Friday, January 25, 2008

How did I make a feminist reader ill?

When you look at feminism you discover that it is based largely on liberal autonomy theory - on the idea that the highest good in life is individual autonomy. That's why it's logical that feminists in the 1980s and 90s encouraged women to pursue the independent, single girl lifestyle; it explains too why feminists wish to collapse gender categories as these are unchosen and therefore "impede" the self-determining, autonomous individual.

But what happens when feminists become mothers? Is it still possible to promote individual autonomy as the highest good?

I wrote a post on this issue last month and found that feminist mothers underwent a significant change; despite still holding formally to an autonomist politics, they now considered the family to be a higher, outranking good than an absolute autonomy.

One feminist came across my post and declared at her own site that she "felt ill reading it". Curiously, though, her own outlook fits my analysis closely.

Does this feminist, stay at home mother still retain a formal allegiance to autonomy? I think this comment makes it clear that she does:

I refuse to define my Feminist Motherhood because as I learn about being a mother it is growing stronger and changing every day. I want my daughter to have a happy and successful life as an adult, which she will define individually. I will not confine my Feminist Motherhood by defining it.


This is quite a radical interpretation of the ideal of the self-defining individual. Even the act of attempting to define a category is held to be a possible impediment to our autonomy in fashioning our own self.

Our feminist contrasts her own non-defined motherhood with that of her mother:

That seems to be a big difference in "how things used to be". When talking to my own mother she seemed to have a concrete way of looking at what makes a good mom ... Hasn't feminism at least liberated us from that concrete vision?


So has family life had no effect on the politics of this particular feminist? Actually, it has. She writes:

And if we consider ourselves part of a family unit, won't we act in the best interest of it and not as an individual? My husband would love to be home with our child, but we decided that he will work to bring home a paycheck (for many reasons) and I will stay home. We made this decision TOGETHER not individually.


So now the family unit is being asserted as an important good, one which is certainly not inferior to that of individual autonomy. We are to consider ourselves not just individuals, but part of a family, and make decisions as part of a family unit and not just as an individual, and act in the interests of the family, and not just in the interests of our individual autonomy.

It would be very difficult to create a stable family life without effectively asserting the good of family life in this way. If individual autonomy remained the sole, overriding good, then it would be difficult to make commitments to or sacrifices for the family, or to see out difficult times, or not to pursue one's own perceived interests, even if these were harmful to your spouse or children.

Interestingly, the mother is emphasising something different for herself than for her daughter. She writes:

I want my daughter to have a happy and successful life as an adult, which she will define individually.


But of her own role in life she underlines the fact that:

We made this decision TOGETHER not individually.


Her daughter's life is to be defined individually; her own life in terms of the wider interests of the family.

The larger point, I think, is that it doesn't work to promote individual autonomy as the organising principle of society. Not only do you logically reach extreme positions, such as a rejection of any concrete notion of the good and a refusal to define important categories, it also becomes difficult to reconcile political principles with our real needs and interests as social beings.

This doesn't mean that autonomy is not a significant good. The task should be to balance a concern for autonomy with the conservation of other important goods, such as a stable family life.

11 comments:

  1. Interesting article. You always know you must be doing something right is a feminist feels ill when reading your blog!

    On the subject of feminism, I believe your blog refers to only one strand or variety of feminism, because there have been quite a few. That is, feminists have not been and are not a homogenous group. There have been radical feminists who have attempted to use Marxist theory to analyse gender relations, and who have usually promoted socialism. On the other end of the spectrum, you get those modern liberal feminists who just want women have to have the same rights and opportunities as men.


    I have observed that the more left-wing the feminist, the greater the hostility towards the family as a social unit. Some, such as Shulamith Firestone, have talked about the need for technology to liberate women from the task of childbirth.

    The feminist you quote seems to have real difficulty reconciling her feminism with her commitment to family. It appears that many feminists would struggle with the fact that they often naturally desire to stay at home to look after the child or children.

    One of the problems with ideology I guess.

