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Nancy J.

Hirschmann on the Social
Construction of Women’s Freedom
Marilyn Friedman

Nancy J. Hirschmann presents a feminist, social constructionist account of women’s
freedom. Friedman’s discussion of Hirschmann’s account deals with (1) some conceptual problems facing a thoroughgoing social constructionism; (2) three ways to modify
social constructionism to avoid those problems; and (3) an assessment of Hirschmann’s
version of social constructionism in light of the previous discussion.

Social constructionism is the theoretical approach of accounting for something
by construing its nature and existence as the product, in some sense, of social
relationships, practices, and discourses.1 Social constructionism is a particularly
hopeful approach to take toward anything we regard as wrong or bad because if
we find that something bad is a social construct rather than being that way independently of social practices, then we can try to change it socially or, at least,
to construct it differently next time around. Feminist social constructionism
is deeply concerned with the concepts, practices, entities, and attributes that
constitute oppression. If oppressive practices and oppressed identities turn out
to be social constructs, then they would be the products of social relationships
that could conceivably be under human control, and we could plausibly hope
to change them through human intervention. Social constructionism suggests
that whatever is oppressive to women is not inevitable or unchanging and can
be made better by human beings acting differently.
Feminists also attend to the role played by sources of social dominance in the
social construction of anything. Dominant persons, institutions, practices, and,
above all, dominant discourses are a prominent feature of feminist theories of
social construction. These dominance factors are theorized as being the causes
of oppressive practices and oppressed identities, which are brought about to
serve the interests of socially dominant persons and groups.
Hypatia vol. 21, no. 4 (Fall 2006) © by Marilyn Friedman

identity. the contexts of domestic violence. The Subject of Liberty: Toward a Feminist Theory of Freedom. It prompts theorists and researchers to pay attention to historical contexts and contingent social relationships when trying to account for human phenomena. I think many feminists. Ian Hacking (1999) found no examples of a thoroughgoing social constructionism in his study of the approach. Nancy Hirschmann presents a social constructionist attempt to recast freedom in feminist terms in light of certain contexts of serious importance to (many) women’s lives.2 As part of her rethinking of freedom. To the extent that social relationships. and (3) in light of the foregoing. If we do not make an effort to seek the deep social causes of human phenomena. agency. including Hirschmann. preference. some conceptual problems arise if social constructionism is an account of everything in “reality” or in human experience. However. so it may be something of a straw person. My discussion of Hirschmann’s book will deal with (1) some conceptual problems facing a thoroughgoing social constructionism. (2) three ways to modify social constructionism so as to avoid those problems. Understanding them requires us . then a social constructionist perspective will prompt us to seek relevant social causes. Hirschmann explores the social construction of factors relevant to freedom. In her excellent book. they argue for the social constructedness of only some limited range of human experience. choice. values—indeed. Most accounts are what he calls “local” in scope. It is not clear that any feminist expresses this view consistently. and especially of human discourse. and veiling practices. beliefs. welfare policy. practices.3 However. Some Conceptual Problems with Thoroughgoing Social Constructionism A thoroughgoing social constructionism would be the view that everything in reality or human experience is a product of human social relationships. and desire. make occasional remarks that sound like expressions of a thoroughgoing social constructionism. an assessment of Hirschmann’s own version of social constructionism. and the effort to uncover such causes is likely to bear fruit. and discourses do influence and determine human phenomena. for example: The idea of social construction is that human beings and their world are in no sense given or natural but the product of historical configurations of relationships. the way in which we see the world and define reality—are all shaped by the particular constellation of personal and institutional social relationships that constitute our individual and collective identities. Our desires. Marilyn Friedman 183 Social constructionism is a valuable theoretical heuristic. especially. preferences. then we may well miss them where they do obtain. such as self.

