Advancing Autonomy

Autonomy: Hands with chains releasing a butterflySometimes I get asked why I am a feminist. Male feminists can be somewhat of a rare breed, and it can be confusing to some people why I go beyond “gender equality” to argue in favour of feminism. Feminism is largely about gender equality, but it goes beyond it to focus specifically on women’s issues (generally revolving around issues regarding reproduction, but also others like violence against women). So why am I, a man, concerned with women’s issues?

The answer is at once simple and complex: autonomy.

Gender norms, roles, and stereotypes typically end up putting men at the top of the social dogpile. Men are taught to be ambitious, assertive, direct, active, and strong. This leads to obvious advantages, especially when society is based on competition. Business, politics, and academics all favour those with a competitive advantage, and masculine traits often lead to just such an advantage. In contrast, women are taught to be passive, agreeable, delicate, and indirect. These qualities may help in times when cooperation is necessary, or when one needs to support and nurture another, but these domains are generally on the sideline. Great mothers are important, but one hardly becomes rich or powerful from raising children.

This is not to say that all men have an advantage over all women. Not all people fit neatly into the discrete categories of gender that society has created, and not all men have personalities that fit with the masculine traits above. But to the extent that people embrace their socialization and fit into the gender box as best as they can, men have a social advantage over women. A woman who tries to express masculine traits is generally disliked and derided (slurs about being a lesbian are common). For instance, women managers often face particular challenges: if they are stereotypically “feminine”, they are not seen as fit for managerial duty, but if they are stereotypically “masculine”, they are disliked for being aggressive and domineering.

As I see it, it is thus important to push for autonomy. Autonomy is an issue about which I’ve thought about much in the past while. It describes a capacity to be a causal agent of one’s own life —to be able to act in harmony with oneself rather than have one’s life imposed on by external forces.1 It doesn’t mean that someone is completely independent of others or is free to do whatever they want, but rather that they have the capability of organizing their life so that they “fit” comfortably within the world.

Women who are told that they must be agreeable and passive are robbed of their autonomy. They are told that they cannot be active agents in the world, but must accept what comes their way. We see similar issues with other groups of people. People with disabilities are often portrayed as helpless victims, not able to care for themselves or act meaningfully in the world. Overweight people are shown as lacking self-control, unable to deny the temptation of food (and laziness). People in poverty are alternately portrayed as victims or as being lazy. All these groups are forced into a place where the world acts upon them, rather than them acting upon the world. Such a state can rob people of their dignity as human beings, not to mention their motivation to succeed.

I am committed to doing everything in my power to allow the autonomy of others to flourish. I cannot give autonomy to others (because agency is not something that can be given, only developed), but I can help to remove the barriers that restrict its growth. Part of this involves fighting for equal rights, to level the playing field. Another part involves breaking down or changing social norms that restrict others’ progress. Yet another part involves backing off at times to allow others to take charge. And a final part involves communicating the importance of autonomy to others (coincidentally, what I’m doing right now).

There is no reason why certain groups should enjoy more autonomy than others. Autonomy and interdependence can co-exist peacefully, such that my need to order my life does not impede your right to order your own. The fact that certain social groups are stifled in their autonomy means that society misses out on the wonderful contributions that members of these groups can make. Women can be valuable CEOs and politicians. People with disabilities can be valuable newscasters and public figures. People in poverty have ideas waiting to be put into action. And though the struggle for autonomy is theirs (since the struggle brings autonomy in and of itself), I see no reason for me not to stand with them, and to join them in their efforts. Encouraging the autonomy of others: This is how the world becomes a better place.

Autonomy: Bird flying free


  1. This definition is taken from Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory. []

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