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  Avital H. Bloch

“What’s Love Got To Do With It” [1]:

Contemporary Feminist Legal Theory and Its Cultural Critique of  Liberalism

Avital H. Bloch is Research Professor at the Center for Social Research, University of Colima, Mexico. She is Director of the U.S. Studies Program and co-ordinator of the M.A. in History. She has written widely on contemporary American women and on the intellectual history of the post-war era and the 1960s. E-mail:


Scholars of women and gender studies during the last two decades have understood contemporary feminist thought as inseparable from the recent directions in cultural and critical theory. In the United States, such approach, which criticizes the liberalism as an ideological set based on universal ideas of the Enlightenment, resulted in a debate between feminists and liberals about the meanings of liberties, rights, and justice in current societies. An important contribution to the debate has been Drucilla Cornell, a scholar of law, political science, and women's studies. Her 1998 book by, At the Heart of Freedom: Feminism, Sex, and Equality is the last contribution in her series of works on feminist jurisprudence published throughout the1990s.[2]

Cornell addresses the realities of law, culture, social structure, and politics by tying together philosophy, legal studies, and gender thinking. She has approached the relationship between feminism and law in a contemporary fashion by focusing on the issues of deconstruction and justice, feminist culture and theory, and postmodern theory of ethics. In this theoretical set, especially as it relates to gender, she anchors political philosophy and legal thought. Her intention to follow her own dictate: "To give symbolic form to what is being claimed in actuality is part of the role of ideals in political philosophy."[3] Not only Cornell proposes a feminist theory of rights, and through it also a set of legal reforms and hope for social change. She also proves there is a fundamental element that must be included in their design: basic human emotions.

Cornell calls the core concept of freedom that tie together all her work the "imaginary domain." This principle rests on "The freedom to create ourselves as sexed beings, as feelings and reasoning persons, lies at the heart of the ideal that is the imaginary domain."[4] She had first developed this term in her previous book from 1995, The Imaginary Domain. It offered the principle of the imaginary domain as an answer to three problems that haunt the relationship between sex and equality and with which feminism has been struggling for the last decades: abortion, pornography, and sexual harassment. In the Heart of Freedom contributes more topics to the discussion of feminist politics, no less controversial, and, in some aspects, even broader. Work, adoption, family, parenthood, and prostitution in the United states, and human rights in postcolonial and non-Western countries, are treated as gender issues that affect a wide range of people's lives and to which, therefore, the law and feminist politics must give satisfactory answers.

The author's mission is to analyze gender issues without falling into the obstacles formal equality feminism has encountered. She argues with liberal feminists about their expectations to eliminate all differences between men and women in order to achieve legal equality. This quarrel with the equal rights feminist movement is not new in academic feminism. Cornell, for example, echoes historian Joan W. Scott's discussion on the history of French feminism in Only Paradoxes to Offer.[5] Scott emphasizes the constant contradictions feminists stumbled on in their long battle to reconcile sexual differences and universal equality for women as citizens. In Cornell's opinion as well, feminists have failed to consider crucial differences between women--sexual, racial, economic, national, religious. Attempts to claim equality with men, to whom citizenship has been attached, cause injustice for women when they do not fit into the male ideal.

Moreover, such feminism essentializes men according to a certain image. Here Cornell refers to the educated, professional, middle-class feminists of her generation. Since the 1970s they have aspired to equalize rights with men, as they have known and perceived them: of the same social class and cultural orientation. Other women, however, have been left out. To integrate all women into an equal right justice system requires an articulation of a new definition of gender differences, one that permits more than the simple biological differences between men and women to be considered. It should respond to situation feminists have ignored, which is "the reality that 'hearts' continue to starve."[6] What must be added to feminist liberalism is the notion of persons as sexed creatures. This idea, which takes into account the matters of the heart, should be the source for the understanding of gender and difference and on it any discussion of rights must be based. The book's title, At the Heart of Freedom, indeed conveys the idea that what the feminist theory of rights is missing is the protection of what is elaborated at the imaginary domain.