creating a reality that both serves. human practices and selves could have arisen in some manner other than through their social construction. Thoroughgoing social constructionism does seem to have serious conceptual problems. Western feminists often explain male dominance and female subordination by arguing that (white. then we may wish to take greater care to avoid saying anything that even sounds misleadingly like such a view. Once patriarchy is in operation. and is understood in ways that serve. But how does patriarchy arise within the human social and become so widespread in the first place? Why has so much patriarchy arisen around the world and so little matriarchy? Of course. Before men were in positions of dominance. In that case. heterosexual) men and their patriarchal discourses predominate in the social construction process. at one time. and political contexts. How then did it rise to power in so many societies? A social constructionist account in terms of the power of men and patriarchal discourses appears incapable of explaining how male power and privilege first arose. we will have trouble saying why this sort of origin of the social could not still continue at the present time. any system of human power will try to perpetuate itself.”4 (10. it cannot explain the origin of the social or of discourse. out of nonsocial conditions. How does the social (or discourse) come into existence if there is as yet nothing social to construct it? If the human social is not self-creating. A third problem is to account for the undeniable existence of resistance to powerful regimes and the oppositional discourses and challenges that are parts of such resistance. And if we admit that. the interests of (white. emphasis added) If thoroughgoing social constructionism has serious problems. which undermines a thorough­going social constructionism.5 For one. If discourse and its materializations manifest a “reality” that accords with the interests of dominant groups. either the human social is self-caused (which seems incomprehensible) or it can be caused by something other than the social. and meaning makes “reality. A second origin problem is specific to feminist social constructionism. But this plausible social constructionist explanation of how patriarchy continues to exist nevertheless gives us no insight whatever into the origins of patriarchy or the reasons for its global pervasiveness. their discourse would have had no special privileges or advantages. Thus. then how could a normative perspective critical of their dominance ever arise? A critical perspective would . heterosexual) men. the human social would itself not be a thoroughgoing social construct. at least in rudimentary form. social.184 Hypatia to place them in their historical. once in operation. it is plausible to assume that those who benefit from it will have the power and the inclination to use material and ideological means to maintain that system. then it must have arisen. Such contexts are what makes meaning possible.

the idea that it is constructed that way could not be a misrepresentation of anything. “something actively created by particular social forces and norms. “social construction” is something artificial. discourse is merely one constructionist practice among many. or true” (78). (2) things are socially constructed particularly by and in accord with discourse. This sense of the term implies that “if we were not socialized. Hirschmann suggests that social construction has three different “levels” (77). then it could not be any different from what it is constructed to be. If something really is constructed to be a certain way. As I understand her. and discourses. each of which is supposed to correspond to a level of socially constructed reality or experience. Hirschmann is referring to three distinct levels of existing social constructionist theory. let’s assess the social constructionism of Nancy Hirschmann’s The Subject of Liberty. and (1) dominant groups do not always predominate. Hirschmann notes that most feminists consciously reject this “essentialist or naturalist thesis. Hirschmann suggests calling this first theoretical level “the ideological misrepresentation of reality” (77). In reverse order. And so. A thoroughgoing social constructionism must struggle with the question of how a critical perspective can arise. in its norms or values.” “Constructed” at this level implies “false” (78). according to Hirschmann. (2) the discourse of dominant groups does not always predominate and. that is. we could hold the following modified views: (3) things are socially constructed in accord with discourse but the discourse of dominant groups does not always predominate. At the first level. What are our options? Social constructionism involves at least three theses: (1) things are socially constructed. discourse is merely one social practice among many by which social construction takes place. real. Three Moderate Social Constructionist Theses Suppose we move to a moderate social constructionism. Each of these theses could be moderated.” Hirschmann is right that the concept of misrepresentation is problematic for a social constructionist account. With this list in hand. we would be more natural. women would not be socially constructed at all and that “there is some true identity and set of interests that women have as women” (79). and some aspects of reality or human experience are not social constructs at all. they are the products of social relationships. from the dominant norms that permeated the social context. and (3) the discourse of dominant social groups always predominates in the social construction process. practices. She points out several problems with this view. Marilyn Friedman 185 diverge somehow.6 The problem she mentions that is of greatest interest in this context is that to view social construction as the “misrepresentation of reality” is to assume that if it were not for patriarchy. or socially constructed. Only if something has a “real” . in any case.

