Do radical feminists think women are capable of autonomy?

Over the past week or so I’ve engaged with a number of radical feminists who have a remarkably dismissive view of women.

They appear to believe that — against the background of historical and ongoing patriarchal oppression — women are incapable of making authentic choices about their own lives. Any decisions they make about makeup, about body hair, about changing their surnames upon marriage are not autonomous decisions UNLESS they are directly oppositional to patriarchal norms.

I understand the argument, but I think it is simplistic, inadequate and fundamentally disparaging of women. I want to explore the notion of autonomy by using a range of examples.

Mary consents to marry John. Is her decision autonomous?

It all depends.

Situation 1

Mary would rather marry Henry, but her father has forbidden that marriage.

I suspect most would agree that in this setting of patriarchal pressure Mary is NOT making an autonomous choice, but knuckling under to external influences.

Situation 2

Mary would rather marry Henrietta, but her society is homophobic and gay marriage is abomination.

Mary may agree to marry John, but it is not a truly autonomous decision because her actual preference is prohibited in the society in which she lives. In this case Mary (and Henrietta) are victims of a homophobic culture.

I think most people would agree.

Situation 3

Mary loves Henry, but John is rich and famous and Mary craves both wealth and fame.

Although Mary is responding to outside influences, she is nonetheless making an autonomous decision. She has weighed her options and chosen the one she thinks will make her happiest even if people older and wiser might predict that she will eventually regret it.

Again, I think most people will agree.

Situation 4

Mary loves Henry, but Henry has died and Mary would still like to get married.

Mary’s choice is constrained but it is not constrained by others, but by a sad reality. Although John is not her first choice, I think we can agree that Mary is making an autonomous choice.

What do these examples tell us about whether an individual’s choice is autonomous or not?

It is not the choice, nor the background of the choice that determines whether it is autonomous. It is the INTERACTION between the two. Specifically, for a choice to be autonomous it must comport with Mary’s own preferences and must not be constrained by others.

In a patriarchal society or a homophobic society Mary may agree to marry John, despite loving Henry or Henrietta. In either case the choice to marry John is not an autonomous choice since that is not what Mary would choose if she could follow her preference.

But no one is constraining Mary if she can’t marry Henry because he’s dead. Therefore, the exact same choice to marry John, which might have been non-autonomous in a different situation, is now an autonomous choice.

But Mary could also love Henry and still make an autonomous choice to marry John if her real preference in marriage is to find wealth and fame.

So far, so good.

Now we come to the crux of the matter.

Situation 5

Mary loves John and is thrilled to consent to the marriage.

There are radical feminists who would argue that against the background of historical patriarchal oppression it is impossible for Mary to make an autonomous choice to marry John.

I strongly disagree.

It’s not because I don’t recognize the history of patriarchal oppression. It’s not because I’m under the mistaken belief that the patriarchy no longer exists. It’s because Mary’s choice is not constrained by the patriarchy.

But wait, I hear radical feminists say, the patriarchy is so powerful that it constrains all women’s decisions about marriage whether those women are aware of the constraints or not. This is known in philosophical argument as “adaptive preferences.” Although Mary may believe she is acting on her own preferences, those preferences have been warped because of the long history of patriarchal oppression. Mary goes along to get along whether she understands that or not.

It is this argument that leads many radical feminists to tell other feminists to their faces that only transgressive choices can possibly be autonomous choices. All other women — the majority of women — are treated to their condescension.

It is this argument that leads many radical feminists to denigrate other women’s decisions to wear makeup, shave body hair or change their surnames upon marriage. It is this argument that leads many radical feminists to react in horror when little girls express preferences for princesses and the color pink.

Might Mary make a different choices if she lived in a society that didn’t have a history of patriarchal oppression? Maybe, but that is not dispositive. How do we know?

Judeo-Christian society has been overtly homophobic for at least the past several thousand years. Our society is still permeated with homophobia. But that does NOT mean that Mary would choose to marry Henrietta in a society that was free of homophobia … and I think even radical feminists would admit this.

Historical or even contemporary prejudice that might constrain some women’s choices (gay and nonbinary women) do not automatically constrain straight women’s choices.

This also applies to patriarchal societies like ours. While the patriarchy may constrain SOME women’s choices, the existence of the patriarchy does NOT mean that ALL women’s choices are inevitably non-autonomous even when those choices are “traditionally” feminine.

The existence of the patriarchy does NOT mean that women’s choices to wear makeup, shave body hair and change surname on marriage are non-autonomous or — even more absurdly — responsible for reinforcing the patriarchy.

Similarly, while the patriarchy can and does constrain the choices of some little girls, its existence does NOT mean that girls’ preferences for princesses and the color pink are inevitably non-autonomous or — even more absurdly — responsible for reinforcing the patriarchy.

The bottom line is this: the mere existence of a system of oppression does not mean that every choice a woman makes is a non-autonomous choice. If homophobia had never existed most women would still be heterosexual and if the patriarchy had never existed most women would still wear makeup and most little girls would still prefer pink.