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Gender in the MirrorCultural Imagery and Women's Agency$

Diana Tietjens Meyers

Print publication date: 2002

Print ISBN-13: 9780195140415

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/0195140419.001.0001

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Gender Identity and Women's Agency: Culture, Norms, and Internalized Oppression Revisited

Gender Identity and Women's Agency: Culture, Norms, and Internalized Oppression Revisited

(p.3) Chapter One Gender Identity and Women's Agency: Culture, Norms, and Internalized Oppression Revisited
Gender in the Mirror

Diana Tietjens Meyers (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Because individual identities evolve in the context of enculturation, interpersonal bonds of affection and interdependency, and unconscious attitudes and wishes, a philosophical account of self‐determination must not only give due weight to each individual's unique desires, capabilities, values, interests, and goals, but it must also accommodate these intrapsychic, interpersonal, and social realities insofar as they shape an individual's identity. In patriarchal cultures, women internalize oppression, for regnant narrative schemas, themes, and figurations provide the default templates for their self‐portraits and self‐narratives. Women's appropriation of these default templates reproduce subordinat ing norms and crowds out alternative understandings of who they are and what their lives are about. Thus, patriarchal cultures impede women's agency. In contrast to existing value‐neutral, value‐saturated, and self‐narrative approaches to autonomy, this account stresses the need for a well‐developed, well‐coordinated repertoire of agentic skills. Using these skills enriches women's self‐knowledge, extends their emanci patory potentialities, and strengthens their ability both to define themselves in their own terms and to enact their identities as they understand them – i.e., agentic skills bring women's voices into alignment with their individual identities and their lives.

Keywords:   agency, autonomy, gender identity, identity, individual identity, narrative, oppression, self, self‐determination, self‐knowledge, women

What diverse women are like and how individual women go about conducting their lives are issues that go to the heart of feminism. Because patriarchal societies consider women inferior beings, and because these societies severely constrain women's choosing and acting, all feminists—theorists and activists alike—regard the questions of why women suffer these wrongs and how they can can be righted as crucial. Not surprisingly, then, the issues of women's identity and their agency inspire intense critical engagement not only with social conventions but also with the philosophical canon. The result has been a veritable cavalcade of theoretical advances.

Strangely, though, outbreaks of intellectual mischief and perhaps even obtuseness also tend to cluster at these sites of inquiry. As a number of commentators have observed, feminist theory is now and again marred by aberrant, unfeminist subtexts. Humanistic feminist Mary Wollstonecraft indulges in some quite unsympathetic, moralistic finger wagging at so‐called womanly virtues. For Wollstonecraft, these qualities merely enshrine women's craven adaptation to a subordinate position. Likewise, a rather grandiose metaphysical hauteur surfaces in Simone de Beauvoir's existential feminism. Portraying women as mired in banal domestic routine and self‐abnegating caregiving, de Beauvoir gives them no credit for their labor, nor does she disguise her contempt for what she terms women's “immanence.” Whereas Wollstonecraft and de Beauvoir characterize women's identity as a trap and emphasize the tightness of its clasp to the point of (p.4) seeming misogynist, traces of a baffling, cavalier triumphalism are detectable in Judith Butler's poststructuralist feminism. According to Butler, gender identity is a pesky phantasm that we can dispatch without too much trouble—say by delighting in the “deviant” gender performances of drag queens. Emphasizing the superficiality of gender identity, as Butler does, seems to make light of women's subordination.

In my judgment, each of these theorists has a major insight regarding women's identity and agency but casts it in curiously exaggerated terms. Although this rhetorical strategy serves the useful purpose of magnifying a problematic aspect of women's lives, it also makes it difficult for ordinary women to recognize their lives in theories about them. In noting the flawed tenor of these views, however, I am neither disputing nor discounting these theorists' overall contributions. Rather, I wish to highlight the treachery of the identity/agency terrain.

Feminist theorists find the topics of women's identity and agency vexing, I submit, because a pair of dilemmas structures these issues. To acknowledge women's gender identity together with the history of women's subordination seems to entail ascribing a host of ingrained defects to women and thus to call for a radical transformation of feminine identity. Yet, since masculine identity leaves much to be desired, there is reason to valorize feminine identity as a locus of suppressed yet genuine values and as a desirable form of relationally grounded selfhood and subjectivity. With regard to women's agency, it seems that if women are systematically subordinated, their ability to choose and act freely must be gravely compromised. Yet, if feminist theorists are to respect women's dignity and if they are to defend women's capacity to emancipate themselves, it seems they must counter that women's agency has been concealed or overlooked, not diminished.

In this chapter, I explore the relations among norms encoded in gender discourse, gendered identity, and women's agency. A number of feminist theorists argue that gender is a feature of social structures or linguistic classification systems, but that who one is or what one is like need not be gendered. Rightly shunning a false universalism about gender, these theorists externalize gender and sever it from identity. Against this view, I argue that gender is internalized and does become a dimension of women's identities (Section 1). However, I also urge that the developmental process in childhood and beyond is not merely a process of internalization. It is also a process of individualization. Thus, women's identities are both gendered and individualized. Still, it is important to recognize that individualization (p.5) does not fully protect women's agentic capacities from damage. That women's identities are gendered in patriarchal cultures does impede women's ability to function as self‐determining agents. Yet, major philosophical accounts of self‐determination either underestimate the seriousness of internalized oppression or address this problem in ways that underrate women's agency within patriarchal societies (Section 2). In my view, then, feminist theory needs a different approach to self‐determination.

A number of feminists have begun the project of reconceptualizing self‐determination by developing what I call feminist voice theory (Section 3). Feminist work on the relation between speaking in one's own voice and leading one's own life is invaluable, for it calls attention to culturally entrenched narrative templates and representational conventions—figures of speech, mythic tales, and pictorial images—that invade women's stories and crowd out alternative versions of their lives. Still, feminist voice theory fails to furnish an epistemology that differentiates speaking in one's own voice from speaking in the patriarch's voice. Thus, I propose an account of self‐determination that connects women's voices to their lives as well as to their emancipatory potentialities. Self‐determination, I argue, is best understood as an ongoing process of exercising a repertoire of agentic skills —skills that enable individuals to construct their own self‐portraits and self‐narratives and that thereby enable them to take charge of their lives. Construing self‐determination this way demonstrates women's need for expanded agency, for it discloses how patriarchal cultures illegitimately interfere with women's agentic skills (Section 4). However, this view of self‐determination does not divest women of agency within patriarchal cultures, for it is undeniable that women exercise some agentic skills despite this hostile environment.