is the level that she calls “materialization” (79). a rising tide would lift all boats. At this level. that women are dainty and delicate creatures who are physically unable to fend for themselves) producing the reality they claim to describe (for example. At the second level of social construction. Just after the passage about Marx that I cited above. Capitalist ideology does not itself hold that workers are alienated from anything. namely. it holds a contrary view. the process is not thoroughgoing. Hirschmann cites the Marxist idea that capitalist ideology produces capitalist reality. The second level of social construction. This statement implies that patriarchal ideology may have varying degrees of success in affecting the phenomena themselves and thus may not fully construct its subjects. she writes: “social constructionism suggests that the degree to which women live out patriarchal ideology . quite a lot of capitalist reality fails to correspond to capitalist ideology. Indeed. That those things do not routinely happen under capitalism reflects the failure of capitalist reality to match capitalist ideology. Yet it is not clear that this view can be sustained. however. the thought and understanding of social phenomena generate “material effects on the phenomena themselves” (79). writes Hirschmann. “In practices ranging from Chinese foot binding to female circumcision to cosmetic surgery. Hirschmann sounds very thoroughgoing about her social constructionism at what she calls the second level. crippled women who cannot run)” (79). emphasis added).186 Hypatia or “true” nature that differs from what it is thought to be could the thing be misrepresented. Hirschmann does sometimes express a more moderate social constructionism. . “women’s understanding of what it means to be a ‘woman’ becomes constructed. shaped and defined” by oppressive practices such as pornography. and themselves (79). This example. She observes that capitalist ideology produces social relations in which workers become alienated from their labor. that workers have freedom and opportunity for fulfillment under capitalism. “social construction is not at odds with material reality. This is the sort of moderate view I would encourage Hirschmann to develop further. is dependent on the ideology’s success in creating them concretely” (79. Here. it actually produces it” (80). all Americans who work hard would attain the American dream. each other. does not illustrate what Hirschmann wants to illustrate. and no workers would be alienated. domestic violence. Marxism is the discourse that holds that workers are alienated under capitalism. Instead. If it did. then the “invisible hand” of free enterprise selfishness would operate to serve everyone’s interests. . Hirschmann writes. and sexual harassment. To illustrate second-level social construction. . As I suggested earlier. according to Hirschmann. we see interpretive discourses (for example. Capitalist ideology is thus not a good example of an ideology that brings about a reality that corresponds to its portrayal of itself. This example suggests that even at the second level of social construction. At this second level.

If men predominated thoroughly in the social construction process. She claims metaphorically that discourse “totalizes” but does not do so like concrete poured over everything. practices. she believes is to determine whether. according to Hirschmann. Rather. (2) holding that discourse in general does not construct reality thoroughly. rituals. since (quoting Hirschmann) “patriarchy is premised on women’s powerlessness and men’s power” (205). emphasis added).” women’s participation in socially constructing reality is also a matter of degree but not nonexistent (204. “People. relationships. and communicating about reality. Hirschmann frequently expresses the first of these views. again suggesting that male dominant discourse is not thoroughly predominant. is that at which the “construction of reality takes root in our very language. Yet Hirschmann is strongly committed to the idea that women do have options for freedom. women are not unfree. Marilyn Friedman 187 The third level of social construction. in particular. . indeed. what we are doing. 202). where it establishes the parameters for understanding. She proposes that “changing contexts and increasing freedom for women and other nondominant groups requires increasing their ability to participate in the processes of social construction” (205). social construction harbors options for women (and other nondominant groups) to create new contexts and increase their freedom. about who women are. by and through the very same constructs that limit us” (205). namely. Yet Hirschmann seems ambiguous in her moderation. challenges the idea that nondominant groups can create new contexts since the very abilities that nondominant groups might use to create new contexts “are socially constructed as well . determining everything to be a particular shape. . and (3) holding that social construction is not the entire account of reality or human experience. that the discourse of dominant men does not always predominate in the process of social construction. what we desire” (80). see also 200. Social constructionism. The challenge. and how. we might expect women to have no freedom at all and to play no role whatsoever in doing the social constructing. and so forth do not have independent existences but rather become meaningful for us through interpretive frameworks” (80. Hirschmann also allows that “multiple discourses exist simultaneously” (208). She frequently suggests that although women have less freedom than men and women’s choices are constrained more than men’s choices. She writes that the idea that women have options for freedom reveals what she calls the “paradox” of social construction. defining. discourse “totalizes” like a “blanket draped” over . Hirschmann believes there are such options. As “excluded others.8 Earlier. this is the main message of her book. I suggested that there were three ways of moderating feminist social constructionism: (1) holding that men and. Hirschmann states that social conditions enable women’s freedom as well as limiting it (204). she claims. patriarchal discourse do not construct reality thoroughly.7 At this level.

