Robin Goodman's New Book Realigns Feminist Theory in Relation to the Public Sphere

The first line of Robin Goodman's new book, Feminist Theory in Pursuit of the Public: Women and the "Re-privatization" of Labor (Palgrave, 2010), succinctly states her argument: "feminism needs to devise a theory of the public." Goodman's elaboration of that starting point has reviewers praising her for "a theoretically rich and ambitious effort" and stating that Feminist Theory in Pursuit of the Public is "a stunning achievement."

David B. Downing, professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and editor of the journal Works and Days: Essays in the Socio-Historical Dimensions of Literature and the Arts, lauded Goodman with the latter accolade, and he calls Feminist Theory in Pursuit of the Public "a ground-breaking analysis of the complex, gendered relations between private and public domains.

"By refusing to collapse the distinction between private and public, Goodman develops a compelling new theory of a participatory public sphere revitalized by private autonomy and critique."

Ralph Berry, Chair of FSU's English Department, observes that the changing role of privacy in both mass democracies and global markets has always been Goodman's theme. "Two years ago Professor Goodman was singled out for FSU's Developing Scholar Award, given annually to only four faculty in the university, and a major reason for that recognition of her success was her extraordinary clarity and commitment."

At a time when the public sector is being dismantled, Goodman says, with attacks on public education, equitable taxation, public services, state-centered development, and the end of welfare, she thinks it is urgent for feminists to think how the public can still be vitalized. The public sphere has a long tradition within philosophies of liberal governance. Women have often represented both proof of liberalism's expansiveness and evidence of its failures. Now, with the public sphere at risk of obsolescence in the face of the powers of privatization, the public sphere needs to retool. Literature can be a part of that effort.

In her introduction, Goodman questions "why and how contemporary representations of femininity in literature, theory, and popular rhetoric make it seem incompatible with the public sphere." Ideologically, she writes, this "incompatibility of femininity and a politics of the public sphere is creating economic zones of regulative nonintervention, beyond state control, by symbolically relegating them as provinces of women's work."

Instead of losing its importance or its focus, Goodman argues that "feminist theory can unravel such representations to show how women's work can be realigned within a theory of the public."

"Not long ago, feminist theory was at the center of vibrant scholarly and political debates that bridged the humanities with the social and natural sciences while contributing critically important theoretical perspectives into social movements," Goodman says. Though feminist theory's centrality seems to be waning, she continues, “my book argues that feminist concerns are more pressing now than ever."

Alexander Means, in the department of Sociology and Equity Studies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, agrees. In his forthcoming review in Symplokē, he calls Feminist Theory in Pursuit of the Public "a theoretically rich and ambitious effort to rethink feminism and a feminist politics in relation to the public." Goodman, he writes, "presents a timely challenge to feminism as well as to cultural and literary studies to engage with the difficult work of reviving a language of political imagination, utopian thinking, and democratic agency."

Feminist Theory in Pursuit of the Public: Women and the "Re-privatization" of Labor is Goodman's fifth book and second to appear in the past year. Policing Narratives and the State of Terror (SUNY Press, 2009) examines the recent War on Terror through the lens of detective fiction.

Goodman is continuing to work on the intersections of feminist theory and Marxism.