1. Internalized Oppression, Identity, and Individuality

People do not choose their gender (or, for that matter, their race, ethnicity, sexuality, stage of life, or class).1 These are thrust upon us. Nor is it within one's power as an individual to expel gender from one's life. That our society and the people we associate with classify us according to gender is not controversial. Likewise, few would dispute that access to many goods, including social, economic, and political opportunities, differs depending on gender. Yet, in recent feminist theory, a controversy has erupted about whether women have gender identities. Perceiving racism within feminism, women of color object to white, middle‐class feminists' universalization (p.6) of their own experience of gender. Perceiving vestiges of the Enlightenment in feminism, postmodern feminists deny that people have stable individual identities and object to feminist theories that “essentialize” gender in the process of delineating a core gender identity. Responding to these critiques, a number of feminist theorists seek to justify solidarity among women while fully acknowledging women's diversity (e.g., Spelman 1988; Alcoff 1994; Young 1994; Haslanger 2000). Some of these scholars deny that social institutions and cultural traditions instill gender in our cognitive, emotional, and motivational infrastructures—that is, in our identities—and defend other rationales for feminism. I take issue with the move to exclude gender from individual identity. I argue that internalized oppression is a reality that feminists must address, but I do not defend a universalist view of internalized oppression and gender identity. Instead, I urge that subordination is internalized and becomes integral to individualized, subordinated identities.2

According to Iris Young, a leading exponent of the anti‐identity view of gender, women as women are members of what we might call a group precursor, as opposed to a full‐fledged group, but they do not necessarily have a gender identity. To explain gender (or sexual orientation, class, race, or nationality), Young invokes Jean‐Paul Sartre's idea of seriality (Young 1994, 731–732). A social series or group precursor is “a social collective whose members are unified passively by the objects around which their actions are oriented or by the objectified results of the material effects of the actions of others” (Young 1994, 724). In more familiar terms, a series is constituted by a behavior‐directing, meaning‐defining institutional and social environment. The lives of series members are affected by being assigned to particular social series, for serial existence is experienced as a “felt necessity” that leaves individuals feeling powerless (Young 1994, 726). Thus, people feel impelled to act in ways that conform to their series memberships. Yet, series membership “does not define the person's identity in the sense of forming his/her individual purposes, projects, and sense of self in relation to others” (Young 1994, 727; emphasis added). Indeed, individuals can choose to make none of their serial memberships important for their individual identity (Young 1994, 733).

One difficulty with this proposal is that it seems to replace essentialist accounts of gendered psyches and bodies with an essentialist account of gendering social structures. Young indicts two culprits: compulsory heterosexuality and the sexual division of labor (Young 1994, 729–730). But if these structures differ in different societies during different historical (p.7) periods, which they do, and if these structures also differ in different racial, ethnic, sexuality, age, and class groupings within a society, which they do, there is no reason to believe that all of the women whose lives are partly organized by these variable structures belong to the same series. As Susan Moller Okin points out, a sexual division of labor that prohibits women from working outside the home even if they have no other way to survive and provide for their children is different in kind from a sexual division of labor that disproportionately burdens women who are employed outside the home with childcare and other domestic tasks (Okin 1995, 285–286). An externalized essentialism cannot salvage unity among women any more plausibly than an internalized one can.

In my view, however, the more serious problem with Young's view is that it is premised on a false dichotomy: Either social positioning is constitutive of individual identity, and all similarly positioned individuals share a common identity, or else social positioning is external to individual identity, and no woman's identity is gendered unless she decides to let gender in. Since it is indisputable that women do not share a common identity—the same can be said of members of racial, sexuality, life‐stage, class, and ethnic groups—Young opts for the voluntarist position. One is a member of this or that social series whether one likes it or not. One becomes a member of a social group only when one elects to join one. Series membership shapes one's identity only if one allows it to do so.

The alternative to this individualist voluntarism is not gender (race, sexuality, life‐stage, class, or ethnicity) essentialism and a common feminine (racial, sexual, class, age, or ethnic) identity. The alternative is gendered and individualized identities. At one point, Young seems to concede this very point. No woman's identity “will escape the markings of gender,” she observes, “but how gender marks her life is her own” (Young 1994, 734). I agree—identities are individualized. But I hasten to add that how gender marks a woman's (or a man's) identity will not be entirely her (or his) own choice. Gender worms its way into identity in ways that we may not be conscious of and in ways that we may not be able to change, no matter how much we try.

Sandra Lee Bartky's essays on women's bodily self‐discipline and women's masochistic sexual fantasies are classics in the literature of internalized oppression. For Bartky, to internalize material is to incorporate it into the structure of the self, that is, into the modes of perception and self‐perception that enable one to distinguish oneself from other selves and from other things (Bartky 1990, 77; for related discussion, see Cudd (p.8) 1998). These modes of perception and self‐perception reflect how others behave toward the individual; they amalgamate concepts, interpretive schemas, and thought patterns that are circulating in the individual's social milieu; they include skills that delimit what the individual knows (and does not know) how to do. Internalization is inevitable and can be innocuous. But to internalize oppression is to incorporate inferiorizing material into the structure of the self—to see oneself as objectified, to value and desire what befits a subordinated individual, and to feel competent and empowered by skills that reinforce one's subordination.

Bartky analyzes the feminine body as an instance of internalized oppression. Through obsessive dieting and exercising, restricted movement and posture, unreciprocated smiling, elaborate makeup and skin‐care routines, and alluring ornaments and clothing, women “discipline” their bodies (Bartky 1990, 66–71; for related discussion of feminine narcissism, see Chapter 5). An undisciplined female body is defective, and yet a properly disciplined female body is a body with “an inferior status inscribed” upon it (Bartky 1990, 71–72). The attractive woman is “object and prey” for men, for feminine beauty plays up fragility, weakness, and immaturity (Bartky 1990, 72–73). Feminine comportment and demeanor are typical of lower‐status groups (Bartky 1990, 73–74). In contrast to expansive masculine ease, women are instructed to cross their legs, keep their arms close to their torsos, listen attentively, and smile ingratiatingly. Severe penalties are attached to shedding this identity—“ugly,” unfeminine women are scorned by men and denied employment (Bartky 1990, 76). To take one notorious case, when Ann Hopkins was evaluated for partnership at the accounting firm Price Waterhouse, she was criticized for not wearing makeup and for lacking feminine charm (Valian 1998, III). Despite her superb record of attracting lucrative accounts to the firm and working high‐volume billable hours, Hopkins was denied partnership (Valian 1998, 291). Although she sued for employment discrimination and ultimately won, she was obliged to undergo this ordeal simply because she failed to conform to feminine body norms.

Yet, incessant self‐policing earns women no respect. On the contrary, feminine women are often ridiculed for their “obsession” with clothes, makeup, and other “trivial” details of appearance (Bartky 1990, 73). Still, few women are merely putting on a show. Most are becoming “docile and compliant companions of men” (Bartky 1990, 75). Moreover, what they are doing and what they are making themselves into seems entirely voluntary and natural. Indeed, when feminists criticize these practices and urge (p.9) women to abandon them, most women give this suggestion a chilly reception. In Bartky's view, this reluctance to forgo feminine self‐discipline is not merely a result of the negative sanctions women can anticipate. It also stems from the embeddedness of the aesthetic of feminine beauty and the routines of self‐beautification in women's identities. Everyone finds the thought of undergoing a radical transformation of self—in the popular idiom, of becoming a different person—unnerving. Thus, women recoil from feminist critiques of feminine bodily norms because they find the idea of repudiating values that are constitutive of their sense of self and skills that give them a sense of mastery too unsettling (Bartky 1990, 77). An important virtue of Bartky's account of internalized oppression is that it makes sense of this reaction—it is reasonable for many women to feel deeply threatened by feminism, and it is understandable, though not desirable, that some of them reject it.

