Kant’s Conception of Citizenship and the Undervaluing of Domestic Labour

by Lily Elston-Leadbetter

Immanuel Kant’s Doctrine of Right advocates for an individual who can make a passive-to-active movement. This movement would see a ‘passive’ citizen shrugging off their master, gaining the ability to vote, and becoming civilly independent and politically active in society. However, the phenomenon of domestic labour casts a shadow over civil independence and reveals it as an illusion propped up by structural violence and oppression. Thinking through domestic labour in relation to Kant’s theory fundamentally brings into question the notion of citizenship, what it means to be free, and who has the privilege to be an individual. To understand the limitations of Kant’s account of citizenship, this essay will examine the position of women and undocumented workers with specific emphasis on their status as domestic labourers. I will first explain the difference between passive and active citizens, then I will explore Kant’s assertion that birth is not a limiting factor in citizenship, and finally, I will discuss the status of feminised labour to argue that citizenship today is still modelled off Kant’s exclusionary account.

Kant’s Doctrine of Right outlines an account of citizenship. All right as a universal principle proceeds from legislative authority, whose basis is the general will which “can do no wrong because there is no person that is external to it that can be wronged”.[i] Although the general will supposedly represents everybody, few are fit to contribute to it, and only “he who has the right to vote in this legislation is called a citizen”.[ii] The vast remainder are ‘passive citizens’ who have no civil personality. As Jacob Weinreb explains in his article “Kant on Citizenship and Universal Independence”, “passive citizens are neither in the state of nature nor in the rightful condition. They occupy a limbo in which they receive the protection of the rightful condition without being members of it”.[iii] For Kant, natural citizenship is restrictive and the “quality requisite to it, apart from the natural one… is only that of being one’s own master (sui iuris), hence having some property… that supports him”.[iv] Furthermore, the natural requisite for citizenship is defined rather explicitly by Kant as “not being a child or woman”[v] and for the remaining adult men, their eligibility is further restricted by Kant’s definition of property as “any art, craft, fine art, or science”.[vi] Jordan Pascoe in her article “Domestic Labor, Citizenship, and Exceptionalism: Rethinking Kant’s “Woman Problem”” identifies that the somewhat ill-defined distinction between passive and active citizens pivots on labour practices. She writes, “those who engage in forms of labor that require one to sell one’s time or one’s labor are dependent, while those who exchange the product of their labor for a price may qualify as independent”.[vii] Kant asserts that any passive citizen may become active once they achieve self-mastery; this feature of his philosophy is often used as proof that anyone can realise this possibility and is praised as a form of radical individualism that is indiscriminate.

Kant asserts that birth is not a limiting factor to citizenship, stating that “since [it] is not a deed of the one who is born, he cannot incur by it any inequality of rightful condition and any other subjection to coercive laws than merely that which is common to him along with all others”.[viii] The question remains open as to whether Kant considered gender to be an exception to this view. Surely Kant realised that the total exclusion of women cannot be realistically applied to his notion of innate right, because it would arguably delegitimise his political and moral philosophy which claims that every person possesses freedom “insofar as it can coexist with the freedom of every other in accordance with a universal law”.[ix] I argue that despite the supposed universality of human freedom, women remain totally excluded from the realm of natural citizenship in Kant’s theory. If Kant proposed women’s exclusion from citizenship due to their birth, then his own theory would be contradicted. Instead, Kant targeted a specifically gendered social position in order to justify the exclusion, which produces a similar effect since women during his time were predominantly dependent and propertyless. Even though Kant permits the citizenship of some women, for a woman can theoretically be a citizen if she sells products of her labour on the market, the majority of women remain inescapably dependent on their fathers or husbands. Thus, we see here that the exception proves the rule. Even though Kant admits the possibility of a free and independent woman, most women do not fit within this category and are instead part of the homogeneous group of domestic labourers and wandering blacksmiths, thereby belonging to a huge underclass of people considered unfit to be citizens. Despite not being citizens, this underclass must submit to the state’s laws, by which Kant graciously claims they are protected. One can identify the systemic violence in this construction, since it is based on the exclusion and binarisation of those who are active and those who are passive, suggesting that “a primitive part of the population [is] not yet mature enough to deserve full citizenship”.[x] Women as and alongside workers participate in a shared struggle which exhibits how, as Pascoe writes “Kant’s woman problem is in fact a class problem, one tied to the valuation of service and reproductive labor in the just state”.[xi] This can be explicitly seen in the type of labour that excludes workers from citizenship since it is explicitly propertyless wage-labouring workers who are deprived of the status of being citizens.

