Thursday, May 17, 2007

Women & coercive autonomy

A recent research project conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) found that:

Australian parents seem comfortable in traditional gender roles - mother as the primary caring role and the father the breadwinning role - at least while their children are of preschool age.


The AIFS is the official government body charged with research on the family. It reports directly to the minister responsible for family affairs.

The AIFS report found further that:

Almost all the mothers reported that when they first had children, they arranged to stay home with the children as primary carer, perhaps returning to work on a part-time basis when the children were old enough to be left in the care of others ...

Eventually, though, many mothers reported that there is a point where their partners begin to talk to them about returning to work and the advantages of additional income for the family budget.


So women are choosing to stay at home until their husbands talk to them about returning to work to help with the family finances.

What's even more significant is that,

A focus on breadwinning rather than childrearing by fathers was not seen by mothers as a lack of participation in fatherhood, but reflected their role as a good father.

In the eyes of mothers who strongly believed that small children needed their mothers to be at home with them all of the time, a partner who 'worked hard' and was a 'good provider' enabled them to stay home and fulfill this crucial mothering role - and in their eyes fulfill a crucial aspect of fatherhood.


Compare this traditional view with the following "Mother's Day" story from the Melbourne Age:

Monday May 14 2007 'Punished' for having children

Rights chief renews push for paid maternity leave.

Australia's human rights chief says women are being 'punished' in the workplace ... Renewing a bid for paid maternity leave to be put on the Federal Government's agenda, the president of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, John von Doussa, said failure to set up a universal scheme was 'unfortunate policy' and plainly wrong ...

"Women are getting punished for the simple fact that they, genetically, are those with the function to produce the next generation ... Why should they suffer the penalty?"

The remarks come as up to 60 women's groups prepare to meet in Melbourne next month to build momentum on the issue.

[Mr Von Doussa} said a more comprehensive plan was needed ... to secure better female participation in the workforce.


So the situation appears to be this. The information arm of the state is reporting that women want to care for their young children themselves and that they wish to be supported by a hard-working husband to do so. The human rights arm of the state, though, is advocating something quite different: that what counts is women's workforce participation rate, and that women should be funded by paid maternity schemes to care for their children.

What can explain the discrepancy? I believe it comes down to the liberal idea that what matters most is individual autonomy. We are human, in this theory, because we are creatures capable of self-determination. Therefore, the aim of politics is to ensure that we aren't impeded in our life choices, but can act as autonomous agents in creating our self-identity, in establishing our values and in pursuing our life aims.

The problem with autonomy theory is that it would only work coherently in practice if people really did choose autonomy as their highest good. People, though, generally don't view autonomy as a sole, overriding good in their lives. Therefore, there is a conflict within the theory.

For instance, the theory would work coherently if women were both unimpeded in choosing their identities, values and life aims, and if they then chose to maximise their autonomy by seeking financial independence through careers and bureaucratic paid maternity schemes.

But this is not what women are choosing. Women are identifying and prioritising goods other than autonomy; they might, for instance, in wanting to be supported by a husband, be valuing the love and commitment expressed through the husband's provider role; or the masculine role modelling this provides for their sons; or they might value the anchor such a role provides for their husbands, brothers and sons in terms of family and career commitments.

So the liberal theory in practice has an internal contradiction. Autonomy is supposed to lead to women choosing their own life aims, but autonomy is also supposed to lead to women living a maximally autonomous life. When women choose to sacrifice a degree of autonomy in the service of some higher good, then the two principles can't easily be combined.

The reality is that, over time, a liberal society enforces the "maximally autonomous life" principle, even if this means coercively limiting the "choose your own life" principle of autonomy. Hence, it's likely that a liberal state will implement paid maternity schemes in the service of independent female careerism, rather than allow women to follow their preference of taking the motherhood role itself as the organising principle and being supported financially by a husband rather than by public paid maternity schemes.

The result might be termed "coercive autonomy". We lose the chance to choose the very things that are most important to us and which we hold to be the higher goods and all in the name of autonomy.

7 comments:

  1. "Autonomy is supposed to lead to women choosing their own life aims, but autonomy is also supposed to lead to women living a maximally autonomous life. When women choose to sacrifice a degree of autonomy in the service of some higher good, then the two principles can't easily be combined."

    This is only true if an extra constraint is added: that to be "fully autonomous" the woman must disdain all choices -- the heart of autonomy -- that don't bend in the left-liberal's favored direction. Otherwise, the sole "problem" here is that women's preponderant preferences aren't pleasing the gender-war feminists and left-liberals. It's certainly not a problem for the choice-exercisers themselves.

    It might be a political problem for Australia, though, if that paid-maternity-leave bit gets enacted.

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  2. Francis, you're right that it's not a problem for the women themselves. They would happily choose to follow the traditional path.

    For a serious liberal, though, it is a problem. If you believe that we are human because of our status as an autonomous agent, and if being an independent careerist is identified as representing autonomy, then for women to be less careerist than men, and less financially independent, means that they aren't equally human - it is a serious breach of "human equality".

    Therefore, it's very likely that liberals will opt to "liberate" women from the motherhood role, even if this means transgressing their own principle of "choose your own life / state neutrality" autonomy.

    Again, in practice making autonomy the sole, overriding good by which things are measured doesn't work coherently. It becomes coercive in a way it's not supposed to.

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  3. This might be a good time to raise a further question.

    If autonomy doesn't work well as the organising principle of society, then what kind of alternative is there?

    I think part of the conservative answer would be as follows.

    First, our humanity shouldn't be thought of as contingent. In other words, our status as humans doesn't rest on our achieving any kind of political or ideological outcome.

    Second, there is unlikely to be any single "good" which can be used as an organising principle. Instead, it's more helpful to think of a "balance of goods".

    Autonomy should really be thought to work within such a balance of goods, rather than acting alone as the organising principle of society.

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  4. "Women are getting punished for the simple fact that they, genetically, are those with the function to produce the next generation ... Why should they suffer the penalty?"

    This is just another feminist push to, not only give women further concessions, but to also further avail them of responsibility for a personal‘choice’ – which is something they fought very hard for in the women’s movement. One cannot simply cry foul when a choice results in a consequence. (ie. Having a baby will put women out of commission for a long while)

    Women already have won their ‘right’ to choose an abortion. Now they want a further extension of that choice. That is, even if you cannot (financially, mentally or otherwise) cope with having a child - not only can you chose to NOT take responsibility for your child by aborting it, but now they want to NOT take responsibility for their child by having taxpayers taking care of it?

    Why are people even entertaining this as a sensible societal model? It’s a ridiculous blow to society’s progress (morally & financially).

    Are we that afraid or consumed by feminism that we would abandon all reason & forethought?

    Unbelievable.

    Bobby.N

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  5. Parenthetically, the feminist's belief that:

    "Women are getting punished for the simple fact that they, genetically, are those with the function to produce the next generation ... Why should they suffer the penalty?"

    Still bespeaks the undercurrent that modern women associate children, family & marriage as something that they are 'burdened' with.

    Bobby.N

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  6. One issue is that the higher taxes which result from comprehensively implemented exercises in social engineering (for examples see Sweden and other EU countries) actually reduces real choices.

    If a couple simply can't afford to raise children on one salary the mother has to work.

    I don't believe this is accidental. It is a long held tennet of feminist/left-liberal belief that the family is oppressive and should be weakened and eventually destroyed. Removing an Australian womans choice to be a full time mother would, as it has in other countries, be a big step in that weakening process.

    Peter_W

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  7. It's not really about autonomy as such. It's autonomy in the service of destroying the traditional West. There's a malice in all of it.

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