One reason that feminist critiques of the feminine body are so disquieting is that physical appearance and comportment are integral to women's sexual identity (Bartky 1990, 77). Bartky pursues the issue of sexual identity further in an essay on the psychosomatics of women's eroticism. Bartky asks us to consider a feminist, P, whose sexual pleasure depends on conjuring up masochistic scenarios (Bartky 1990, 46). As a feminist, P is convinced that this imagery replicates male dominance in the sexual register, and she is ashamed of and disgusted by its recurrence in her fantasy life (Bartky 1990, 51–52, 54). Still, moral reproach and psychotherapy do not alleviate her need for this debased imagery, nor do they diminish the pleasure it yields. P has internalized a subordinated vision of feminine sexuality, and she is powerless to extirpate it. As Bartky puts it, “We cannot teach P . . . how to decolonize the imagination” (Bartky 1990, 61). Fixed in indecipherable unconscious desire and manifest in discordant, yet tenacious sexual fantasies, subordination infests many women's identities.

Consider one more form that internalized oppression takes. In an essay examining the social construction of African‐American manhood and womanhood, Patricia Williams focuses on the 1987 incident in upstate New York in which an African‐American teenager, Tawana Brawley, turned up dazed, unclothed, burned, and smeared with feces and indicated that she had been raped and tortured by white police officers. Near the end of the essay, Williams recounts the following episode:

At the height of the controversy, Tawana attended a comedy show at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. One of the comedians called attention (p.10) to her presence in the audience and, in a parody of the federal antisex and antidrug campaigns, advised her to “just say no next time.” As the audience roared with merriment and the spotlight played on her, Tawana threw back her head and laughed along with the crowd. She opened her mouth and laughed in false witness of this cruel joke. It is the only image I have of Tawana with her mouth open—caught in a position of compromise, of satisfying the pleasure and expectations of others, trapped in the pornography of living out other people's fantasies. (P. Williams 1991, 177)

Throughout her essay, Williams's theme is the silencing of Tawana Brawley—by inept, if not corrupt and malign, legal officials, by the sensationalized press coverage, and by her African‐American advisors. Never allowed to speak for herself and tell her own story, she enacts everyone's script but her own. At the Apollo, she becomes the girl who delights in the comedian's irony although the humor is at her expense. Relieved, perhaps, to elude the media discourse that has revolved around racist imagery of the insatiably lustful, venomous black whore, Brawley embodies the sexist imagery of the fetching, acquiescent girl of unblemished reputation. In the “sanctuary” of the Apollo Theater, Brawley's gender identity is rehabilitated, but her identity is one that others have contrived for her.

To be sure, gender does not exhaust any woman's identity and sense of self. Still, Bartky's and Williams's work demonstrates that gender is constitutive of who we are—our personalities, our capabilities and liabilities, our aspirations, and how we feel about all of these dimensions of identity. Yet, there is no attribute that all women or that all men share. The same is true of other subordinated and privileged identity categories. How is this possible?

Nancy Chodorow uses psychoanalytic theory to make sense of individualized, gendered identities. Psychoanalysis explains how individuals “personally animate and tint . . . the anatomic, cultural, interpersonal, and cognitive world we experience” (Chodorow 1995, 520; also see Chodorow 1999, Chapter 3). One's affective dispositions, unconscious fantasies, and interpersonal relationships filter the culturally entrenched conception of gender one encounters. Through various psychological processes—projection and introjection together with the defense mechanisms—gender acquires a “personal meaning” that is inspired by but that does not wholly replicate culturally transmitted strictures and iconography (Chodorow 1995, 517). I hasten to add that it is not necessary to posit a psychoanalytic (p.11) developmental model to explain this process. Any developmental theory that accounts for enculturation along with individuality will draw the same conclusion. As Chodorow somewhat paradoxically puts it, each woman creates “her own personal‐cultural gender” (Chodorow 1995, 518).

It is a mistake to picture attributes like gender as toxic capsules full of norms and interpretive schemas that individuals swallow whole and that lodge intact in their psychic structure. The diversity of individuals' experience of gender belies this view. But it is also a mistake to picture attributes like gender as systems of social and economic opportunities, constraints, rewards, and penalties that never impinge upon individual identity. The seeming naturalness of enacting gendered characteristics, the passion with which people cling to their sense of their own gender, and the intractability of many gendered attributes when people seek to change them testify to the embeddedness of gender in identity.

2. Subordination's Challenge to Autonomy Theory

The phenomenon of internalized oppression presents two opposed temptations for accounts of self‐determination or, in other words, theories of autonomy. On the one hand, latitudinarian, value‐neutral accounts of autonomy are attractive because they do not automatically impugn the ability of women who enact gender norms to make their own judgments and choices, and, consequently, they show respect for these women. On the other hand, restrictive, value‐saturated accounts of autonomy, which deny that people can be both oppressed and autonomous, are attractive because, in claiming that internalized oppression blocks the self‐determination of women in patriarchal cultures, they highlight the harsh, though often hidden, personal cost of living under oppressive social regimes. Neither of these approaches is ultimately convincing, however.

Preliminary to characterizing the weaknesses of these approaches, it is useful to review what an account of autonomy should accomplish. An account of autonomy aims principally to explicate an especially valuable mode of living. That mode of living is captured in a number of colloquial expressions: “She lives by her own lights,” “She's always been true to herself,” “I gotta be me!” and the like. Autonomous individuals are not mere conformists, of course, but they need not be eccentric. What is distinctive about them is that they rely on their own judgment. They know who they are—what really matters to them, whom they deeply care about, what their capacities and limitations actually are, and so forth—and they enact (p.12) this introspective understanding of their “true” selves in their everyday lives. There is a good fit, then, between their identity, their attitudes toward themselves, and their conduct. Remarks such as “I feel at one with myself” and “I feel right in my skin” voice this sense of integration. As these idioms suggest, living autonomously is satisfying. Sometimes it is exhilarating. “At last I see what I really want!” might express the joy and excitement autonomy can bring. Subjectively, then, the value of autonomy stems from the fascination of self‐discovery and the gratification of self‐determination. Objectively, it rests on the dignity of the distinctive individual and the wondrous diversity of the lives individuals may fashion for themselves.

Explicating the nature of the personal and social costs of suppressing autonomy is another aim an account of autonomy should fulfill. Individuals experience lack of autonomy as a sense of being out of control or being under the control of others, whether other identifiable individuals or anonymous societal powers. At odds with themselves, at odds with their behavior, or both, nonautonomous individuals often feel anxious about their choices, contemptuous of themselves, and disappointed with their lives. “How could I have done that?” “Why did I give in?” or “Where on earth am I headed?” they may ask. Alternatively, they may simply feel hollow, for they may feel they have been made into vehicles for projects that they do not disavow but that are not their own. “What am I doing anyway?” or “What's the point of it all?” they may wonder. In one way or another, nonautonomous individuals suffer from alienation from self.

Societies that are not conducive to autonomy are objectionable because they diminish personal fulfillment. But this is not the only moral loss they incur. When a society discourages self‐exploration and self‐expression, it discourages attention to symptoms of discontent and shields social ideologies and institutions from probing examination and oppositional activism. A society that encourages autonomy exposes itself to criticism and equips people to pursue social change. By thwarting (or trying to thwart) dissent, societies that suppress autonomy perpetuate unjust social structures.

