Sibyl A. Schwarzenbach


On her book On Civic Friendship: Including Women in the State

Cover Interview of December 07, 2009

The wide angle

Despite the major transformation of consciousness occasioned by the 20th century women’s movement, and on a scale that suggests powerful historical forces are at work, the modern political state is amongst the last and certainly among the most powerful of institutions that needs not only to be transformed, but in the first instance reconceived.

This nation-state has the dubious distinction of being perhaps the most “male” of all our institutions.  Particularly in the United States, the state persists in signifying raw physical power and the monopoly of organized force (as Max Weber viewed it) and it continues to possess the power to legislate laws with the penalty of death (John Locke’s definition).  So too, the state’s primary functions are still conceived in terms of the male roles of “protection” against both external enemies (a powerful military and preparedness for war) as well as internal foes (a strong police and internal security force, extensive prison system, etc.) coupled with the regulation and policing of economic competition (production and finance).

These crucial and central functions are reflected in the individual duties expected of “the citizen”—the duties of soldier in times of war, and of producer and taxpayer in times of peace, with occasional voting and jury duty thrown in.  None of these roles was traditionally a woman’s.  And thus, not surprisingly, for the vast majority of the history of the political state, both ancient and modern, over half of the population characteristically remained “passive,” residing outside of the political state narrowly conceived.

Even in recent years, the tendency of feminist political theorists has been towards exploring the realm of “civil society” and those many private associations, social movements, and forms of public communication that constitute it.  This tendency to focus on civil society, however—and the propensity to view it as the primary locus of liberation—runs the risk of leaving the powerful state largely unattended and its nature only marginally placed into question.

My own aim is to expose the heavily biased and gendered foundations of the modern political state, in order to help transform this powerful and deadly apparatus into something else—an institution more fundamentally in the service of human and other needs, and with a primary duty of furthering relations of friendship among citizens, and, internationally, among states.