At the same time. and of imagining other ways of being” (208). especially of women’s freedom. choices. . Hirschmann writes that “social construction cannot get into every nook and cranny of human relations and social life to foreclose possibilities of understanding that we are socially constructed.” all of this promoted by the “collective rethinking of contexts” carried on by black women together (216). in the process of trying to create new contexts to increase women’s freedom. but I agree with Hirschmann’s basic idea: discourse. recreate their contexts. or a new feminist one that challenges and changes meanings” (215). We should now ask this question: Assuming that our selves. One can choose “which social structure I wish to promote: the existing patriarchal one . influence the social formations and practices that obstruct them. The confidence that women together can redefine themselves. of who they are” (211). Hirschmann suggests that. where does freedom come from? Hirschmann refers favorably to Foucault’s view that people are not merely passive. . Collins argues that (quoting Hirschmann) the “ability to change existing contexts” interacts with the “ability to reshape and redefine the self. and make choices that construct the self (212–13). of critiquing how we are socially constructed. and reshape their options still does not fully resolve the paradox of . A blanket allows what it covers to move in ways that are not predetermined. Hirschmann interprets this view to mean that individuals can themselves engage in social construction. participate in creating the contexts that shape their options and desires.9 They are also “active subjects” who take specific actions that involve them in “creation of their selves. does not thoroughly construct human reality in all its detail. who explains that black women “produce freedom through resistance to the dominant discourse’s construction of them and affirmation of alternative and self-defined self-understandings” (215).188 Hypatia everything. socially constructed subjects. Hirschmann is specifically interested in the social construction of freedom. Hirschmann cites Patricia Hill Collins. Hirschmann particularly endorses Collins’s emphasis on relationships among women as a crucial medium by which this rethinking of context occurs. I would quibble over the word “totalize” as a description for the effect of a blanket. it would be a mistake to operate from an ideal of what a woman or her desires are “really” like because this challenges “the entire framework of social construction necessary to the critique of patriarchy” (205). But would it challenge the entire framework? The fact that some features of reality are what they are independently of social construction does not entail that social constructionism is completely wrong. neither dominant nor otherwise. and contexts are not thoroughgoing products of patriarchal discourse. A robust social constructionism can survive this revelation so long as it is not thoroughgoing. It would then be an empirical question as to which of our discursive categories produced the reality they depict and which did not.

This is another origin problem.” Issues “arise out of experiences that socially and historically constitute the meaning of who I am and what I want” (218–19). Issues are not the only factor that help promote women’s freedom. needs. their preferences have completely adapted to their oppression” (226). But how do feminist issues arise in the first place when no one is yet feminist? If they do not arise as the materialization of dominant discourse. were enabled to engage in such rethinkings because they were prompted to do so by the issues that arose from their experiences. Hirschmann states that her “equivalent of Cornell’s individualistic ‘imaginary domain’ is a social process in which people acting together—though not always in agreement—work to change contexts so as to produce new meanings and possibilities” (229). to use the primary examples in Hirschmann’s book. How do all the initial increments of feminist insight ultimately arise? Hirschmann differentiates her views from those of Catharine MacKinnon. and desires. “the issue of where and how liberating contexts are supposed to come from. what they are supposed to build on. Women would thus engage critically with discourse . what gives rise to them? Hirschmann does not say how the process begins. She is thereby able to makes choices that are not dictated by patriarchal discourse. She is enabled to influence her own context by the reshaping of self-identity made possible by collective relationships with the groups of women to which she belongs. “Always already” sound like the words of a thoroughgoing social constructionism so this comment sits uneasily beside the many passages in which Hirschmann sounds a more moderate note. Marilyn Friedman 189 social construction. in turn. the issue of women in poverty. Yet Hirschmann also rejects Drucilla Cornell’s view that women can gain freedom through sexual imagination. One reason she gives for doing so is that “the possibilities that humans have for imagining are always already socially constructed by and through context and language” (229). Issues seem to be the first link in Hirschmann’s chain of interrelated conditions that eventuate in women’s enhanced freedom. As Hirschmann puts it. Hirsch­ mann posits a chain of interrelated conditions that lead up to women’s enhanced freedom. seems to elude a straightforward answer” (217). Issues clearly matter to a social movement such as feminism. Hirschmann tries to resolve this paradox by proposing the importance of issues. Feminists grapple with the issue of womanbattering. And those women. who believes (quoting Hirschmann) that “women are socially constructed to choose precisely what patriarchy wants them to choose” and that “women’s desires are completely determined by patriarchy. A group of women may influence any particular woman’s context in ways that expand the options available to her. and the issue of veiling as a source of both meaning and social control. Hirschmann writes that issues “come into existence as a result of expressly felt need and desire. but they must be identified and named in order to exist.