I shall not linger long over latitudinarian, value‐neutral theories of autonomy, for their weaknesses have been diagnosed and elaborated elsewhere. Briefly, rational choice views take people's desires, values, and goals as givens and identify autonomy with organizing them into coherent, satisfaction‐maximizing life plans (for critiques, see Meyers 1989, 76–79; Babbitt 1993, 246–253). But exempting an autonomous person's desires, values, and goals from critical reflection and fundamental transformation (p.13) is plausible only if one assumes a background of social justice that is nowhere even approximated. Knowing what one wants and being able to figure out how to get it in a society that generally respects people's basic liberties is a travesty of autonomy when one's aims are misbegotten—contorted and cramped by structures of domination and subordination that basic liberties leave in place.

Hierarchical identification theories are also latitudinarian and value‐neutral. They improve on rational choice theories, however, because they subject first‐order desires—“I want an ice cream cone”—to scrutiny in light of second‐order volitions—“You can't afford the extra cholesterol.” To be autonomous is to reconcile the two levels and achieve a harmonious whole—wanting only fat‐free snacks, I suppose (for critiques, see Meyers 1989, 25–41; Benson 1991, 391–394). Still, hierarchical identification theories neglect the possibility that an oppressive social context could subvert people's autonomy by imparting detrimental values that warp their second‐order volitions. Perhaps the current wave of health consciousness is perversely ascetic, but from a feminist viewpoint a commitment to sexist and heterosexist norms is far more disturbing. What if a woman's first‐order desire had been “I want an ice cream cone,” her second‐order volition had been “I'll die if I don't get married soon,” and her resolution had been “Skip the cone because no one will want you if you look flabby in your bikini at the beach next month”? Here it is by no means obvious that achieving inner harmony constitutes a gain in self‐determination. The possibility that internalized oppression fuels this individual's second‐order volition raises doubts about her autonomy.

Value‐neutral theories make inadequate provision for “authenticating” the concepts and commitments that structure one's interpretations and propel one's deliberations and choices. In contrast, restrictive, value‐saturated accounts of autonomy, such as Susan Babbitt's and Paul Benson's, insist on the need to distinguish real from apparent desires and authentic values from spurious ones. They draw these distinctions by placing constraints on what people can autonomously choose.

According to Susan Babbitt, internalized oppression instills preferences and desires that do not adequately reflect an interest in one's own flourishing and that prevent one from pursuing one's “objective interests” even when one is aware that one has an option to pursue them (Babbitt 1993, 246–247). The problem, claims Babbitt, is the individual's “not possessing a sense of self that would support a full sense of flourishing”—that is, one has been deprived of a precondition for wanting to pursue one's objective (p.14) interests (Babbitt 1993, 248). Although the oppressed have nonpropositional knowledge—knowledge in the form of intuitions, attitudes, ways of behaving, and so on—that adumbrates their objective interests, this knowledge is inexpressible within the existing ideological regime and is not translatable into autonomous action (Babbitt 1993, 252–254). Mute and subjugated, these individuals' agency can only be salvaged through “transformative experiences” that, as it were, upgrade their selfhood (Babbitt 1993, 252–253).

I doubt, however, that oppression renders people's nonpropositional knowledge inexpressible. In fact, I think one of Babbitt's examples amply vindicates my dubiety. Commenting on Alice Walker's novel about domestic violence, The Color Purple, Babbitt claims that Celie's knowledge that she is a morally worthy person is nonpropositional and inexpressible. I would argue that Celie's knowledge indeed stems from nonpropositional sources: her feelings, attitudes, and perhaps her intuitions. But, as Babbitt reports, when taunted by Mister—“You nothing at all”—Celie trenchantly replies, “I'm pore, I'm black, I may be ugly and can't cook . . . but I'm here” (Babbitt 1993, 253; emphasis added). Babbitt is correct to say that the categories of Mister's ideology provide no direct, authoritative way for Celie to assert her moral status, but it is evident that Celie is able to give her knowledge a propositional form and to encode her knowledge in intelligible speech.

Oppression deprives Celie of conventions—readily available, generally accepted discursive formulas—through which she can articulate her convictions, protests, and aspirations (M. Walker 1998, 123–128). To articulate their self‐knowledge, oppressed people must resort to circumlocution, devise figures of speech, and work to redefine the terms of intrapersonal understanding, interpersonal relations, and moral reflection. Thus, they must summon extraordinary imaginative and linguistic powers if they are to gain a rich understanding of who they are and why their needs and desires deserve respect. Nevertheless, in light of her defiant self‐recognition and her poignant self‐assertion, it seems doubtful that Celie lacks an “adequate” sense of self.

Still, it is undeniable that Celie's social context is doing everything possible to stifle her autonomy and to defeat her. For this reason, I expect, Paul Benson would argue that attributing autonomy to someone like Celie betokens a Pollyanaish confidence in her agentic capabilities.

According to Benson, “Certain forms of socialization are oppressive and clearly lessen autonomy” (Benson 1991, 385). There are two forms that oppressive (p.15) socialization takes: (1) coercive socialization, which inflicts penalties for noncompliance with unjustifiable norms, and (2) socialization that instills false beliefs, which prevents people from discerning genuine reasons for acting (Benson 1991, 388–389). Autonomous people are “competent criticizer[s]” who can “detect and appreciate the reasons there are to act in various ways” (Benson 1991, 396, 397). But oppressive socialization systematically obviates and obfuscates victims' reasons for acting. As Benson puts it, oppressive socialization limits in “well‐organized ways what sorts of reasons to act people are able to recognize” (Benson 1991, 396). Internalized oppression, it seems, can dragoon a person's entire life.

Presumably, Benson would conclude that, because of their socialization, the many women who do not repudiate subordinating feminine norms have defective reason‐detection faculties—defective at least insofar as they are oblivious to the “decisive” force of the reasons against complying with these norms—and thus that they have been deprived of autonomy at least with regard to this aspect of their lives.3 But I would urge that Benson's grim assessment of the sinister potency of oppressive socialization exaggerates the impact of socialization generally. It just isn't true that oppressive socialization always decreases autonomy. Some people become oppositional activists, and some of them flourish in that role. In cases of firebrand, adventure‐loving resisters, one suspects they would have had a hard time fitting in and living autonomously if they had been born into a just society during peacetime. Other people carve out lives that enact “inappropriate” values in the interstices of society's constraints. They find pockets of lapsed surveillance or permissiveness within oppressive regimes and devise ways to express their unorthodox values and commitments in those spaces. Still others endorse at least some of the values upon which oppressive constraints are based and on balance accept the constraints and conform their lives to them. Undeniably, women in patriarchal cultures have much to overcome to attain autonomy. But it is hard to believe that where gender is concerned none of them ever chooses autonomously.

