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Professor talks on women’s rights

Meghan Thomassen | Friday, September 21, 2012

Eileen Hunt Botting presented a section of her current book, “Wollstonecraft, Mill and Women’s Human Rights,” on Thursday at the Hesburgh Center for International Studies.

Botting, a Kroc Institute Fellow and associate political science professor at Notre Dame, delved into the philosophies of John Stuart Mill and Mary Wollstonecraft and their concepts of universal human rights.

Botting said Wollstonecraft thought human creatures were equally subject to a universal and rational moral law regardless of sex.

“Such abstract arguments are a critical tool for alleging how [women’s human rights] ought to be specified and realized in law and policy,” she said. “Non-western cultures animated by religions, such as Islam and Hinduism, seek to incorporate the language of women’s human rights into their systems of religious and political beliefs.”

Botting said Mill’s approach is the most influential, both negatively and positively, in politics today.

“[Mill’s approach] has produced a global idiom for arguing women’s rights in universalistic terms that do not necessarily privilege any particular religion,” she said. “[But it doesn’t] necessarily address the cultural preference of many humans for their religious beliefs to resonate with their principled, political conception of the equal dignity of human beings.”    

In her book, Botting asked whether Mill’s or Wollstonecroft’s approach would fare better in alleging women’s human rights for current issues, such as polygamy.

“The issue of polygamy is a serious test of the practical application of these approaches, since it has been controversial in a variety of cultures since Wollstonecraft’s time,” she said.

Wollstonecraft supported a concept of marriage that treated women as ends, not as means, Botting said.

“[Wollstonecraft saw marriage as] primarily a relationship between equal moral beings,” Botting said. “She argued marriage is a perfectionist friendship. Polygamy might be permissible if marriage was supposed to be a business or corporate contract. [A perfectionist friendship] involves a mirroring and a mutual inspiration of the higher virtues in one another.”

On the other hand, Botting said, Mill’s approach could be perceived as culturally indifferent.

“If violations of female self-sovereignty are tracked and verified, then the monitoring Millian reformer faces a predicament,” she said. “Alleging women’s human rights on value-laden, naturalistic grounds, that may seem culturally insensitive. Ideally, this instigation would stir a local community to discussion of their own practice of polygamy.”

Contact Meghan Thomassen at mthomass@nd.edu