If nothing else, Sara Farris’s new book, In the Name of Women’s Rights, confirms Joan Scott’s insight that feminism “has only paradoxes to offer.” Of course, Farris’s book does more than this by considering how the discourse of “women’s rights” has been recruited in recent years by both populists and nationalists in Holland, France, and Italy to legitimate the exclusion of immigrants and asylum seekers (especially Muslim) as proper subjects for inclusion in the Dutch, French, or Italian nation. Needless to say, her inquiry illuminates numerous complexities about these current discourses by calling our attention to how the production and reproduction of gendered and racial differences operate as instruments (or to borrow Michel Foucault’s idiom, “instrument-effects”) of political, economic, legal, and sexual governance within contemporary western Europe.

Farris traces the specific contexts within which affirmations of women’s rights have been taken up and transformed by nationalist and populist positions in the service of promoting the exclusive inclusion of immigrant women (especially Muslim) as economic subjects whose labor remains essential to the material reproduction of national populations, even as their political and legal status nevertheless remains contested within—if not regarded as inimical to—the national formation itself. While the force of this analysis seems compelling, questions arise that Farris’s exclusively contemporary historical framing slightly obscures: Why has the discourse of “women’s rights” been so susceptible to this appropriation in the first place, and why has it been able to function so successfully?

In its response to such queries, Joan Scott’s Sex and Secularism provides a powerful genealogical frame for understanding the current western European conjuncture. Scott’s new book elucidates how and why transformations in the discourse of secularism since the eighteenth century have entailed not only the naturalization of gender inequality, but inaugurated a “new order of women’s subordination.” Tracing developments within the conceptualizations and practices of secularization over the past two and a half centuries, Scott reminds us that western European liberalisms remain embedded in a matrix of political-economic governance, whose founding precepts entailed a political philosophy of abstract personhood on the one hand, and an economic theory of liberal governance on the other.

Behind both these conceptual frames lies the seventeenth-century’s secular coup against the prevailing supposition, which had endured for the previous eight hundred years or so, that the locus of political, legal, and economic personhood resided in the eternal soul (Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, etc.). Instead, from the middle of the seventeenth century, “the body” begins to serve as both the place of legal personhood (for example, in the reaffirmation of habeas corpus) and the basis for economic subjectivity (for example, in the contractual elaborations of wage labor). Moreover, this secularizing move displaced the corresponding theopolitical assumption that the locus of political, legal, and economic temporality could be circumscribed within the eschatological horizon of the Holy Roman Empire, so that European nations themselves fall into a secular history that, as Michel Foucault remarks, is “now completely open and not temporally oriented towards a final unity.”

This secular matrix posits, as Talal Asad reminds us, that rather than leading us toward the eschaton, secular time remains homogeneous and unending, if not, strictly speaking, Newtonian.1 Indeed, while secularity and religion are often construed as contraries, it might be more accurate to understand secularity not just in relation to religion, but rather as a particularly human way of telling time, as well as a particularly Occidental way of making “life-time” tell us what it means to be humans. If nothing else, secularity involves plotting time in “this life,” increasingly without reference to an “after life.”

While Isaac Newton’s spatialization of time no doubt provided the template for this abstract and empty time, a significant requalification of secular temporality with respect to human life occurred in the mid-eighteenth century when homo sapiens first became a species among other species.2 Indeed, we might say that only with Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon—who first understood species not as a formal or God-given category, but as the sexual reproduction of individuals from one generation to the next—do humans become properly secular because “secular” (from the Latin saeculum) etymologically means a lifetime, a generation, or the average length of a human life. With this specifically secular definition of species, Buffon simultaneously translates Newton’s homogeneous time into natural history as the domain of generation (in the sense of sexual reproduction) and makes sexual reproduction into the temporal frame for the human species (before Buffon no one ever thought sex was “for” the perpetuation of the species). Concomitantly, sexual difference henceforth appears to provide the natural basis for sexual reproduction, and “secular life” grounds a new “natural”—i.e., historical and political—ontology of sexual difference.

This new secular ontology of sexual difference animated the emergence of what Foucault famously described as “biopolitics.” As Foucault argued, within the biopolitical regime—and indeed as its fulcrum—“[s]ex was a means of access both to the life of the body and the life of the species.” Yet, sex takes on this double life only insofar as, following Buffon, “the species” is construed as both the sexually-reproduced continuum of individuals and their spatiotemporal aggregation into “populations.” As a consequence, sex and sexual difference came to articulate life and time—or life-time—as the secular basis for biopolitical governance.3 From the middle of the eighteenth century onward, then, secularism presupposes the entanglement of what Foucault called “economic government”—or government by way of a “rationality of the atomistic behavior of homo economicus,” which in turn defines economics “as the essential element of a society’s life” (my emphasis)—and the government of populations—or government through the management and administration of human collectives as a state’s most vital assets.

