Skip to main content
Unpublished Paper
Liberalism Unsettled: Freedom and Status in the Promise of Marriage
ExpressO (2012)
  • Anat Rosenberg
This paper examines the tension between freedom and subjection under liberalism; but, rather than emphasize either side of the binary, my aim is to articulate the terms of duality, and provide an account of the social life of liberal thought. To do so, I revisit the nineteenth-century promise of marriage. The promise of marriage represented a conceptual fusion of the liberal ideals of contract and sentiment, central to rise of the free market and the conjugal family, and of the counterforces of status – particularly gender and class. While the former marshaled the hope of free will as a new basis for the social order, subjection lurked in the latter. The fusion threw the hopes and tensions of the liberal hypothetical into sharp relief, and turned the promise of marriage into a central cultural locus for Victorians. I rely on an interdisciplinary reading of the promise’s fortunes in contract law and canonic novels to examine the terms on which liberalism engaged with status. The examination reveals two historical strategies. One was containment: considerations of status were contained within the conceptual liberal frameworks of sentiment and contract, and, in consequence, reduced in magnitude. A second was withdrawal: the application of the liberal framework was bordered and limited, but the delimitation was construed as inconsequential, because liberalism retained relevance in areas conceptualized as the core of social relations. Contra familiar accounts, which treat the opposition between liberal ideals and status in terms of mutual exclusion, and take the persistence of status to mean that liberalism has been a (partially) failed hope or a form of apologetics for power, containment and withdrawal tell a more complex story. The liberal rejection of status did not entail an attempted elimination but rather a new interpretation of status’s legitimate workings within social relations; status, while part of the social order, even a welcomed one, could no longer be either explanation or end of social relations, except at the margins.
Publication Date
February 29, 2012
Citation Information
Anat Rosenberg. "Liberalism Unsettled: Freedom and Status in the Promise of Marriage" ExpressO (2012)
Available at: