Neglected Book

Haag, Pamela, Consent: Sexual Rights and the Transformation of American Liberalism (1999).

This 1999 book went far too little noticed by the historians, legal theorists and political/ethical philosophers who should be influenced by it. Pamela Haag has deconstructed the liberal and legal notion of consent which governs, however imperfectly, our notion of free and mutual agreements. The argument partakes of the lineage of Marxian critiques which challenged the notion of a "free" contract when the contracting parties are not equal in economic, social, cultural circumstances. It then goes on to show "not only how sexual thought and subjectivity were modified by the American culture of liberalism, but how that liberal tradition--especially its shift from a classic to a modern form--was itself modified in part by charged discourses of intimate, sexual violation." (p. xix) By tracing legal contests about seduction, white slavery, arranged marriages and "interracial" relationships, Haag disrupts the neat opposition between consent and coercion. For example, early-19th-century seduction trials presumed women's non-consent on the assumption that no woman would voluntarily surrender to a man without a promise of marriage; an individual woman's behavior was not relevant. Seduction thus did not violate a private contract but created a public wrong. In the process of women's emancipation, her work asks, and the stripping away of such a sexual double standard, have our legal principles not lost the ability to comprehend women's continuing social, economic, cultural disabilities? Does not our liberal individualism ignore structural and subtle modes of coercion, in the name of recognizing women's personal freedom? Providing no answers, this book illustrates how our political/legal culture built presumptions of consent upon historically contingent and changing structures of power. Consent is perhaps the best historical work using feminist sexual theory yet published in the US.

Recommended by Linda Gordon, New York University

Linda Gordon is professor of history at NYU, where she teaches courses on gender in history and social movements among other topics. Her most recent book is The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction, winner of the Bancroft and Beveridge prizes.