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Reviewed by:
  • Autonomy, Gender, Politics
  • Paul Benson (bio)
Autonomy, Gender, Politics. By Marilyn Friedman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Marilyn Friedman's Autonomy, Gender, Politics is the second book to appear in Oxford's Studies in Feminist Philosophy series. The book focuses on three contested dimensions of personal autonomy: the normative content of autonomy, autonomy's relationality or "social rootedness" (17), and the role of a conception of autonomy within liberal political theory. Friedman tackles these topics in ways that should interest anyone studying the contemporary literature on autonomy and that will also substantially advance feminist work on the subject.

The book comes in four parts, the first of which (Chapters One–Three) presents Friedman's theoretical account of personal autonomy and its value. Friedman situates her account among identity-based theories such as those offered by Gerald Dworkin and Harry Frankfurt. The self-determination that distinguishes autonomous choice and action, Friedman maintains, consists in the reflective expression of the agent's deep and pervasive wants and values, where the agent has reflectively reaffirmed them (8, 14). What the agent cares about deeply, on reflection, comprises her "perspectival identity" (10). Autonomous actions are those that arise, in appropriate ways, from reflective consideration of relevant elements of that identity. Along with communitarians, Friedman observes that perspectival identity may not be voluntarily chosen. Unlike communitarians, Friedman holds that the agent must reflectively endorse the unchosen elements of her identity if it is to anchor her autonomy (11–12). Friedman also notes that autonomy requires some resilience in the face of obstacles that might impede the agent's efforts to act upon her deep values and commitments (13).

This account of autonomy is "content-neutral" because it places no direct constraints on the content of what autonomous agents may care about, value, or choose upon reflection (19). Substantive conceptions of autonomy incorporate just such constraints, so that actions explained by the internalization of oppressive social norms or extreme self-effacement might not count as autonomous even if they originate in a properly reflective way from deep values the agent has reaffirmed (see Benson 1991; Babbitt 1993; Oshana 1998; Kristinsson 2000; Stoljar 2000). Friedman grants that substantive autonomy is a genuine form of autonomy. She argues, however, that it represents merely a greater degree [End Page 214] of autonomy and that content-neutral autonomy sets an appropriate minimum threshold for self-determining agency (20–25).

Friedman completes Part I by responding to common criticisms of the value or coherence of personal autonomy and presenting constructive reasons to conclude that autonomy has both personal and general value of both instrumental and intrinsic sorts. This discussion is especially significant for Friedman's feminist project because many of the criticisms she surveys have been championed by feminist scholars. In particular, Friedman seeks to show that some objections to political liberalism that are well received in feminist circles have been misconstrued as reasons to object to the ideal of autonomy itself. The ideal of autonomy should be acknowledged as integral to feminist struggles, Friedman contends, because that ideal takes seriously women's own personal perspectives, it disposes women and men to reflect critically on oppressive social practices and institutions, it underwrites the entitlement to live free of domination, and it contingently supports modes of individuality that facilitate resistance to injustice (78).

Part II (Chapters Four and Five) examines how personal autonomy depends causally on interpersonal relationships and considers the increasingly prevalent position that autonomy might incorporate intrinsically relational, or social, content (see Mackenzie and Stoljar 2000). Chapter Four demonstrates that some mainstream theories of autonomy have granted more significance to social relationships than feminist theories have recognized. Chapter Five urges major changes in the cultural presentation of autonomy so that prevalent paradigms of autonomy admit female protagonists and avoid prescriptive masculinization. Friedman also argues in this chapter that the potential for autonomous action to disrupt personal relationships or communal ties means that autonomy cannot intrinsically incorporate specific relational content. Although this disruptive potential historically has burdened women more than men in cultures that idealize autonomy, it has been indispensable for women's efforts to escape oppressive relationships or resist patriarchal communal expectations. There is no neat way, Friedman...


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pp. 214-217
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Archived 2009
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