Reading Questions for Elshtain’s “Antigone’s Daughters”

Jean Elshtain is one of the better known political philosophers of her generation (she was also the main advisor to my own advisor in grad school, so she’s kind of my academic grandmother, if we wish to stick with family metaphors). Throughout most of her career, she has focused on issues in feminist theory, particularly regarding questions of gender roles as they relate to questions in political ethics. This, of course, is the central issue in this essay too. She is concerned about and critical of a particular strand in feminist theory that holds that the central task for feminist politics is to have women become fully assimilated into the practices and logics of the “public sphere,” particularly the state. Instead, she suggests that the character Antigone might model a more valuable form of political activity. So that is the central question for your reading: what kind of political engagement does Elshtain think Antigone models? Why does she think it is superior to the alternative conceptions of feminist politics that she analyzes?

  • Elshtain begins her essay with a collection of worries about the state. What are her concerns? List a few of them.
  • In the first section of the body of her piece (starting on p. 47), Elshtain describes a particular model of feminist thought. What are the main features of this model? What does this model think the goal(s) of feminist theory should be?
  • In her second section of the body of her essay, Elshtain describes a second model of feminist thought, what she calls “difference feminism” (the term “difference feminism” is fairly standard, by the way). According to Elsthain, what are the main features of difference feminism? What do theorists in this tradition think the goals of feminist action should be?
  • Elsthain calls her own model “social feminism” (not to be confused with “socialist feminism,” which is a whole other kettle of fish), and she uses Antigone as the model actor for this sort of feminist thinking. What are the features of social feminism? How does it differ from the other models? Given that its difference from the first model should be fairly apparent, how specifically does it differ from difference feminism?
  • To develop her conception of social feminism, Elshtain focuses on specific aspects of the play, “Antigone”? What parts does she focus on? What parts does she ignore? Are the parts of the play that would contradict the point she is trying to make?
  • And here’s the big question: if there are parts of the play that contradict Elshtain’s point, what does that do for her argument on behalf of social feminism? If she gets “Antigone” wrong (or that she misses crucial parts of the play) suggest that something is also wrong with her notion of social feminism?
  • Elshtain insists that social feminism (and “maternal thinking,” p. 58) offer a genuine alternative to the bureaucratic rationalism she associates with the state. What is her reasoning for this claim? How are the two forms of thinking different from one another, and how would a society oriented more toward maternal thinking be differently organized?

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