Key Thinkers: Iris Marion Young (1949–2006)

Key Thinkers: Iris Marion Young (1949–2006)



Iris Young was born in New York. After the death of her father, she and her siblings were placed in foster care when the state judged her mother to be guilty of child neglect. She achieved her BA at Queens College and went on to earn an MA and PhD in Philosophy at Pennsylvania State University in 1974. She also taught at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Miami University. The University of Chicago was where she ended her academic career before her untimely death from cancer at the age of 57.

Her early experiences in foster care impacted her work. The bureaucratic welfare state left an indelible mark on Young, and she later referred back to their treatment of her mother in her writings: although the state branded Young’s mother neglectful, her main fault in her daughter’s analysis was failing to clean house to the standards of welfare officers. This experience was telling: the state expected Young’s mother to step easily back into the role of a housekeeper after her spouse’s sudden death. Young’s mother was not “acceptable” in this regard, and the state intervened. Young incorporated these experiences into her assessments of gendered roles prescribed for family life and family labor in North American society.

Young and her peers were part of the first large wave of women scholars in Philosophy or Political Science, and this affected the way that Young experienced academe. Her work on phenomenology and the body was telling, as she incorporated personal stories and theoretical analysis.



Young was known for her work as a feminist political scientist on theories of justice. During her academic career she attended scholarly events across the globe—she had a deep impact on conversations about democratization, justice, and terrorism.

Her 1980 essay “Throwing Like a Girl” examined the differing ways that girls and boys take up space. Young used phenomenologist philosophy to examine how we read the movements of girls and boys differently and how women use their bodies in the world, musing, “Typically, we lack an entire trust in our bodies to carry us to our aims...produc[ing] in many women a greater or lesser feeling of incapacity, frustration and self-consciousness.” The essay later became a groundbreaking book.

Young was also well-known for her works about democracy and government. Her model, originally in the 1992 book Rethinking Power, of the “Five Faces of Oppression”—exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural domination, and violence—has been used to explain authoritarian government’s actions and abuses. These analyses were instrumental to a new understanding of the connections between political theory, government action, and relationships between individuals.

(1990) is her most famous book. She noted that “rights are relationships, not things…” (25). Understanding the complicated and varied relationships between the state and its subjects is important to understanding the political theory of social rights and its practice. She argued for bringing a social justice lens to political theory and action. Young’s work was instrumental to a new multifaceted approach to the philosophy of justice. Part of this move to thinking about difference was Young’s insistence that people experience their lives differently based on their social location.  It is not enough to examine the distribution of social goods; we also need to examine social structure and other cultural norms. She understood that existing inequality influences how justice is enacted.

Young moved from her Socialist Feminist roots to assess post-structuralism and other theoretical ideologies. She appreciated cosmopolitanism—the ideal of a global political community. Her later work responded to masculinist theories of the state, continuing a discourse with the works of, for instance, Carole Pateman. She asked important questions of existing theory and at the same time offered answers—new ways of thinking about concepts like freedom, democracy, justice, violence, and oppression.

Young responded to the post-9/11 security regime critically, noting how its internal story—“a  security state that wages war abroad and expects loyalty and obedience at home”—dovetails with inherently sexist policies meant to protect but that in fact perpetuate domination (Young, 2003). She could move with ease between an examination of the nineteen-year action at Greenham Common and the current American political zeitgeist.

Young’s contributions to the study of social justice, phenomenology, democracy, and terrorism are vast; however, one theme is prevalent throughout most of her work—using a feminist lens to examine justice in different contexts.


Further Reading

Ferguson, Ann and Nagle Mechthild, eds. Dancing with Iris: The Philosophy of Iris Marion Young. Oxford, 2009.

Young, Iris Marion. Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, 1990. New edition, 2011.

Young, Iris Marion. “The Logic of Masculinist Protection: Reflections on the Current Security State’ Signs, 29:1, 1–25, 2003.

Young, Iris Marion. “ Throwing like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality.” Human Studies Vol. 3, No. 2,137–156, Apr 1980.

Young, Iris Marion. “Five Faces of Oppression.” Rethinking Power, SUNY Press, 1992.Pateman, Carole and Charles Mills. Contract & Domination. Polity, 2007.

King, Gary, Kay Lehman Schlozman and Norman H. Nie. The Future of Political Science: 100 Perspectives. Routledge, NY, 2009

Pateman, Carole. Participation and Democratic Theory. Cambridge University Press, 1970.

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