The fact is that we are all immersed in a culture at a historical moment. How do we know that some of us have attained adequate selfhood and thus have the epistemic perspective needed to grasp what full flourishing is like? How do we know that some of us have highly developed, acutely sensitive reason‐detection faculties and thus have the epistemic skills needed to determine what cannot be a good reason to act or what is a dispositive reason to act? It seems to me that we would need far more consensus (p.16) than we presently have (or are likely to get) about human nature and social justice before we could conclude that women who opt for compliance with feminine norms never do so autonomously. We would have to be persuaded, in other words, that all women's interests are such that this decision could not accord with any woman's genuine values and real desires under any circumstances. But if we are prepared to acknowledge that a woman who has undergone oppressive socialization but who rebels against its dictates may be accessing her “authentic” values and desires and acting autonomously, it seems to me that we cannot rule out a priori the possibility that a similarly socialized woman who chooses otherwise may be autonomous, too.

Restrictive, value‐saturated accounts of autonomy are troubling because they promiscuously stigmatize women as victims and because they homogenize authentic selves and autonomous lives. The paradoxical effect of ahistorically, acontextually foreordaining what individuals can and cannot autonomously choose is to deindividualize autonomy and to overlook the agentic capacities that women exercise despite oppression. Yet, latitudinarian, value‐neutral accounts of autonomy are troubling, too. According to this view, failures of autonomy are failures to obtain and take into account relevant information, or they are failures to integrate one's values, desires, and the like into a coherent outlook and a feasible course of action. To neglect the possibility that a well‐integrated, smoothly functioning self could be in need of rigorous scrutiny and drastic overhaul is to deindividualize autonomy in a different way. This type of theory abandons the individual to the influence of a culture's prevailing beliefs and practices, oversimplifies self‐alienation, and blunts autonomy's potential to spur social critique. Neither of these approaches offers a compelling theory of individualized autonomous living. A feminist view of autonomy must acknowledge that oppression impedes autonomy without stripping women of that autonomy which they have managed to wrest from a patriarchal, racist, heterosexist, ageist, class‐stratified world.

3. Voice and Choice: A Feminist View of Autonomy

Wary of the individualist, antirelational bias in canonical autonomy theories, some feminists have repudiated autonomy (Jaggar 1983; Addelson 1994; Hekman 1995). Nevertheless, the history of depicting women as at the mercy of their reproductive biology and in need of rational male guidance together with the history of women's enforced economic dependence (p.17) on men or relegation to poorly paid, often despised forms of labor argues against striking self‐determination from the feminist lexicon. It is not surprising, then, that many feminist writers continue to invoke ostensibly discredited values like self‐determination in unguarded writing about the needs of women and the aims of feminism, and a number of feminist scholars have reconceptualized autonomy and explicitly defended it as a feminist value (e.g., Nedelsky 1989, 7; Meyers 1989, 2000a; Govier 1993, 103–104; Benhabib 1995, 21, and 1999, 353–354; Weir 1995, 263). Other feminist scholars translate the issues that have traditionally occupied autonomy theorists into a vocabulary of voice.

Maria Lugones and Elizabeth Spelman observe that having a voice is “integral to leading a life rather than being led through it” and that “being silenced in one's own account of one's life is a kind of amputation that signals oppression” (Lugones and Spelman 1986, 19; emphasis added). Silencing disables agency, for the alternative to articulating your own experience and your own goals in your own way is to live someone else's version of you—to inhabit their definition of what you are like and their construal of what you think, feel, and want and consequently to find yourself enacting their story of how your life should go (Frye 1983, 105; P. Williams 1991, 166–178; M. Walker 1998, 127–128; Nelson 2001, Chapter 1). What motivates feminist voice theory is the fact that women are systematically denied the opportunity to discover themselves for themselves, to interpret themselves as they think fit, and to live their lives according to their own lights. These are the very same problems that animate autonomy theory—namely, self‐determination and the role of self‐knowledge and self‐definition in securing self‐determination.

Autonomy theory's propensity for polarizing people into free, paradigmatically male agents and incompetent, paradigmatically female dependents or victims justifiably gives feminists pause. So it makes sense to navigate around autonomy theory and address the issue of women's self‐determination through a theory of voice and narrative instead. Still, voice theory presents characteristic problems of its own. A feminist voice theory must furnish an account of how one gets in touch with oneself and finds one's own voice. It is not enough to invent an interesting protagonist and spin a good yarn about her life. If it is true, moreover, that all women's psyches and bodies are liable to internalize oppression, it is necessary to distinguish when women are speaking in their own voices and when they are lip syncing the ominous baritone of patriarchy. In particular, a feminist voice theory must explain how to distinguish between a woman's ideologically (p.18) oppressed voice and her emancipated voice and between the voice of a progressive feminist ideology and the voice of the individual woman. I shall refer to this as the problem of voice authentication. Two solutions to these epistemological puzzles suggest themselves.

One possibility would be to authenticate voices by checking on their original contexts of utterance. Arguably, the administrative assistant who laughs off her boss's lewd remarks while hoping for a promotion, the abused woman who forgives her batterer to keep the family's paycheck coming in, and the adolescent who yearns for love and complains about her fleshy female body do not speak in their own voices, for their social contexts relentlessly and forcefully pressure them to mouth a patriarchal line. In contrast, feminist separatist practices create safe enclaves in which no woman is penalized for rejecting a demeaning, distorting self‐description and in which each woman is invited to conceive alternative means of articulating her sense of self and her aims (for related discussion, see Frye 1983, 105–107). Feminist standpoint theory suggests a related but some‐what different approach. The dialectic between political struggle and theoretical understanding might be seen as differentiating the oppressed voice from the emancipated voice (Hartsock 1997, 465). On this reading, the emancipated voice would be the one that has unmasked oppression‐perpetuating falsifications by joining with others to challenge social structures, by analyzing how these structures maintain the status quo and who is benefiting from this set‐up, and by envisioning a society free of repression and exploitation.

Neither of these proposals seems altogether satisfactory. While it is undeniable that feminist separatist contexts can authorize women to find their own voices, it is also advisable to bear in mind that separatist contexts can deteriorate into a dynamic of mutually reinforcing, escalating error and muddle. Insulation from opposed viewpoints can breed self‐delusion. Yet, mandating oppositional politics as a prerequisite for the self‐understanding needed to speak in one's own voice is insufficiently respectful of women's uniqueness as individuals, for many women have conflicting commitments or find other methods of getting in touch with themselves more in keeping with their personal style. An epistemology that does not do justice to women's individuality is hardly suited to a feminist account of self‐determination.

Another possibility would be to conceptualize the emancipated, individual voice as one that expresses a set of objective values, such as flourishing, self‐respect, and dignity (Babbitt 1993, 262). The trouble with this suggestion is that such values must be interpreted, and these interpretations (p.19) are inherently contestable. Since the meaning of these values is not transparent, people are bound to disagree about whether an individual's self‐description and self‐narrative comport with them. Whereas some women identify flourishing with being a devoted mother and a reliable helpmate, others regard lives dedicated to homemaking as squandering women's potential. Now, if we extricate ourselves from such clashes of judgment by agreeing to disagree, congruity with objective values could not function as a criterion for authenticating women's voices. If anyone who frames her life story as a tale of flourishing, self‐respect, and dignity is by definition speaking in her own voice regardless of how she is actually living, voice theory would lose both the power to discern internalized oppression and the leverage to critique alien, culturally ordained narratives. Appealing to objective values could only authenticate women's voices if the meaning of these values were indisputable.