The imaginary domain is the space where the emotional, imaginative, spiritual, and aesthetic self is expressed and recreated. In this site we imagine ourselves as "sexuate beings" turned toward particular objects of desire. Through the sexuate expression we claim ourselves as our own persons. In this space a complete sense of identity is found and intimate life is determined. Cornell draws from psychoanalytical thought to emphasize how the body and the libido are projected in the imaginary domain. She counts not only on psychoanalytic works of Freud and Lacan, but also on neurologist Oliver Sacks and feminist scholar Nancy Chodorow.[7] They show the importance of the body's image, integrity, senses, and libidinal delights, and how, by projecting the body, the individual comes out to the world. At any point of time since infancy, the way we orient ourselves as sexuate beings dictates how we feel, think, and behave. The imaginary domain is as much a site for aesthetic expression. Cornell borrows from female writers such as bell hooks and Virginia Woolf to illustrate the necessity of such space as it is analogous to Woolf's image of the "room of one's own."[8] It means a locus where, through narration and resymbolization, a woman claims her own person as independent of men.[9]

The attempt to accommodate liberal feminism to differences involves the endeavor to adjust liberalism to contemporary postmodernist thought. Thus Cornell utilizes recent concepts that problematize gender identification beyond the previous liberal-modernist binary definitions. In the articulation of the imaginary domain, she replaces themes of permanent entities, clear boundaries, and imposed meanings for thoughts about constant instability, multiplication, and fluidity. In perceiving the process that takes place in the imaginary domain as a process of becoming, Cornell echoes other gender theorists. She refers to gender theorist Judith Butler's Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter, but she also shares ideas with Scott and feminist political philosopher Seyla Benhabib.[10] They approach sexual and gender identification as a narrative, an unfixed process and a journey with endless possible results. Identities are created and re-produced by reflecting each other just as they mirror the dominant "normative" system and its ideological construction. Through the "sexual imago" of the body and psyche people can define themselves anew--not only historicized by context, but also based on their free aspirations. Gender entity, therefore, can no longer be seen as stable or as simply bound to two biological sexes. In this regard, like Butler does, Cornell critiques the Belgian-French philosopher Luce Irigaray, whose work she otherwise cites favorably.[11] Cornell questions Irigaray's distinction only between two sexes and her perception of women as the only persons who are dismissed by the dominant masculine normative regime. Butler and Cornell agree that Irigaray fails to recognize differences among women, to see the exclusion of non-heterosexual positions, and to acknowledge an endless variety of identities and practices.

Since Cornell conceives the imaginary domain as a fundamental part of identity formation and what enables them "to share in life's glories", protecting it is a matter of moral and legal right in any society that calls itself liberal.[12] It cannot be displaced even if other rights are already gained and its freedom must be included in any gender thought about freedom. Through the ideal of the freedom of the imaginary domain as a gender concept Cornell actually accommodates the American liberal tradition of "pursuit of happiness" to gender and sexuality. She reinforces gender and sexual equality in the liberal system as a matter of moral and legal right. Her project is to engender political philosophy altogether, adapting it to the requirements not only of rights for women's but also for all sexual identities--gays and lesbians--who are ignored by the legal system and the mainstream culture.

The first target in this project is the philosophy of Emmanuel Kant. His principles have been central for Cornell, but she tries to adapt his Enlightenment philosophy to the contemporary multicultural reality.[13] From Kant she adopts the concept of right as the source of representation of sexuate differences, but Kantianism does not include rights for women as free and equal persons and rules out their membership in the moral community of persons. In as much as Kant has inspired American liberal philosopher John Rawls, with whom she basically agrees, Cornell seeks to adapt Rawls's A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism to feminism.[14] Women must be recognized as free persons and sexuate beings. Cornell points to the right of people to claim equality and freedom to exercise their imaginary domain and live as sexuate beings the way they chose. She urges us "to 'see' that there is a prior moral space of evaluation of the entities" in moral procedures, even before any egalitarian theory is agreed upon.[15] According to this notion, women are persons as an initial matter. They should not lose the freedom attached to this status because of the choices they make. As free persons initially, women must not be automatically seen as heterosexual males and thus able to claim only rights given to heterosexual men. Theory of rights ought to allow them to be evaluated for their sexuate differences from man, and among themselves, as expressed in the process of the imaginary domain, and yet as equal persons. In regard to the adaptation of the law to sexuality and gender, Irigaray influences Cornell. Irigaray requires that the law acknowledges the existence of two sexes and guarantees women's rights and civil identity as a sexed identity that is different of men's.[16] But since Cornell recognizes more possible identities her concept of rights embraces them as well.

