Political Science Now

Meet 2017 ACLS Fellowship Program Recipient Nancy J. Hirschmann

The ACLS Fellowship Program awards fellowships to individual scholars working in the humanities and related social sciences. Institutions and individuals contribute to the ACLS Fellowship Program and its endowment, including The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Council’s college and university Associates, and former Fellows and individual friends of ACLS.

Former Vice-President of the American Political Science Association, Nancy Hirschmann, is a professor of political science and director of the program on Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies and the Alice Paul Center for Research on Gender, Sexuality and Women at the University of Pennsylvania. She works in the history of political thought, analytical philosophy, feminist theory, and the intersection of political theory and public policy. Her book Gender, Class, and Freedom in Modern Political Theory (Princeton University Press, 2008) considers the concept of freedom as it developed in the canon of political thought from the 17th to 19th centuries and examines how issues of gender and class affected the dominant conceptions of freedom. She won the 2004 Victoria Schuck Award from the APSA for The Subject of Liberty: Toward a Feminist Theory of Freedom.

Can you tell us more about your research project?

Hirschmann: When leading disability historian Paul Longmore famously burned his first book in front of a federal building in Los Angles in 1988 because the royalties from its sale would have put his income over the maximum limit for Social Security Disability Insurance eligibility, threatening his ability to pay for aides to assist him with dressing and other daily activities, a story of systematic unfairness was revealed. But this story also presented a radical challenge to the constraints imposed on disabled Americans’ freedom. The relationship of disability to the idea of freedom is complicated in a philosophical, social and political sense, but it has not been attended to, in favor of arguments about justice and rights. Freedom, Power, and Disability explores what freedom means from a disability perspective, ranging from what counts as an obstacle or barrier, to how desires are constructed, produced, and expressed, to the role of the body in the formation of the will. These questions are considered by examining political theories of freedom from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first, and concrete experiences of disability written by disability scholars in a wide range of disciplines, from English to history to psychology and bioethics: what disability means, how it is lived and experienced, and what sorts of imaginings are made possible by the “differences” posed by disabled bodies.

What are your next steps and plans for your research?

Hirschmann: I have already published a number of articles on disability and freedom in the history of political theory as well as in contemporary thought, and I have written other parts of the argument; I will need to organize these articles into a coherent narrative of book chapters, and to flesh out a number of aspects of the argument. I also have a concluding chapter on disability and the environment that I need to write. In the fall, which I will spend at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina, I will finish the research I need to conduct and start pulling the chapters together. In the spring I will be a Fernand Braudel Senior Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, where I plan to focus on writing. In both places, there will be many new colleagues from different fields, and I expect that new ideas and arguments will occur to me during the year as a result of my interactions with them—that happened to me when I was working on The Subject of Liberty at the Institute for Advanced Study, and a whole new chapter resulted from that. I’m eager to finish this book, but I’m also curious to see what new ideas and perspectives might pop up.

How will the ACLS Fellowship help you accomplish those steps?

Hirschmann: Combined with these other fellowships, it is enabling me to take a full year sabbatical to focus on the book. A “portable” fellowship like the ACLS is getting harder and harder to find, and this is a very valuable resource for political theorists. We often get emails from APSA about NSF, but ACLS and NEH are more important to many other segments of the discipline and we need to keep that in mind when we engage in political agitation, or even when we consider what charitable contributions to make.

You’re also affiliated with the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Program at UPenn. How does interdisciplinary research and teaching impact your work?

Hirschmann: Being Director of the GSWS Program at Penn has been a wonderful experience. Feminist scholarship has really led the way in interdisciplinary research in political science, and it always informs my work. My book on disability may appear to have a less direct relationship to feminism and gender than, say, my books The Subject of Liberty or Gender Class and Freedom in Modern Political Theory, but feminist approaches have been instrumental to my ability to access works by scholars of English and history as well as political theory’s sister discipline, philosophy. In fact, I have argued in Politics and Gender that “disability is the new gender.” Certainly disability studies was made possible in part by the amazing work that feminist scholars have done in the area of feminist disability theory and philosophy. And just as political science was decades behind English, history, anthropology and sociology in accepting gender as a legitimate category for analysis, we are now decades behind these other disciplines in understanding how important disability is to political science. I hope my book makes a contribution to that understanding.

What advice do you have for junior political science researchers? Both about funding opportunities and in general?

Hirschmann: I am worried about the tendency of colleagues to encourage their students to ask smaller and more precise questions and focus on the methodology. We need to go back to asking bigger questions, and let the methodology follow the question. So I would encourage my junior colleagues and graduate students to think about what the important big questions are, and to tackle those. As to funding opportunities, unfortunately the majority of opportunities for scholars in my own field are residential, and many of us are not able to relocate our families for a year. With threats to NEH and NSF, this may be even more of a problem in the future. But I would advise younger scholars not to assume that these residential fellowships are out of reach or impossible to manage. In particular, rethinking gender roles can help reimagine work-family balance

Read more about Nancy Hirschmann’s research.