‘Disempowered by Nature’: Spinoza on The Political Capabilities of Women

British Journal for the History of Philosophy 12/2011; 19(6):1085-1106. DOI: 10.1080/09608788.2011.624704

ABSTRACT This paper examines Spinoza's remarks on women in the Political Treatise in the context of his views in the Ethics about human community and similitude. Although these remarks appear to exclude women from democratic participation on the basis of essential incapacities, I aim to show that Spinoza intended these remarks not as true statements, but as prompts for critical consideration of the place of women in the progressive democratic polity. In common with other scholars, I argue that women, in Spinoza's system, are deprived of freedom and political participation not by their essential natures, but by their social and historical circumstances. I differ from other scholars, however, in basing this conclusion on the different critical functions of the Political Treatise and the Ethics. Following that critical comparison, I consider Spinoza's views on the `natural right' of women and their equal capacity for political participation in terms of his arguments for the compositional similarity of men and women. Finally, I argue that Spinoza offers an explanation for women's actual disempowerment through his account of economic dependence within marriage.