The emphasis on women as persons and members of the moral community of persons is crucial. Being recognized as a free person implies that a woman represents herself. As initially free, a woman is not granted with rights, but rather claims them as hers. Not being defined as a free person means being represented by men--as the patriarchal system dictates--and thus the denial of a woman's right to represent her imaginary domain. Cornell insists that this negation is not a small matter since that limits the ways she can claim herself in society. When her sexual existence is not in her hands she becomes "socially dead."[17] The same applies to lesbians and gay males. Under the heterosexual patriarchy they suffer lack of legal recognition as they are not thought of as free men and are not self-represented. Cornell's fundamental argument for rights, therefore, is summed in the following sentences: "We need to be recognized as the source of our own evaluations and representations of how we are to live out our sexuality. In this way the imaginary domain is consistent with the priority that political liberalism gives to liberty."[18] The way people wish to represent their sexuate being cannot be used to deny them rights. Moreover, expressions of the imaginary domain may not be dictated or encouraged by the state or the law.

Patriarchy is inconsistent with the ideal of the sanctuary of the imaginary domain, and Cornell's theory constitutes the foundations of an anti-patriarchal project. Taking such decisions away from the state and the law implies overcoming the patriarchal order's male heterosexual ideology and what it imposes through the state. But the purpose of the freedom of the imaginary domain is also to prevent any other ideology about sexuality to be enforced. Cornell insists that the right of a person cannot depend upon any opinion about what the nature of being a woman or being a homosexual might be. Her theory "does not seek to make law the main vehicle for restructuring the current meaning of our sexual difference."[19] Legal solutions for justice must be separated from disagreements about the characteristics of differences. The state must not dictate or privilege any self-representation of intimate life and the institutions based on it. 

Perhaps even more than Rawls, the legal scholar Ronald Dworkin has been a significant source for Cornell. Dworkin's ideas about equality provide her with the ethical justification for the protection of the imaginary domain: each person is unique and has an intrinsic value. Each is uniquely responsible for his or her life, values, and conscience, including the decisions about life as a sexuate being. The freedom of the imaginary domain is ethically anchored in the notion freedom of conscience, where we claim ourselves as a source of what is good. His liberal "discontinuity thesis" about the separation of the right from the good demands that an individual's concept of the good can be claimed as a right but can not be imposed on others.

Like Dworkin, Cornell is careful to distinguish between individualism and the uniqueness of the individual as source of values. Both reject individualism as a freedom that is omnipotent and detached from reality. Here, again, one can identify gender theorists' understanding of experience and identity as constantly historicized. Shaping differences of ethical judgement--and the freedom that allows the process--is a personal process that is anchored in and is relational to available ideologies, politics, and values. The advantage of placing the individual conscience process in a contested social and political environment is that vulnerability of individuals in that personal route is acknowledged and so their omnipotence is reduced. Cornell believes that ideological competition over the judgments of representations of the imaginary domain will support the right of representation itself to be more effectively maintained. For a theorist who aims at anchoring her theory in pragmatism and social responsibility, this is a significant point. It reinforces her call to conduct the debates about sexual values out of the legal system, while insisting that the system itself guarantee the rights for all to not only take part in the debates but express their sexuate being regardless of agreement upon its value.

Indeed, as social notions, conscience and the freedom of the imaginary domain must not imply privacy. Cornell meets with difficulties liberal feminists' reliance on privacy ever since the Supreme Courts established privacy rights for sexual freedom in the cases of Griswold (1965), regarding the use of contraceptives and Roe v. Wade (1973), regarding abortion. Cornell departs from the privacy argument, proposing to separate privacy from the protection of the imaginary domain. She argues that self-representation of the sexuate being has goals beyond the boundaries of the private. Precisely because the imaginary domain is based in conscience and is personality-defining and primary for people's happiness, it must be allowed and tolerated in the public space, just like any other conscientious expression. For people who live openly with their choices to be left alone by society is not even an option in some matters of the sexuate being, such as parenting, pregnancy, and, as Cornell argued in her previous book, abortion. Those activities and conditions require social support and public access to information and services.[20] But the right for the pursuit of happiness implies inclusion in the community and the legal system not only of heterosexual women, but also lesbians and gays and women who deviate from the imagined ascribed designs. They have the right as well to express the aspects of their private lives in public without suffering loss of legal rights and social dismissal.

