Oppression, lies, and the dream of autonomy.

Author:Scales-Trent, Judy
Position:Response to article by Kathryn Abrams in this issue, p. 805

As I understand it, Professor Abrams wants to explore the relationship between modern feminist theories of women's agency and "the liberal norm of autonomy."(1) What are these feminist theories? How might they transform theories about autonomy? I find this entire analysis problematic because the underlying feminist theory, as Abrams explains it, is not sound.

According to Abrams, women's lives are marked by constraints that make it difficult for them to exercise autonomy. She gives two reasons for this:

(1) The forces of the social construction of gender, which "may impose greater constraints or produce less desirable characteristics among women ... [and] may make it difficult to distinguish one's own norms from those [of others.]"(2)

(2) Women are "integrally connected to others, through relations of dependence and of dominance."(3) The needs of those who are dependent on them, therefore, often "supplant" the choices and opportunities of the caregiver.(4) A woman in such relationships, "may have little sense of making the rules to which she is subject."(5) Also, for the caregiver in the family, "it is complicated to distinguish one's own norms from those arising from the repeated performance of this activity, or from strong social norms that structure the consciousness of girls and women in this society."(6)

Abrams summarizes in this way:

Women's lives, according to feminist theory, are marked by constraints that make it difficult for them to exercise the kinds of autonomy described in liberal theory. The relationships of dependence and dominance that are paradigmatic for many women constrain their ability to achieve moral independence or even, in many cases, to experience the values that structure their daily lives as their own.(7) Thus, according to Abrams, although perhaps there is such a creature as an autonomous individual in this society, because men oppress women, it is much more likely that the person who will achieve moral independence will be a man and not a woman.

Abrams also notes that those social norms "which both reflect and perpetuate power inequalities"(8) between men and women affect "other marginalized groups"(9) in the same way.(10) I understand this argument to mean, therefore, that in America it is also easier for white people to be autonomous than it is for black people, because many white Americans oppress black Americans; and in Nazi Germany, it was more likely that Nazis would be autonomous than Jews, because Nazis oppressed Jewish people.

This seems very strange. How is it that the social construction of gender might limit women's ability to distinguish their own norms from the norms of others, and would not similarly limit men's ability to do the same? How is it possible that women could be connected to "others," and constrained through relations of dependence and domination, but those "others" would somehow not be similarly connected to women and thus similarly constrained?

Also, how wonderful for men! They not only get all the benefits that might come from exploiting women, but they also get to possess the "valuable human attribute"(11) of autonomy at the same time!

The truth is, of course, not as Abrams suggests.(12) Men's ability to distinguish their norms from the norms of others is seriously limited by the effort they expend in creating, maintaining, and imposing the social norms that create gender; and men too are powerfully connected to women in a "relationship of dependence and domination."

Both Abrams's argument and my critique sound much too abstract. I would like therefore to give some depth to my comments by describing my visit to the town of Williamsburg for this conference, and by situating this description within the context of racial oppression in America.

Let me start out by saying that I, like many other African-Americans, find it problematic to visit those southern communities that make a living by celebrating their antebellum past. How will the white people in these communities present that past? On the other hand, I do want to learn more about the lives of my relatives who were kidnapped and forced to work in slave labor camps so long ago.

In an effort to explore this past, I contacted a Williamsburg Web Site, writing that because I would be coming to the area to attend a conference at William and Mary, I needed information on "sites which explore the contributions of African-Americans to Virginian/American history," with particular focus on Williamsburg. The answer was not long in coming: "We suggest that you contact William & Mary.edu for that information." Startled by the notion that the Williamsburg web site would have no information at all on blacks in Colonial Williamsburg, I assumed that someone had misread my question. I wrote back, requesting clarification: "Does that web site have information about historic sites about African-Americans in Colonial Williamsburg and the surrounding area?" This time, there was no response at all.

"Aha," I thought, "this is not a good sign." Then I reminded myself that this is America, and I must be wary.

But I did not give up. Upon my...

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