinction is both insightful and important. When the external elements of this challenge become too sweeping, however, they become misleading and counterproductive and may actually facilitate the devaluation of important aspects of human life that are currently identified as "private" and "personal." Thus, studying the feminist criticisms of the public/private distinction reveals both the strengths and the weaknesses of the fashionable practice of leveling profound critiques at the linguistic and epistemological underpinnings of political positions.
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