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  2. Re: "On the other end of the spectrum, you get those modern liberal feminists who just want women have to have the same rights and opportunities as men."

    Nonsense.

    The reason why feminism is essentially destructive is because its world-view is gendered and hostile towards a social system that has permitted the wealth and security that women today all take for granted. Whether radical or not is not the issue any more than having a little bit of leprosy is "not as bad" as being infected to the bone.

    Re: "The feminist you quote seems to have real difficulty reconciling her feminism with her commitment to family. It appears that many feminists would struggle with the fact that they often naturally desire to stay at home to look after the child or children."

    Feminism is fundamentally based on autonomy theory, and as a result will always produce cognitive dissonance, among its moderate and most fanatical cohorts.

    It's only a question of degree.

    The principle and effect is the same.

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  3. Feminists often claim to be a disparate bunch, but in my own reading I've not found that to be the case.

    Both left and right-wing feminists aim primarily at autonomy.

    One significant difference is that right-wing feminists explain "inequality" as a product of its time which "progress" is destined to erase. Therefore, they don't take such a hostile view to men or to the historic institutions of society.

    Left-wing feminists in contrast explain "inequality" in systemic terms as a deliberate organisation of privilege by an oppressor class of men at the expense of victimised women.

    If a woman accepts the left-wing feminist view, then men are the enemy, and love and marriage are traps of oppression.

    So, yes, if you're a man the right-wing feminists will come across as friendlier and less anti-social, but they'll still understand politics in terms of obtaining an autonomy for women which they assume that men currently enjoy.

    In practice, this means aiming for an "equality" in which women do whatever men do in roughly the same numbers; it means assuming that society should be organised to encourage women to put careers first; it means, too, assuming that progress is the liberation of women from gender roles until the point is reached at which gender no longer matters.

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  4. Some feminists are not hostile to the traditional advantages women get. They want to keep them, but get all the benefits a man has as well.

    For example, as noted by someone on this blog previously, some women want the man still to support them financially, as traditionally was the case. But they also want to earn their own income, which is for them solely.

    Kilroy, you are correct in what you said about the "infection", but I don't see why that means Leon's point is incorrect. There are some women who have only a mild case of the disease, and it only affects their life slightly (some are even cured).

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  5. Gentlemen,

    Your comments have caused me to ponder on this issue, which I believe is quite complicated.

    Certainly it is true to say that feminism, in spite of its different forms, aims to make women have more autonomy than they used to.

    But is this necessarily a bad thing which comes at the expense of family? Margaret Thatcher had children before she went on to become England's first female Prime Minister. Having a family may require a temporary surrender autonomy, but once children grow up, they start becoming autonomous too. I recall that I was 16 I enjoyed going out without having to tell my parents whgere I was going and who I was going to see.

    Furthermore, I would argue that many women today suffer from a lack of autonomy. Many have what is known as "the Cinderella complex" where they expect to just fall into the arms of the perfect gent, and live happily ever after. Unfortunately, it dosen't work that way in reality.

    Others still let boyfriends control nearly ever aspect of their lives. I know one girl whose boyfriend has banned her from driving her own car! (hopefully she won't read this - she's coming over today too see my partner)

    On the other hand, I do see your point about autonomy being an ideology that can be promoted excessively. I once read Perfect Women, by Colette Dowling, who is not a typical feminist. She argues that women should not base their self-esteem on having a brilliant career, and that those who do often have high levels of insecurity and inadequacy.

    What I'm trying to say is that in my view its a question of balance. I don't believe that anyone should become completely dependent on others, but at the same time career isn't everything.

    I'm not sure how this sits with your views. To repeat, this is quite a complex issue, and I believe in a balance between dependence and independence - quite similar to what Stephen Covey would call "interdependence".

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  6. The life of Margaret Thatcher should not be used as an example of a feminist experience. She succeeded in life marvelously, was Britain's best PM after Churchill, and was against feminism.