If we assume that Kant does intend to include women in that category of individuals who are capable of the passive-to-active movement, then we could arguably consider him a forerunner to liberal feminism. Liberal feminism tries to achieve equality through political and legal reform and has been criticised for its “commitments to the philosophical assumptions and developments of the liberal tradition”.[xii] Socialist and radical feminists, however, identify a deeper structural issue at work in gender inequality, “since access to freedom and justice is determined in large part by access to social and economic power”.[xiii] Therefore, any woman bound to domestic service, either in her own home or in someone else’s, who wants to achieve the status of a citizen through her labour will not succeed unless someone else assumes the work she is trying to abandon. This requires resources that few working-class families or individuals can spare. Evidently, Kant’s mythical independent woman may only exist in or come from a bourgeois household where she is afforded rare freedoms like property ownership or a career, which remain impossible to others. Contemporary liberal feminism, which has been accused of overlooking an essential class dimension in the pursuit of women’s liberation,[xiv] can be seen to develop from Kant’s account of citizenship.  Because the “Kantian story of independence… never suggested that all might work their way up”,[xv] I argue that the immense market of domestic labour must not be overlooked. It is important to recognise that while “reproductive labor is largely invisible and undercompensated, it will tend to be done by those with few other opportunities, for whom accepting a position of precarious dependency is the only way to make a living”.[xvi] Presently, many women may be considered active citizens, however, undocumented workers remain passive citizens in Kant’s sense. Much of the work offered to undocumented workers is in private households doing domestic labour. Most other work available to such individuals is explicitly feminised, for example; textile manufacturing, food manufacturing, and cleaning.[xvii] This type of precarious employment inevitably entails the selling of labour power in return for a wage. Thus, as Pascoe writes, “distinction between active and passive citizenship is not, then, a mere historical curiosity: it remains the case that domestic labor occurs, overwhelmingly, on a black (or grey) market, and that illegal and undocumented workers make up a significant percentage of domestic workers”.[xviii] Since Kant denied this type of work as a requisite for citizenship, and because it continues today, one can assume that the structure of citizenship is fundamentally based on this exclusion and that the legacy of oppressive structural violence remains alive and well today.

In this essay, I have shown how Kant’s exclusionary account of citizenship remains relevant today. Even if we consider Kant to theoretically allow for women or propertyless workers to make the passive-to-active movement towards citizenship, they nonetheless remain worse off because of their birth, which dictates their social position and therefore the status of their labour. This limitation on who has access to citizenship is a form of structural violence and has set a precedent for exclusion and exploitation today much as it did in Kant’s times.

Lily is a philosophy honours student currently focussing on Spinoza and Badiou. Her interest in European philosophy encouraged her to major in French and German, which led to a deep appreciation of languages. In the future, she hopes to study Mandarin.


[i] Jacob Weinrib, “Kant on Citizenship and Universal Independence,” Australian Journal of Legal Philosophy (2008): 9.

[ii] Immanuel Kant, Practical Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 295.

[iii] Weinrib, “Kant on Citizenship and Universal Independence,” 20.

[iv] Kant, Practical Philosophy, 295.

[v] Kant, Practical Philosophy, 295.

[vi] Kant, Practical Philosophy, 295.

[vii] Jordan Pascoe, “Domestic Labor, Citizenship, and Exceptionalism: Rethinking Kant’s “Woman Problem”,” Journal of Social Philosophy (2015): 344.

[viii] Kant, Practical Philosophy, 293.

[ix] Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 33.

[x] Slavoj Žižek, Violence (New York: Picador, 2008), 78.

[xi] Pascoe, “Domestic Labor, Citizenship, and Exceptionalism: Rethinking Kant’s “Woman Problem”,” 348.

[xii] Susan Wendell, “A (qualified) Defense of Liberal Feminism,” Hypatia (1987): 65-93, 66.

[xiii] Wendell, “A (qualified) Defense of Liberal Feminism,” 65-93, 87.

[xiv] Hazel T. Biana, “Extending bell hooks’ Feminist Theory,” Journal of International Women’s Studies (2020):13-29.

[xv] Jordan Pascoe, “Working Women and Monstrous Mothers: Kant, Marx, and the Valuation of Domestic Labour,” Kantian Review (2017): 611.

[xvi] Pascoe, “Domestic Labor, Citizenship, and Exceptionalism: Rethinking Kant’s “Woman Problem”,” 348.

[xvii] Octavio Blanco, “Immigrant Workers Are Most Likely To Have These Jobs,” March 16, 2017, https://money.cnn.com/2017/03/16/news/economy/immigrant-workers-jobs/index.html.

[xviii] Pascoe, “Domestic Labor, Citizenship, and Exceptionalism: Rethinking Kant’s “Woman Problem”,” 349.


Biana, Hazel T. “Extending bell hooks’ Feminist Theory.” Journal of International Women’s Studies (2020): 13-29.

Blanco, Octavio. “Immigrant workers are most likely to have these jobs.” March 16 2017. https://money.cnn.com/2017/03/16/news/economy/immigrant-workers-jobs/index.html.

Kant, Immanuel. Practical Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Kant, Immanuel. The Metaphysics of Morals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Moran, Kate. “Kant on Traveling Blacksmiths and Passive Citizenship.” Kant-Studien (2021): 105-126.

Pascoe, Jordan. “Domestic Labor, Citizenship, and Exceptionalism: Rethinking Kant’s “Woman Problem”.” Journal of Social Philosophy (2015): 340-356.

Pascoe, Jordan. “Working Women and Monstrous Mothers: Kant, Marx, and the Valuation of Domestic Labour.” Kantian Review (2017):599-618.

Storey, Ian. “Kant’s Dilemma and The Double Life of Citizenship.” Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice (2012): 65-88.

Weinrib, Jacob. “Kant on Citizenship and Universal Independence.” Australian Journal of Legal Philosophy (2008): 1-25.

Wendell, Susan. “A (qualified) Defense of Liberal Feminism.” Hypatia (1987): 65-93.

 Žižek, Slavoj. Violence. New York: Picador, 2008.

Featured photo by Adli Wahid on Unsplash


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