Significantly, Cornell brings back to feminism the New Left´s ideal from the 1960s--the private as the political-- in its broad sense. She politicizes the private when she states that persons' private domain requires public recognition, protection, and support. This implies shifting the struggle for equal rights--to gain what society owes all its members on the communal level in order to maintain happy private life--once again to the political arena. We may also understand the political significance Cornell gives to the publicization of the private sphere as knowledge about certain options and categories of the sexuate being hitherto despised and silenced. In a recent polemical exchange, Cornell discusses the importance of the realm of "publicness" as taken from Kant's "sensus communis aestheticus." Within this realm people articulate their subjective aesthetic judgements and reflect them to one another in a shared community. The public domain is important precisely because the subjective of the imaginary domain is created in this sphere. The communication about the subjective that takes place in public illuminates the opinion of others and in an endless process brings about actual changes in law and eventually determines the nature of the community.[21] Scott explains the process, which Cornell describes as knowledge, based on visualization that is gained in the public domain. Once people see hidden experiences of desire and they apprehend them not as naturalized but as re-created and related to the context we all live in, then legitimacy and emancipation of the Others may be gained.[22]

The book first examines prostitution as an illustration of the problematic of the private and the public in their relationship with the imaginary domain. Cornell proceeds from the controversy in the feminist movement in the 1970s over whether to regulate, legalize, unionize, or ban prostitution. Although the controversy has currently lost it urgency for feminists, for Cornell it is a subject that can be successfully used to formulate her arguments about the imaginary domain. Discussing prostitution's morality is especially useful because the topic touches on controversial images about men, women, and sex. Moreover, if her argument functions for the freedom of women whom the culture normally disdains, it can be easy applied to others.

Consistent with the book's main statement, Cornell locates the heart of the issue in the prostitute as a person. Historical studies of prostitution in the United States and Europe, which Cornell uses, demonstrate that prostitutes, more than other women in patriarchal society, have been represented by men, controlled by the state, and excluded from the moral community of persons. Cornell believes that despite what seems as the violation of their body integrity, prostitutes are initially persons who possess the right to represent their imaginary domain as sexuate beings in their occupation. It is their right, not the right of the state, to decide what prostitution really means to them and how it serves them in their own lives. Based on the ideal of the freedom of the imaginary domain, it is these women's right to articulate their own meaning of prostitution, including the experience and the identity related to it. Those may differ from the definitions of immorality and self-destruction society usually assign to the profession.

By looking closer at prostitutes' lives, Cornell discovers the possibility that in their work they may re-create their bodily integrity and identity-following a history of child sexual abuse, for example--regaining a  "primordial sense of self."[23] Although seen as "public women," such process of abstraction through the re-imagination of their sexual being in their work is at the same time personal, and thus moral. Therefore, prostitutes must not be excluded from the moral community of persons, nor their work prohibited. In promoting the legal recognition and moral justification of prostitution, Cornell situates herself with scholars who have begun transforming the views on prostitution, looking at the prostitute as an agent, worker, and a woman who performs "emotional labor".[24]

In fusing the public and the private realms of self-representation of gender and sexuality, Cornell helps to break down the paradigm of the "separation of spheres," which gender scholars have used in recent decades. She rethinks another paradigm that has been even more anchored in gender politics and scholarship, which is the distinction between naturally inscribed and culturally constructed gender differences. Patriarchal ideologies determine "natural" and essentialist differences and force female permanent identities, but Cornell also observes the incapacity of contemporary feminism to successfully address the problem. It either universalizes differences-as is the case with "difference feminism"--or ignores them for the sake of formal equal rights.