Despite my qualms about these ways of filling the epistemological lacunas in voice theory, I am reluctant to dismiss them. Each strikes me as promising. Still, both views need supplementation, and neither should be privileged as the sole way of authenticating women's voices.

The attractiveness of these proposals depends, I believe, on unstated assumptions about women's agentic capacities. The worries that the insularity of a separatist context can foster misguided, possibly dangerous, convictions and that the values of flourishing, self‐respect, and dignity are too indeterminate to provide touchstones for authenticating voices are allayed if we assume that the participants in separatist groups and the interpreters of these values exercise skills that enable them to express their feelings and ideas openly, to interact respectfully, to reflect intelligently, and to judge conscientiously. Likewise, undertaking to define flourishing, self‐respect, and dignity sharply enough to make these values useful voice authenticators is less worrisome if we assume that women themselves are defining these values while exercising skills that attune them to conflicts between proposed interpretations and their own needs and aspirations, as well as skills that enable them to resist detrimental interpretations effectively. If I am right that my objections to authenticating women's voices by reference to the context or the content of their speech are neutralized when women are seen as endowed with agentic skills of the sort I have mentioned, it must be because these skills put women in touch with themselves and enable them to discern what they really want and care about and because they enable women to improvise ways to express their own values and goals, both in the medium of speech and in that of action.

(p.20) To set out the agentic skills needed to provide feminist voice theory with a credible epistemology is to articulate an implicit theory of autonomy. A theory of how one can differentiate one's own desires, values, and goals from the clamor of subordinating discourses and overwhelming social demands and how one can articulate and enact one's own desires, values, and goals is a theory of self‐determination. These are some of the skills that make self‐determination possible:

  1. 1. Introspection skills that sensitize individuals to their own feelings and desires, that enable them to interpret their subjective experience, and that help them judge how good a likeness a self‐portrait is

  2. 2. Communication skills that enable individuals to get the benefit of others' perceptions, background knowledge, insights, advice, and support

  3. 3. Memory skills that enable individuals to recall relevant experiences—not only from their own lives, but also those that associates have recounted or that they have encountered in literature or other art forms

  4. 4. Imagination skills that enable individuals to envisage feasible options—to audition a range of self‐images they might adopt and to preview a variety of plot lines their lives might follow

  5. 5. Analytical skills and reasoning skills that enable individuals to assess the relative merits of different visions of what they could be like and precis for future episodes in their life stories

  6. 6. Self‐nurturing skills that enable individuals to secure their physical and psychological equilibrium despite missteps and setbacks —that enable them to appreciate the overall worthiness of their self‐portraits and their self‐narratives, assure themselves of their capacity to carry on when they find their self‐portraits wanting or their self‐narratives misguided, and sustain their self‐respect if they need to correct their self‐portraits or revise their self‐narratives

  7. 7. Volitional skills that enable individuals to resist pressure to capitulate to convention and enable them to maintain their commitment to the self‐portrait and to the continuations of their auto‐biographies that they consider genuinely their own

  8. 8. Interpersonal skills that enable individuals to join forces to challenge and change cultural regimes and institutional arrangements (p.21) that pathologize or marginalize their priorities and projects, that deprive them of accredited discursive means to represent themselves to themselves and to others as flourishing, self‐respecting, valuable individuals, and that close off their opportunities to enact their self‐portraits and self‐narratives

What I am suggesting is that autonomous people have well‐developed, well‐coordinated repertoires of agentic skills and call on them routinely as they reflect on themselves and their lives and as they reach decisions about how best to go on.4 When a woman speaks in her own voice, then, she is articulating what she knows as a result of exercising these skills.

This view of autonomy and women's voices does not pigeonhole people as free agents, incompetent dependents, or helpless victims. On the one hand, it acknowledges that women achieve a measure of self‐determination despite male dominance, for these agentic skills are commonplace and exercising them requires no esoteric knowledge. Still, since proficiency with respect to these agentic skills is a matter of degree, and autonomy often depends on whether or not one's chance circumstances are conducive to exercising these skills and on whether or not one is motivated to exercise these skills, it is safe to assume that, like everyone else, most women experience autonomy fluctuations over the course of time, peaking now and then. On the other hand, this view of autonomy acknowledges the institutionalization of male dominance and the gravity of internalized oppression, both of which impede women's ability to develop and exercise these skills. It does not collapse into despair or cynicism, however, for it also explains how women can recognize and resist subordination by marshaling their agentic skills.

Reconfiguring autonomy this way supplies a missing component in feminist voice theory while at the same time incorporating voice theory's key insights. As Lugones and Spelman urge, self‐determination is inseparable from speaking in one's own voice.5 If people cannot articulate what they are doing and what they stand for to themselves, their control over how they are engaging with the world is diminished. Moreover, they need to communicate what they are doing and what they stand for to others. Otherwise, people will rely on stereotypical images and scenarios to ascribe needs to them and to interpret their conduct. As a result, they may withhold respect and cooperation for no good reason, and they may oppose progressive social change. My skills‐based, processual view of autonomy features the linguistic and interpersonal skills people need to accomplish these aims.

(p.22) In addition, the view of autonomy I have sketched agrees with feminist voice theory that gaining a voice is an achievement and that social context affects women's ability to speak in their own voices. Not all contexts nurture agentic skills, facilitate exercising them, and authorize people to apply them to the task of rethinking and reconstructing values and norms. I would caution, however, that separatist groups and progressive political organizations are not the only autonomy‐augmenting sites. Other settings include friendships and other intimate relationships, psychotherapy, and mentoring relationships (Friedman 1993, Chapters 7 and 8; Brison 1997, 20–31). At least since Virginia Woolf penned A Room of One's Own, moreover, feminists have championed solitude as a resource for finding one's voice, and it is important to notice that privacy, no less than companionship or professional assistance, is a socially conferred benefit. To privilege one of these contexts would be to ignore women's distinctive temperaments and priorities. Still, the underlying point of feminist separatist and standpoint theory remains: One cannot quell the din of internalized oppression simply by logging off patriarchy.com and clicking on women.com. Accessing one's own voice is a skilled, ongoing, and relational undertaking.

Any tenable theory of women's self‐determination must accommodate the realities of enculturation and unconscious desire. Since enculturation shapes both the body and the psyche, and since unconscious desire influences both conduct and thought processes, it is necessary to eschew the dubious ideal of total individual control. On the view of autonomy I have advanced, the starting point is the embodied, socially situated, and divided self, and the object is to gain a rich understanding of what one is like and what one aspires to become and also to be able to adjust one's desires, traits, values, emotions, and relationships if one becomes convinced that one should. The autonomous individual is an evolving subject—a subject who is in charge of her life within the limits of imperfect, introspective decipherability and welcome, though in some ways intrusive (or downright harmful), physical experience and social relations, a subject who fashions her self‐portrait and shapes her self‐narrative through a process of skillful self‐discovery, self‐definition, and self‐direction. Although pretending to have transcended the impact of an oppressive social regime is nothing but a masculinist affectation, agentic skillfulness does ensure that women's voices are not wholly subsumed by internalized ideology. Moreover, the prospect of developing these skills and expanding their range of application holds out the promise of intrepid, unprecedented essays in women's self‐determination.