    You are right that this is a matter of balance, but feminism is the thing that disturbs the gender equilibrium. There was a good article that touched on this and female dissent from feminism in one of last year's Quadrant magazines, unfortunately only the index entry of the article was put online; you'll have to find the hard-copy to read it.

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  7. Right liberal women, who want a career and a financially successful partner, seem to be forgetting that the more women there are in high status jobs, the fewer such jobs there will be left over for men.

    In contrast left liberal women, who aren't as materialistic, at least seem to appreciate that they may have to settle for a partner who makes a modest wage or perhaps makes less than they do.

    Furthermore, this workplace equality thing seems to be very elitist.

    There are a lot of manual jobs, such as plumbing, where there are very few women yet you don't see many feminists complaining about women being shut out of plumbing.

    Conversely, right liberal career woman are constantly complaining about the glass ceiling in the legal and financial professions.

    Perhaps the biggest irony about feminism though, is that despite being based on liberalism, it doesn't treat women as individuals.

    For example, some women clearly have what it takes to work in male dominated professions, but many don't and would be better off giving their family life priority.

    However, many naturally competitive women (Margaret Thatcher and Ann Coulter being classic examples)are criticised by feminists for being too masculine and not being authentic.

    Feminists obviously don't see women as real people with diffent sets of strengths and weaknesses but as laura-croft style superwomen who can be both super sensitive/ empathetic mothers and thick-skinned hyper-competitive amazons at the same time.

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  8. interesting site, though as an atheist, I can smell the under current of religion a mile of.. all "ism" are the same to me - just another form of mass control...

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  9. Lot of rather long posts there.

    To get back to some shorter ones.

    Karma, as this is a traditional conservative site, it is unlikely not to have a few Christian conservatives attracted to it.

    Traditional conservatives range from very religious people (like myself) to atheists who think the principles are useful, even if we are nutters.

    But religion is not the only thing to conservatism. Of course, if you just wrote to display your dislike for religion that is up to you.

    Leon, I agree.

    Interdependence is the key. We have only looked at one side of the coin. The lack of honour and duty amongst men is also a problem that could be examined.

    The family unit, which I believe is the core of traditional conservatism, is based on interdependence. Females and males should be doing what is best for the family unit (which includes themselves), not pursuing their personal interests to the exclusion of all else (whether that is career, or dominance of the other partner).

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  10. wpc, I decided to delete the long posts as they were all articles from elsewhere dropped into the comments section.

    Leon, I agree with you that a focus on interdependence is the way to go. It builds on the sense of complementarity between men and women.

    Also, you're right that a certain level of autonomy is healthy in a marriage.

    However .....

    When liberal moderns press for autonomy today they do so with a set of ideological assumptions.

    The assumptions are usually these:

    a) Our humanity is contingent on our ability to be "self-determined". In other words, we can be more or less human depending on the extent to which we fashion our own selves.

    b) Therefore, the task of politics is to ensure, as a matter of justice, that there is human equality.

    c) To be "equal" means that we are all able to the same extent to exercise autonomy, i.e. to enact our own will unimpeded in determining who we are and what we do.

    d) Hence politics often focuses on power relations, and on questions of the dominance of majorities etc.

    In this context, autonomy isn't going to be balanced with the preservation of other goods, such as marriage and family.

    It will be given primacy because it is thought to be what gives us our human status and is therefore the centrepoint of the modern way of understanding justice and equality.

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  11. Dear Mark,

    I broadly agree with you. I certainly don't like it how some feminists disparage the traditional family, and women's choice to belong to it. There is an irony in standing for women having choice and autonomy, but at the same time not respecting their choice of devoting themselves to traditional families. In a sense, such a choice is an extension of a woman's autonomy. I also believe that nuclear families are essential, and always will be.

    I will also note that in nuclear families, women do not necessaruily have to be the stay at home parent. In my family for instance, it was my dad who devoted himself to the domestic issues for many years whilst my mother worked.

    Shame abt the nutters that started spamming this thread, but I'm glad you deleted them :)

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