Cornell seeks a way to amend the Second Wave feminists. According to her, they have been reluctant to accept female anatomy as women's destiny, preferring theories of social and cultural construction of gender and formal equal rights based upon them. At the same time, she challenges the difference feminists, represented by such scholars as psychologist Carol Gilligan and philosopher Sara Ruddick, who value women's special biological and psychological attributes.[25] Commenting on the dilemma of the alleged contradiction, Irigaray explained how the binaries of body and meaning are part of the "phallogocentric economy" that regulates sexuality. Butler's response is to approach the materiality of sex and body not as oppositional to discourse, but as simultaneous to it. Sexual differences operate in the material body and through its formulation as an inscriptional space. In line with their conception of the inseparability of biology and meaning, Cornell pronounces the imaginary domain as precisely the site for the signification of the body.

While she debates with feminist politics and thought, Cornell argues more with male philosophers who have not taken gender sufficiently, or at all, into account. By addressing their arguments, she demonstrates the possibility of reconciling nature and rights. In regard to the question whether inequalities that result from nature should be included in a theory of justice, Cornell criticizes Thomas Nagel. She rejects his notion that there are natural limits on women that might eventually be acknowledged as unsurpassable, and therefore society has to consider them as beyond the reach of justice. Cornell realizes the disadvantages of biological difference for females, but she will not give in to the argument of nature as to accept Nagel's view of woman as priori unequal to men.

Cornell prefers Rawls's philosophy because he accepts woman's equal status to men as an initial matter and prior to any attempt to change the causes of inequality. But she adds to Rawls the principle of "equivalent evaluation" of biological differences. It means accepting natural differences in the way the imaginary domain processes their representation in a form of choices. Society is required to maintain rights and provide goods that enable to maintain the freedom of people's sexuate being along with the differences that occur with it. If women as biologically different are recognized as free persons initially, in practical terms of law and policy, they can demand legislation that begins not with an end to inequality, but legislation that aims at bringing them closer in practice to the initial equality with men.

In Cornell 's approach, what is evaluated as differences is subject to open, pluralistic, and free political contest. In treating differences the legal system should rely on evaluations only after they have been selected through public debates, rather than the courts and the law dictating them with no sufficient social acceptance. Liberal publicness is the locus for the processing political ideas, meaning that the courts cannot replace public debates and politics to bring about change. In this view, and throughout the book, one can sense the influence of philosophical pragmatism on Cornell. Cornell tries to reach beyond moral philosophy and adjust it to the more extreme pragmatist school of "law and economics" in legal studies, most accented by the legal thinker Richard Posner.[26] Cornell is more in line with postmodernist neo-pragmatism, than with his pragmatism, but she also rejects transcendental truths. She believes that the law has to take into consideration realities of life and politics to functionally resolve questions of justice. Nevertheless, she searches for answers in ethics so as to prevent exactly those damages to the imaginary domain that might be caused by pragmatic interests of society.

To illustrate how the idea of equivalent evaluation may serve as a solution to the deficiencies of formal equal rights feminism, At the Heart of Freedom discusses the issue of female reproductive capacity and equality in the workplace. Cornell draws on the Supreme Court case of Johnson Controls (1990), which revolved around sterilization as company policy. It required sterilization for women of childbearing age as a condition for keeping their high-salaried job in the company battery production facility, because they were hazardously exposed to lead. Cornell supports the Court's resolution that the practice was discriminating: The company could not decide for the women that reproduction was more important to them than their economic power. The Court expected women to be responsible for their sexuate lives and their freedom to reject motherhood despite the dominant expectations based on perceptions about women's natural differences. Exercising the notion of equivalent evaluation of difference means not only accepting woman's free choices about her imaginary domain without harming her equal rights because of an alternative she chooses-either pregnancy or her decision against it. It also requires reforms accommodating the workplace to such choices.

Cornell's conviction about the importance of freedom for intimate matters brings her to a discussion on the family. Current family laws demonstrate that the "gender trouble" is not merely a woman's trouble. It is created when people--women or men, at the mainstream or at the margins of society--are not given the free space to exercise the imaginary domain. It is true for prostitution, an institution despised by the dominant moral system, as it is true for the family, the institution which American society struggles to preserve. In regard to the family, Cornell identifies the basic issue in the way motherhood is perceived. According to the author, when the imaginary domain is given its freedom, gender is fluid enough to shift away from the ordinary reference to women as mothers, a role the state and patriarchal conventions assign only to females. Here, Cornell draws on Irigaray in her conclusion that society idealizes women as mothers and nurturers that it does not even permit them to process themselves their own female identity. In Cornell's vocabulary this identification deprives women of the freedom to process the experience of motherhood in their imaginary domain and disallows them to arrive at any conclusions about their sexuate identity that might contradict those society ascribes.