(p.23) 4. Patriarchal Cultures, Gender Normalization, and Women's Self‐Determination

I have argued that internalized oppression is a systemic wrong for which feminists need to find remedies, but there is a view of culture that makes internalized oppression seem more like a paranoid fantasy that needs nothing more than a good debunking. Michelle Moody‐Adams points out that successful cultures must preserve people's capacities for the exercise of judgment and discretion. “Any culture that worked to impair these capacities,” she writes, “would be creating the conditions for its own demise” (Moody‐Adams 1994, 307). I agree that a viable culture cannot turn its adherents into indoctrinated automatons who cannot question cultural beliefs and practices and who cannot instigate cultural change (Meyers 1993). Indeed, one implication of the account of autonomy I have been developing is that it is virtually impossible for a culture to be this repressive (for related discussion, see Chodorow 1999, Chapters 5–7). Still, I find Moody‐Adams's confidence in the autonomy‐preserving function of culture unduly sanguine, for I believe she underestimates the extent of cultural collusion in internalized oppression.

A thriving culture must evolve, but it must persist as well. If cultures are self‐perpetuating systems, they must have built‐in mechanisms that shield their beliefs and practices from criticism so zealous and damning that it triggers cultural decline or foments mass defection. Yet, the slightest acquaintance with human history confirms that cultures do not usually depend on the justice of their beliefs and practices to secure the loyalty of their adherents. What keeps them going?

Even the most unjust cultures have a willing coconspirator in human psychology's conservative bent. People commonly prefer the known over the unknown. Alas, they often prefer the security of having more or less mastered coping with a known evil over the risk of being thrown off balance by whatever might succeed it. This conservative disposition is culturally abetted. Cultures ward off the perils of internal dissension and disruption by circumscribing adherent's autonomy. Adroitly steering capacities for judgment and discretion into constructive pathways while limiting the scope of skepticism and critique enables cultures to evolve and endure. However, insofar as cultures corral autonomy skills in order to perpetuate unjust institutions and norms, they are not benignly guiding and modulating people's capacity for judgment and discretion. They are impairing it.

(p.24) Cultures threaten autonomy in two principal respects. First, cultures lead people to notice some phenomena and overlook others, and they lead people to ascribe certain meanings to their experiences and to disregard other possible meanings. They do this by furnishing stock concepts and interpretive schemas that focus perception and organize reflection. Culturally entrenched concepts and interpretive schemas have countless functions, but for my present purposes the key one is framing self‐portraiture and self‐narration. As psychologist Jerome Bruner observes, “If the Self is a remembered self, the remembering reaches far back beyond our own birth, back to the cultural and language forms that specify the defining properties of a Self” (Bruner 1994, 53). Second, cultures valorize some agentic skills over others. They commend childrearing practices that nurture the favored skills and establish social structures that reward them, leaving other agentic skills to languish. For example, middle‐class Euro‐American culture prizes means/ends rationality and vigorously cultivates the skills needed to pick goals with high satisfaction yields and to plot successful goal‐directed campaigns. In this culture, however, agentic skills are gendered. Although childrearing practices and reward structures do not extinguish means/ends rationality in middle‐class Euro‐American girls, their interpersonal skills are accentuated. The agentic skills one possesses and uses with ease secure a measure of self‐understanding and self‐determination. Lacking agentic skills of possessing agentic skills that are poorly developed or poorly coordinated with other skills constrains self‐understanding and self‐determination.

The agentic skills that a culture promotes match the social roles people are expected to play, and the stock concepts and interpretive schemas that a culture transmits provide input for these skills that is preselected and preprocessed in culturally congenial ways. Conversely, cultures suppress agentic skills that are likely to lead people to question the adequacy of culturally approved concepts and interpretive schemas and, perhaps, to condemn their cultural heritage or its core norms.

Internalized patriarchal oppression names the selections of culturally certified concepts and interpretive schemas together with the repertoires of culturally favored and disfavored agentic skills that recruit women into self‐subordination. Since different cultures (and subcultures) structure women's agency differently, internalized patriarchal oppression is not uniform across cultures (or subcultures), and since different women process cultural material differently, internalized patriarchal oppression is not uniform among women within the same culture (or subculture) either. In (p.25) this book, I explore one cultural device that induces women to internalize patriarchal oppression. My focus is a subset of a particular culture's stock concepts and interpretive schemas—namely, the dominant system of tropes, mythic tales, and pictorial images that encode the various meanings of womanhood and norms applying to women in the United States today. (I shall sometimes refer to these different types of representation as figurations of womanhood.) My aim is to analyze how this component of gender discourse suffuses women's voices and undercuts their self‐determination, to discover which agentic skills help women to repair this damage and increase their self‐determination, and to identify changes in discourse and in social practices that would consolidate these gains.

I have chosen to focus on figurations of womanhood because I believe that their insidious role in internalized oppression and their egregious impact on women's self‐determination have not been fully understood and theorized. What are generally taken to be the facts about gender within a given culture are encoded in captivating figurations that condense complex behavioral and psychological imperatives into memorable, emotionally compelling forms. The culturally entrenched tropes, mythic tales, and pictorial images that depict women serve as a kind of shorthand in which group norms are crystallized and through which these norms become embedded in the “geology of desire” (I borrow Barbara Herman's phrase; Herman 1991, 787). Indeed, it would not be inaccurate to say that these figurations fossilize gender norms in the geology of culture, for they integrate these norms into the corpus of common sense, where they are protected from criticism (Beauvoir 1989, Chapter 9; Kittay 1988; Rooney 1991). Mere social convention—normalized gender—is thus naturalized.

Phyllis Rooney quotes a passage from John Locke's An Essay concerning Human Understanding that is both revealing and alarming:

All the art of rhetorick [sic], besides order and clearness, all the artificial and figurative application of words eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions, and thereby mislead judgment . . . eloquence, like the fair sex, has too prevailing beauties in it to suffer itself ever to be spoken against. And it is vain to find fault with those arts of deceiving wherein men find pleasure to be deceived. (Locke, quoted in Rooney 1991, 84)

I agree with Locke's observation that the beauty of figurative language is beguiling and disarms rational disputation. I also agree that linguistic imagery (and its sibling, pictorial imagery) is liable to abuse. In subsequent (p.26) chapters, I shall argue that there is no better illustration of how imagery can be used to “insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions, and thereby mislead judgment” than the ubiquitous figurations of womanhood in Western, patriarchal culture. However, figurations of womanhood are neither inherently misleading nor harmful, and I shall also argue that replacing patriarchal figurations with emancipatory ones is a vital feminist objective. Despite mu quarrel with Locke's simplistic, unconditional condemnation of figurative language, I would urge that his central point is sound and that this passage is more insightful than he realized. In the same breath as Locke denounces the misleadingness of figurative language, he commits the sin of simile and analogizes the seductiveness of “eloquence” to the wiles of feminine charm (for more examples of philosophers relying on tropes to condemn figurative language, see Kittay 1988, 1). Ironically, his own rhetoric proves his thesis. Evidently, traditional gender imagery is irresistibly seductive.

