Document Type


Publication Title

Columbia Journal of Gender and Law

Publication Date



In this essay, I revisit and expand an argument I have made with respect to the limited usefulness of liberalism in defining an agenda for guaranteeing women's rights and improving women's conditions. After laying out this case, I discuss Martha Nussbaum's capabilities approach to fundamental rights and human development and acknowledge that her approach addresses to a significant degree many of the objections I and other feminist scholars have raised. I then turn to fieldwork that I have done in South Africa on the issue of custom and women's choices with regard to marriage and divorce. Applying Professor Nussbaum's capabilities approach in this setting, I speculate as to the types of regulatory schemes that would be either demanded or tolerated by her approach. In the final part of the essay, I suggest that the capabilities approach offers a powerful means of specifying the preconditions for women's exercise of autonomy within the liberal state but that it proves somewhat less useful as a guide to policy choices under conditions that fall far short of this ideal.