The book challenges fixed definitions of gender and family roles and criticizes family law that is subject to dominant ideologies. Cornell answer is far-reaching changes in the structure of the family. Following Martha Fineman's radical suggestions to destroy the marital model for the family, Cornell also advocates non-traditional families.[27] In such families roles will be defined minimally by the law, and will not be limited to biological parenting or even to intimate association between the parents. That means that persons outside of the wife-mother definition will be legally and publicly accepted as parents. No longer privileging either a specific gender or genetic relations, mothering is entirely redefined.

In fact, Cornell has no patience for the preference of the ordinary mother-child metaphor, which she considers psychoanalytically a myth, since the goal is the eventual separation between mother and child. Moreover, reducing the significance of progeny for parenting in the heterosexual culture, she advocates the possibility of parenting by more than one mother or not by women at all. For lesbian couples, the book defends the legal adoption by one woman of the child her partner bore without the biological mother losing her rights as a mother. Not privileging biological gender, gay men and couples must also enjoy equal legal rights as adoptive parents. Furthermore, not benefiting the sexual aspects for parenting either, Cornell proposes custody of children and parental responsibility that may be separated from the sexual couple. People with various sexual preferences must be able to organize their sexuality and love relations and keep the legal right of family association in any type of marriage or domestic partnership. The state cannot enforce any form of family as the good family nor prefer the heterosexual and monogamous nuclear family. We should be able to imagine "brave new families."[28]

An entire chapter of At the Heart of Freedom is dedicated to criticism of what is known as the "fathers' movement" and its polemic against new gender and family ideals. Cornell is especially critical with the groups' wish to force back the role of the father according to the traditional image of the "good family men." Threatened by feminism and driven to protect heterosexuality and the place of men as a sperm and sexual source in a conventional family, they want to restore the rigid gender division if they are to fulfil the father's role.[29] According to Cornell, the movement is not about men playing an active role in children's life. Their program reflects unhappiness with the freedom of the imaginary domain of others, and is a disguise of patriarchy.

Again, like other matters of intimate life, the solution to making men's positive role in the family possible may not be found in legislation. Loyal to the idea that "love cannot be legislated," Cornell proposes to provide men with a non-patriarchal alternative vision of masculinity, which they may process in their imaginary domain.[30] This can be achieved through the Lacanian insight about the separation of the child from the mother and the imposed identification with the father in the patriarchal society. Later, the boy-man is subordinated by father's substitutions, which constantly threatens his masculinity and is a constant source to his anxiety. If feminists introduce to men the idea of the re-creation of identities in the free imaginary domain, males may be able to resolve their anxiety in the existing patriarchal gender structure precisely by revolting against it. As alternative cultural options are offered, they are added to the broad context of the existing free market place of ideologies, where the re-imagined sexuate being is made.

At last, Cornell shifts the focus from the United States to postcolonial societies and developing countries. Cornell deals with the question of the validity of the imaginary domain as a Western liberal principle for a universal feminist human rights agenda to be applied in places where traditionalists try to re-establish patriarchal hierarchies. The ultimate reason for her discussion of the imaginary domain lies in its wider applicability. But the appreciation of postcolonial theory in the academic environment may also urge Cornell to engage in the discussion of the hegemony on liberal philosophy. It is not surprising that Benhabib also explores the same question. They connect feminist theory to the global, exploring a concept of identity that would respond to women's movements in the world and address their concern about both the future and the past of their societies.[31]

