A generic definition of autonomy starts with the etymological root: auto = self, nomos = governed. The opposite of autonomy would be heteronomy, being “other-ruled.” Someone who was brainwashed, as in the movie The Manchurian Candidate, would be a classic example in the philosophical literature of a non-autonomous person.
To most philosophers, especially those who situate themselves in the liberal tradition, broadly defined, autonomy seems like a good thing, both for what it is (intrinsically), and what it can do (instrumentally). An autonomous person’s choices are really hers in a personally (and often morally and politically) significant way.
A very common philosophical account (elements of which span philosophy from the ancient Greeks through the present day) says that to be autonomous, a person has to be independent, even isolated, rational, and a rule breaker. Some feminists have criticized “autonomy” for being too closely associated with masculine traits (literary characters like Roark from The Fountainhead, or film characters like Mel Gibson’s character in Road Warrior would be paradigm examples of the autonomous man). Friedman says feminists, and indeed all human persons, need autonomy to fight oppression and because it represents full human development, a fully human life.
One question that gets raised is whether there is a difference between autonomy and agency. It seems plausible that some agents (humans who take actions) can be nonautonomous. That is, these people take actions — they are not like a plastic bag that gets blown around by the wind as in the movie American Beauty — but they are not autonomous. However, cashing out what “agency” means in this context is really hard. So I’m putting it aside.
Feminist philosophers have asserted that the connection between autonomy and western masculinity is contingent, not necessary. They may offer, like Friedman, an account of autonomy that focuses more on process than outcome. The idea here is that autonomy “is realized by the right sort of reflective self-understanding or internal coherence along with an absence of undue coercion or manipulation by others.” So, a “stay at home mom” might be autonomous, if she was reflective and if her choices fit coherently into her life plan, but a single, childfree female plastic surgeon might not, if she was basically bullied into her career by a father who manipulated and shamed her (I was thinking about Cannie’s relationship to her father in Jennifer Weiner’s Good in Bed in this context).
But feminists typically want to avoid giving a hyper-rational or atomistic account of autonomy, so Friedman insists both that reflection can be of an “emotional” sort, and that it takes place using a language, norms, standards, and dictates one did not create and that one utilizes in the context of social relationships. This raises a problem with procedural accounts of autonomy: the infinite regress. At what level of reflection can you finally say your desire is your own? Why stop at second order (“I want to want — I reflectively endorse — staying at home with my young kids”) and not fiftieth order (“I want to want to want to want to ….. stay at home with my kids.”)? I’m putting that one aside too.
Many feminists have developed explicitly “relational” accounts of autonomy, which seek to reframe relationships not as threats to autonomy but as, in many cases, autonomy enhancing. They may draw from Charles Taylor’s work on strong evaluation in this context:
. . . we cannot say that someone is free, on a self-realization view, if he is totally unrealized, if he is totally unaware of his potential, if fulfilling it has never arisen . . ., or if he is paralyzed by the fear of breaking with some norm which he has internalized but which does not authentically reflect him . . . some degree of exercise is necessary (1985, 213)*.
The idea is not that we distance ourselves from the desires we happen to have and then rank them, but rather that we have a vocabulary of worth that we subject our motives to. Unfortunately, oppressive circumstances can damage our capacity to do this, giving us deformed desires and false consciousness. Perhaps the women who Tweeted about Chris Brown might be examples of this sort of thing (we’d have to know more about them, for example, whether they were joking, though.)
On a relational account, self-referring attitudes like self-trust and self-esteem are crucial for autonomy, but they emerge in social relationships, with the unavoidable result that how we are interpreted by others can erode these prerequisites for the exercise of autonomy. I can think of heroines who have been so damaged by oppressive circumstances that they can’t own their decisions in any significant way. They retain the intellectual capacity for reflection, but it’s not enough.
One of the reasons I’m draw to romance fiction and women’s fiction is that in featuring female protagonists, they inevitably tangle with questions of autonomy and agency. I tend to think of autonomy in the more robust, idealized way Friedman and Taylor do, and while I’m happy to say a character has agency, I’m more reluctant to say that any choice a female character makes is reflective of autonomy. But I do think that the ways social conditions in general, and relationships in particular, impact female autonomy are a fascinating theme in the fiction I read.
*1985. Philosophy and the human sciences: Philosophical papers 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.