I am grateful to Christina Bellon for her successful efforts to make this session possible under the difficult conditions of a hotel/labor dispute and multiple convention sites. period? I’ve quoted some statements from Hirschmann’s book that suggest that she retains this thesis. I believe a thoroughgoing social constructionism is unnecessary for this task. 1. Notes This paper was presented at the Pacific Division APA meetings. she seems to think that discourse is not the only medium by which the social exerts its influence. My primary concern has been to explore how far Hirschmann goes in moderating social constructionism. physics may reveal a reality that is not entirely socially constructed. are socially constructed in important ways. women’s pregnant bodies have a reality that is independent of social custom and social construction. that “gravity limits us all. What about the thesis that reality is not entirely socially constructed. she seems not to think that the dominant patriarchal discourse thoroughly constructs social reality or human experience. Hirschmann sometimes seems to deny it. . in Hirschmann’s view. So. Hirschmann also says that laws concerning pregnancy leave single out women “because of social custom as well as biology” (231. it is not clear why women’s joint actions avoid being “always already socially constructed” when their imaginary domains are so constructed. such as gender and sexual desire. March 24.190 Hypatia “so as to redefine terms like ‘freedom’ in ways that reflect [their] lived reality and desire” (229). emphasis added). Overall. for example. California. at the very least. She adds further that “the barrier to freedom is thus not women’s pregnant bodies but. At the same time. Hirschmann’s generally moderate social constructionist account of freedom moves us in the right direction. rather. Toward that end. The conceptual problems in such an account would hinder any challenges to patriarchy by promoting critical or hostile reactions. emphasis added). Hirschmann writes that feminism needs social constructionism to challenge patriarchy (205). She writes. constitutively. This seems to suggest that. patriarchal social attitudes and customs pertaining to pregnancy and women” (232. It is enough simply to show that some phenomena. and pragmatically. However. there are. issues that arise in women’s experience and joint actions among women that affect the participants in freeing ways. 2005. it is not the case that some are freer to fly than others” (231). San Francisco. Haslanger (1995) distinguishes three different sorts of ways in which something can be a social construct: causally. Overall.

for example. Either they must be judged nonautonomous despite their carefully defended views or feminists seem to risk losing a crucial foundation for their critical stance on beauty pageants and standards—or anything else—namely. and Lyotard. We would have slipped back down to Hirschmann’s first level of social construction. At this point in the text. 5. Nancy J. As Hirschmann points out. The issue of beauty standards appears to divide women within racial categories. Ontology and social construction. Hirschmann cites Foucault. 1999. 8. Ian. The subject of liberty: Toward a feminist theory of freedom. References Hacking. among white women. . This part of the discussion owes a debt to Haslanger (1995). Princeton. Miranda Fricker and Jennifer Hornsby. “The Ethic of Care for the Self as a Practice of Freedom” (210–14) helps reveal some of Hirschmann’s own views about the sources of women’s freedom. Some women. 2003. 2000. The social construction of what? Cambridge. This generality has been widely challenged on the basis of racial. 1995. Marilyn Friedman 191 2.” 4. the perspectives of women in general. Derrida. it differentiates. this view exhibits the problematic feature of often “second-guessing” women. Feminism in metaphysics: Negotiating the natural. ethnic. critically reflective reasons that refer to benefits they receive from such participation. In this essay. The world of humanly experienced reality may be the product of social forces influencing human experiential capacities even while the things experienced have existences independent of any and all human experiences of them. 3. In The Cambridge companion to feminism in philosophy. The fact that existences “become meaningful for us” only “through interpretive frameworks” does not exclude the possibility that they might exist independently of us. ed.: Princeton University Press. then that is how they exist—or it would be false to say they were (successfully) constructed to be that way. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. for example.: Harvard University Press. Philosophical Topics 23 (2): 95–125. but I put this issue aside in the present context. I am not entirely certain how this differs from the second level of social construction. If things are successfully constructed to exist independently of us. I will not differentiate between the formulation in terms of “reality” and the formulation in terms of “human experience. ———. 9.J. Haslanger. Hirschmann’s discussion of Foucault’s interview entitled. 6. 7. Mass. This view is defended as consistent with feminism by Haslanger (2000). N. All references to this book appear in the text simply as page numbers in parentheses. Sally. and sexual orientation differences among women. defend and participate in beauty pageants on the basis of careful. Hirschmann.