For that undertaking Cornell relies on Rawls's demand for liberal tolerance toward certain nonliberal notions. In what he calls "overlapping consensus," Rawls pragmatically suggests that all nations would accept basic norms of human rights that are universal for all of them, without the need to agree on their philosophical or theological justification. Cornell adds the missing gender and postcolonial dimensions. Rather than universal formal equality, which is especially difficult to achieve in patriarchal postcolonial communities, she includes in Rawls's design the equivalent evaluation of female sexual difference. The evaluation would be based on specific norms of each society and on political contest in them. The practice of genital mutilation, for example, is inconsistent with the equivalent evaluation for women because of the gravity of the bodily harm, but in Cornell's opinion even the abolition of this procedure should be left for the women in those societies to fight for. She is aware, therefore, of patriarchal norms that might be internationally acceptable but insists on a certain minimum. The least is for women, lesbians, and gays to be permitted equal and fearless participation in the political debates so they can advance their interpretation of the imaginary domain.

Cornell relies upon Algerian writer Frantz Fanon for help in justifying and hoping for change toward recognition of more equality in postcolonial nations. Fanon saw national liberation struggle not as a return to the pre-colonial culture but rather as a cultural process in which the decolonized people reimagine the nation.[32] This parallels the process that takes place in the imaginary domain as Cornell articulates it for individuals. She claims that freedom struggles in those countries include the ideal of freedom of sexuate being to women, gays, and lesbians.

As much as the imaginary domain is not totalitarian, neither it is "a bad utopian ideal."[33] If the problem is to make equal rights pragmatically acceptable for people who fear to risk the cohesiveness of their postcolonial communities, Cornell acknowledges that the idea of rights should be inspired by indigenous sources rather than by subjective Western liberalism. Supporting her claim that sympathetic notions of equality can be deployed in a consensus, she uses the example of Surinam female activists who adopt ideas from their Creole spirituality. At the Heart of Freedom, however, does not offer a solution where traditions lack appropriate sources to support rights so as to initiate Fanon's reimagination journey. It is not clear how change can be expected other than by political struggles to at least win the hearts and minds of "reasonable people" regarding the necessity to expand the freedom of the imaginary domain.[34]

Cornell believes that, especially by including Dworkin's "discontinuity thesis," the freedom of the imaginary domain becomes an advantageous model for the purpose of promoting human rights in postcolonial societies. What makes it basically right in democratic United States is also what makes it suitable elsewhere. Even when its pragmatic minimalism is exercised it still reflects an aspiration to rights and equality as central in politics. The freedom of the imaginary domain implies public recognition of differences but which does not necessarily endorse or enforce any alternative forms of sexuate being as better and does not force anyone to change. And lastly, this freedom also allows what Benhabib requires from feminism: "the capacity to generate meaning over time so as to hold past, present and future together.[35]

What makes Cornell’s articulations important is that the imaginary domain, defined by the relationship between body and psyche for all human beings, facilitates a broader universalistic feminist thinking. Cornell presents ways in which women can overcome differences among themselves--sexual, cultural, religious, and national--through something that resembles a universal identity of the female but that overcomes gender essentialism. Indeed, At the Heart of Freedom reveals a new preoccupation with universality after a period in which scholars, obeying postmodernism's dictates, have been focusing on fragmentation. Cornell demonstrates a universalistic capacity of postmodernism and, especially, respect for the universal in feminism, joining Benhabib in viewing the significance of collective empowerment of women's political agency. [36]

As the "imaginary domain feminism" has room in it to accommodate all aspects of differences among sexuate beings, feminism's universality is extended to become an idea that also embraces all men. As such, feminism can offer answers to broader questions of rights and freedoms in society, not merely to those involving women. What specifically stand out are the responses the imaginary domain and its theory of justice give to issues that arise to non-heterosexual men and women. As she addresses problems that go beyond the ordinarily known gender differences, Cornell connects feminism with persons who are neither women nor heterosexuals. The political implication of that may be an alliance among women, lesbians, and gays, with a significant scholarly extension of a stronger link between gender theory and queer theory. Offering such vision as genuine universal liberalism, asserting that love is never a “second hand emotion,” is the vocation of the feminist theorist.[37]




[1] This is the title of a Tina Turner’s song. “What’s Love Got To do With It,” lyrics by Terry Britten, Private Dancer, Capitol Records, 1984.