Not surprisingly, this entanglement appears essential to the elucidation of capitalist political economy from its inception with Adam Smith. Smith was the first economic thinker to draw on Buffon’s notion of species, and his notion of the economy assumed its necessity as a quasinatural prosthetic to our “feeble and puny,” “tender and delicate” bodies, which he succinctly characterized as “the natural feebleness of [our] frames.” With Smith, we find the inception of the secular discourse that defines political economy as biology by other means.4

The economic apotheosis of this secular biologic appeared in Thomas Malthus’s Essay on Population (1799), when Malthus applied Newton’s calculus to Smith’s theory and established mathematical modeling as the gold standard for economics. In the Essay, Malthus reckoned time as the dimension within which food supply and population coincide and collide, such that the secular homogeneous time imagined by Newton came increasingly to characterize the vital time of population driven by those insatiable species imperatives: food and sex. Henceforth, these inflections of secular discourse toward the biopolitical underwrite the temporality of liberal government insofar as it governs by “policy,” where policy names the privileged secular form of governance.5 They also underwrite the secular temporality of capitalism by naturalizing the life-time we quantify and remunerate as wage labor.

When Charles Darwin took up Malthus’s secular biologic as the basis for his theory of evolution, he completed the movement from eschatology to evolution. Following Darwin, sexual reproduction of individuals through time constituted the natural basis for speciation, especially for our species. Thus, when Darwin sought to convince his readers that evolution applies to humans as well as other animals in The Descent of Man, he did so by assuming the foundational and irreducible role of sexual difference in both natural and sexual selection. Since Darwin, sexual difference has animated the secular discourse of species as an instrument-effect: it produces the very difference upon which secular discourse “naturally” relies.

While the cultural manifestations of sexual difference have shifted since the late nineteenth century, the logic that sustains them remains biologically inscribed within the species as a human universal. Indeed, this enduring biologic subtends all contemporary policy discourses that rely on populations—and especially national populations—as the relevant datasets upon which their analyses depend, even if such policy decisions supposedly incline toward “feminist” ends. As a result, policy embeds the secular biologic of species, along with the “special differences” (“special” being the adjectival form of species, of course) between male and female that it presupposes, into the very technologies of governance upon which it relies. That the relation between feminism and policy only has “paradoxes to offer,” then, does not come as a big surprise.

In Scott’s work, these paradoxes unfold from the complications of liberalism as sets of political-economic discourses that incorporate what Richard Lewontin famously described as the “ideology of biological determinism” in order to contain the contradictions that liberalism manifests. Supplementing this discourse of secular governance, the policy work of biopolitics provides an evolutionary anchor for the assumption that sexual difference makes us who we are, and hence increases the tensions between a feminism that seeks to undo the gender binary as a cultural and historical inflection of biological processes and a feminism that relies on it to make claims in the name of women’s “special difference.”

In this context, the emergence of what Farris calls “femonationalism” indeed makes sense. At the most simplistic level, if the changes that Western feminism has affected in European mappings of sexual difference can be construed as not just historical but evolutionary transformations, then other cultural matrices of sexual difference can be disdained as atavistic. In other words, the secular discourse of speciation provides a quasinatural ground for evaluating the contemporary contours of sexual difference and for asserting that some are more “culturally-evolved” than others.

However, the biopolitical incorporation of sexual difference provides an even more powerful glue for the unholy alliance of feminism and nationalism and populism. By assuming sexual difference as a special difference, as a species difference, femonationalism presumes that feminism’s paradoxical nature is not paradoxical at all, but rather strictly natural. It can therefore use the cultural imperatives expressed as “women’s rights” against the category of women that it invokes—because rights are political and not natural privileges. Indeed, the very notion of such privilege is the rock on which the ship of liberalism founders. As Farris and Scott help us to understand, then, the slippage within the liberal discourse of rights provides opportunities for those who would turn such rights claims against some women in the name of others. And, while I am sure it would give Scott no pleasure to know this, these books remind us that feminism still has only paradoxes to offer.


  1. On eschatology, see Jacob Taubes. Occidental Eschatology. Trans. David Ratmoko. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.

  2. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Routledge, 1989 [1970]. 136-179.

  3. On lived time as the unit of labor and punishment, see Michel Foucault. The Punitive Society. Lectures at the College de France 1972-3. Trans. Graham Burchell. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. 61-81.

  4. This discourse also finds its way into republican thinking with the French Declaration of the Right of Man and Citizen’s affirmation of birth not merely as natality but as the vital condition of citizenship.

  5. On the transition from “police” to “policy,” especially in relation to “mediziniche Polizei” in the second half of the eighteenth century, see Michel Foucault. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France 1977-1978. Trans. Graham Burchell.  New York: Palgrave, 2007. 311-362. Not coincidentally, Malthus’s Essay effectively determined the link between the political and economic thinking that we now call policy by convincing the English Prime Minister to abandon plans to reform the poor laws.