Domination, freedom and women’s agency

A couple of weeks ago I came across a discussion of political philosophy that mentioned Quentin Skinner’s theory of republican liberty. I immediately recognised that as relevant to one of my current interests, the historical analysis of patriarchy. A quick bit of searching showed that I wasn’t the only person who had thought of this connection and I found a very interesting article on the topic: Jennifer Einspahr, “Structural domination and structural freedom: a feminist perspective”, Feminist Review 94, 1-19 (March 2010).

Einspahr’s paper is interesting to me for its attempts at definitions of domination, freedom and agency, key aspects in any discussions about the position of medieval women, but whose meanings are often hard to pin down. Firstly, Einspahr defines ‘structure’ and ‘agency’ (p. 5):

I define ‘structure’ as a set of socially constructed frameworks, patterns, and material conditions that frame our collective lives and that can be understood only in relation to ‘agency’, or a human being’s ‘socioculturally mediated capacity to act’

In this view, ‘structure is both the precondition and the outcome of action’: the two interact with each other. This view of agency helps distinguish it from freedom, which Einspahr then goes on to define as non-domination. Here, she is trying to get away from Isaiah Berlin’s idea of negative liberty (p. 8), that ‘people are free to the extent that they are not impeded in their actions’. Instead, following Phillip Pettit and Quentin Skinner she argues for understanding liberty in its republican sense (p 10): “the proper opposite of freedom is not interference but domination”. She then quotes Pettit’s explanation of domination as (p 11):

exemplified by the relationship of master to slave or master to servant. Such a relationship means, at the limit, that the dominating party can interfere on an arbitrary basis with the choices of the dominated: can interfere, in particular, on the basis of an interest or an opinion that need not be shared by the person affected. The dominating party can practice interference, then, at will and with impunity.

Freedom then, is not just about current interference, but about the possibility of arbitrary interference. Even if a slave has a kindly master who does not interfere with the slave’s action, he can always do so whenever he chooses. The possibility of such interference rings immediate bells with many women. I avoid dark streets at night, for example, not because I’ve been attacked myself, but because I know that as a woman I’m more vulnerable to attack. My freedom of movement is curtailed in that respect, even if nothing ever happens to me personally.

Einspahr’s distinction of freedom and agency make a lot of sense for the modern world, but my real interest is in applying such definitions to the study of historical change. With a republican understanding of freedom, it’s fairly clear that it’s only recently that western women have become substantially free, and even now their freedom tends to be less than that of men. Carolingian women faced the possibility of arbitrary interference with impunity from many sources: from the state, from the church, their husbands and families, their social peers, sometimes their lords, and also from ‘illegal actors’ (all the oppressors and bandits who lurk in Carolingian sources). On the other hand, there were also relatively few men who enjoyed much freedom, with the exception of the magnate class.

On the other hand, a view of agency which focuses on capacity to act is quite tricky to deal with historically. Einspahr refers to different forms of agency (p 7), but her definition of agency implicitly accords it to almost all women. This makes political sense: to say that a woman has no agency is to treat her as a passive object, someone who can only have things done to/for her. And I think Einspahr’s right to separate out her definitions of agency and freedom, rather than conflating them. But how, in that case, do we distinguish a Carolingian woman’s position from that of a woman under Taliban rule (or some other particularly oppressive form of patriarchy), if women in both societies still have agency? Practically, their situations are very different, but it’s hard to argue that Carolingian women had substantially more freedom, if you’re thinking purely in republican terms.

The nearest I can get to the distinction at the moment is the idea of choice. Carolingian women may not have been more free than under the Taliban, but they had a wider variety of possible forms of agency, and also a greater range of socio-culturally accepted behaviour. (Even in a society which allows slavery, such as the Roman Empire, there may be some treatment of slaves which is legally permissible, but socially frowned upon).

Choice is also a useful concept because choice is entirely compatible with a lack of freedom. This is best illustrated by the classic British civil service tactics (also applicable to small children) of giving someone the choice between several actions that the person dominating has already decided are acceptable, while making other actions ‘unthinkable’.

What I’m not yet sure about is whether it’s possible to come up with a good typology of forms of agency, which would be helpful in trying to compare women’s positions in different societies. We’re also still faced with a big source problem when looking at early medieval agency: we can only really know what women (or peasants or Jews etc) could do when they actually did it, and it was noted. So it’s very difficult to say, for example, whether Carolingian queens didn’t act as regents because there wasn’t an opportunity to do so, or because ideas of correct queenship had changed since the Merovingian period.

Einspahr’s framework, then, while intellectually satisfying, doesn’t seem to me to provide all the concepts that I need to explore the changing historical position of women. But I think it can at least clarify the kind of components I need to be looking at to help develop a historical analysis of patriarchy that goes beyond modern conceptualisations of it.

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