[2] Other books by Drucilla Cornell that deal with gender are: and The Imaginary Domain: Abortion, Pornography, and Sexual Harassment (New York and London: Routledge, 1995); Transformations: Recollective Imagination and Sexual Difference (New York and London, : Routledge, 1993); Beyond Accommodation: Ethical Feminism, Deconstruction, and the Law (New York and London: Routledge, 1991)

[3] Cornell, At the Heart of Freedom: Feminism, Sex, and Equality (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998), 178.

[4] Cornell, At the Heart of Freedom, ix.

[5] Joan Wallach Scott, Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man  (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996).

[6] Cornell, At the Heart of Freedom, ix.

[7] Jacques Lacan, Escris: A Selection (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1977); Oliver Sacks, "The Disembodied Lady," in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tale  (New York: Summit Books, 1970); Nancy Chodorow, Femininities, Masculinities, Sexualities: Freud and Beyond  (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1994).

[8] bell hooks, Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood  (New York: Henry Holt, 1996); Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own  (London: Harcourt Brace, 1929).

[9] Seyla Benhabib looks at the construction of identity as a continuous process of narration. She attaches it to the conversing psychoanalytical process, in which telling and retelling the subconscious and its subtext in the present result in unsettling but a new understanding of the self. This is analogous to what takes place in the imaginary domain as Cornell explores it. See Seyla Benhabib, "Sexual Difference and Collective Identities: The New Global Constellation," Signs  24 (Winter 1999), 349-350.

[10] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity  (New York and London: Routledge, 1990) and Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex"  (New York and London: Routledge, 1993). Cornell had collaborated with Butler and Benhabib. See Seyla Benhabib, Judith Butler, Drucilla Cornell, and Nancy Fraser, Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange  (New York and London: Routledge, 1995).

[11] Luce Irigaray, Thinking the Difference: For a Peaceful Revolution (New York and London: Routledge, 1994).

[12] Cornell, At the Heart of Freedom, x.

[13] See also Drucilla Cornell, "Enlightening the Enlightenment: A Response to John Brenkman," Critical Theory  26 (Autumn 1999), 128-139.

[14] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), and Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

[15] Cornell, At the Heart of Freedom, 15.

[16] Luce Irigaray, I Love to You: Sketch of a Possible Felicity in History (New York and London: Routledge, 1994).

[17] Cornell, At the Heart of Freedom, 21.

[18] Cornell, At the Heart of Freedom, 19.

[19] Cornell, At the Heart of Freedom, 23.

[20] Benhabib also emphasizes the responsibility of the community to sustain the individual similarly to what is required in psychoanalysis. For a successful process, the fragile patient needs the analyst's support, while working to re-establish the boundaries of his or her identity. See Benhabib, "Sexual Difference and Collective Identities," 350.

[21] Cornell, "Enlightening the Enlightenment," 129-131.

[22] Joan w. Scott, "The Evidence of Experience," Critical Inquiry 17 (Summer 1991), 773-797.

[23] Cornell, At the Heart of Freedom, 54.

[24] See, for example, Wendy Chapkis, Live Sex Acts: women Performing Erotic Labor (New York and London: Routledge, 1997).

[25] Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989); Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982).

[26] See Richard A. Posner, The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).

[27] Martha Fineman, The Neutered Mother, the Sexual Family, and Other Twentieth-Century Tragedies (New York and London: Routledge, 1995).

[28] Cornell, At the Heart of Freedom,128.

[29] Cornell relies on David Blankenhorn, Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem (New York: Basic Books, 1995).

[30] Cornell, At the Heart of Freedom,150.

[31] Benhabib, "Sexual Difference," 335-361.

[32] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1963). Later Cornell uses Fanon's conditioning universality with the ending of colonial rule in order in order to correct Kant's notion of the immaturity of non-Western societies. See Cornell, "Enlightening the Enlightenment," 136-139.

[33] Cornell, At the Heart of Freedom,174.

[34] Cornell, At the Heart of Freedom,175.

[35] Benhabib, "Sexual Difference," 353.

[36] Benhabib, "Sexual Difference," 354-356. Benhabib quotes Naomi Schor on the universalistic feminist interest. See Schor, "French Feminism Is a Universalism," Differences 7 (1), 15-47.

[37] The song line in Turner’s song is: “What’s Love But Second Hand Emotions.”  See, “What’s Love Got To do With It”


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