The artifice of construing stereotypes as lists of prescribed or forbidden attributes and behaviors gives a false impression of how such concepts are disseminated. Figurations of womanhood convey complex ideas in an easily assimilable and nearly indelible form. Although we often have trouble taking in information and regulations, imagery sticks with us. Culturally entrenched representations of womanhood pass on gender norms without reducing them to explicit profiles of gender‐compliant traits of character, explicit rules of gender‐compliant comportment, and explicit edicts about gender‐compliant aims. The vibrant immediacy of these figurations facilitates the transmission and retention of these messages. Thus, girls are often inducted into cultural expectations—their attitudes and behavior shaped—despite explicit instruction and parental role models to the contrary. Many parents who try to raise children in nonsexist ways are defeated by cultural influences that they are not conscious of and that consequently they cannot counteract (Valian 1998, 22–38, 58–59). In conventional households where gender norms are accepted, parental values and guidance are powerfully seconded by culture. Seductive as figurations of womanhood are, feminine norms are to a significant extent absorbed subliminally.

Figurations of womanhood carry a potent emotional charge. It is important to remember how children are introduced to this system of imagery—how one trembled when the witch appeared in a fairy tale and how one adored, perhaps revered, the kind, beauteous mothers in these stories. Children's lively imaginations and emotional susceptibility are thus enlisted (p.27) to mesh norms with abiding affect. In addition, gendered tropes construct the Western world view—its conception of nature as “mother nature,” its conception of creativity as “giving birth to an idea,” its conception of good and evil as “the chaste woman” and “the lascivious whore.'6 Because figurations of womanhood symbolize disparate conceptual and experiential domains that concern the very fundaments of human existence, they help to unify these domains into an overarching philosophical vision. To repudiate the patriarchal stock of gender figurations is not merely to advocate women's equality and freedom, then. It is to challenge the regnant world view. As a result, cultural representations of womanhood galvanize emotional commitment and resist critique.

Encoded as a system of figurations, feminine norms are strict, yet adaptable. Figurations are open to interpretation, and this elasticity enables them to stretch to cover new situations. For instance, one might think that the mass entrance of white, middle‐class women into the job market in recent decades would contradict and discredit hegemonic maternal imagery. But it didn't for the vast majority of these female employees become mothers, and the problems of juggling competing career and parenting responsibilities are discursively represented as “women's problems” or “working mothers' problems,” not “parents' problems” or “working fathers' problems” (Valian 1998, 45). Still, culturally entrenched figurations of womanhood are narrowly prescriptive, for imagery circumscribes interpretation. People who violate a culturally entrenched figuration, however derogatory it may be, provoke resentment and antagonism. A professional woman who is aggressively competitive is despised as much as a professional woman who is meek and ineffectual (Valian 1998, 291). Stuck in a no‐win predicament, women cannot feel better about themselves or earn respect by conforming to masculine figurations. The constrained flexibility of gender figurations ensures their applicability in a wide range of circumstances, and this adaptability ensures their survival despite momentous social and economic change.

Lodged in women's cognitive, emotional, and motivational infrastructures—their psycho‐corporeal economy—prevailing gender figurations provide the default templates for their self‐portraits and their self‐narratives (Haste 1994, 36–47). Unless a woman takes pains to construct her self‐portrait and self‐narrative in terms of unorthodox figurations of womanhood, she is likely to appropriate standard‐issue, culturally furnished ones. If she does, she will perceive herself, recount her experiences, and anticipate future moves using the stock concepts and interpretive schemas (p.28) that these culturally entrenched figurations encode. Sadly, though, when the system of figurations that she draws on is that of a patriarchal culture—a culture committed to the subordination of women—her self‐portrait and self‐narrative bespeak internalized oppression. This noxious influence notwithstanding, women who conform to norms of femininity commonly regard their lives as fulfilling natural feminine desires—their indwelling destiny as women—for their lives enact a conception of gender that has become integral to their identity and their sense of self.

Now, it might be thought that all that is needed to free women from this internalized oppression is to point out discrepancies between the idealized or vilifying cultural figurations of womanhood and the facts about women's actual characteristics and potentialities. However, it is not possible to expel a figuration from one's psycho‐corporeal economy by noticing counterexamples or disconfirming statistics. Since these figurations frame women's self‐portraits and self‐narratives, freeing oneself from them means “drawing” one's self‐portrait in a new style expressing new aesthetic values and “writing” one's self‐narrative with a new plot line incorporating new themes. It means reconceiving one's identity. It comes as no surprise, then, that dry recitations of sensible reasons to disavow a subordinate role and subordinating values and desires seldom convert anyone who has internalized oppression. Since personal transformation is not so easily achieved, it is by no means obvious how women's self‐determination can be augmented.

The question of how women can resist internalized oppression and increase their self‐determination is the principal concern of this book. In the next five chapters, I take up a series of specific figurations of womanhood. Chapters 2 and 3 examine representations of motherhood and the mother/child relationship; Chapter 4 examines the Oedipal imagery of the family romance; Chapter 5 examines representations of feminine narcissism; and Chapter 6 examines symbolic associations between aging women and mortality. These figurations impede women's self‐determination by stifling their voices and haunting their choices. In each case, I analyze the ambient murmur these figurations sustain and they ways in which this cultural noise pollution eats away at women's agentic health. In particular, I explicate how these figurations complicate the epistemology of self‐knowledge —that is, the epistemology of self‐portraiture and self‐narration. I identify agentic skills that contribute to women's ability to displace patriarchal figurations and craft emancipatory counterfigurations; I propose social reforms designed to cultivate these skills; and I describe alternative cultural (p.29) figurations of womanhood that would facilitate women's self‐determination.7 In Chapter 7, I consider the need for these changes from a different angle. Shifting from the value of self‐determination for individual women to the value of justice for women as a social group, I argue that until feminist counterfigurations supplant patriarchal figurations of womanhood, women's social and economic gains will remain in jeopardy, for patriarchal figurations stoke misogyny and fuel antifeminist backlash. A culture‐jamming, discursive politics must go hand‐in‐hand with feminist social and economic initiatives. As Audre Lorde so wisely remarked, “For women, then, poetry [in my terms, counterfiguration] is not a luxury” (Lorde 1984, 37).


(1.) Transsexuals may seem to be an exception to this rule. But their sexuality and gender are at best semivoluntary, for they are culturally defined as “deviant,” and in choosing to change their sex and to align their gender with this new anatomy, these individuals presumably do not choose this stigmatizing label.

(2.) Subordination of social groups is not a uniform phenomenon. Different subordinated groups are assigned to different social positions, and the prejudices against different subordinated groups vary in form and content. Women, for example, are not an isolated minority. Yet, manhood is the cultural norm of humanity, whereas womanhood is culturally coded as a defective form of manhood. Moreover, gender segmentation persists in labor markets worldwide, and women wield little political power compared to men of similar backgrounds. Likewise, minority groups may be more or less isolated—in the United States, for example, Jews are more socially and economically integrated than African Americans or Latinos. Prejudices against different groups are not uniform—homophobia is significantly different from racial bigotry, which is significantly different from misogyny. These variations notwith‐standing, we may ask whether there are continuities with respect to the relationship between membership in a subordinated social group and the constitution of individual identities, and that question will be the focus of this section.

(3.) I want to acknowledge that Benson realizes that oppressive socialization does not necessarily rule out autonomy in all aspects of the victim's life. He discusses the possibility that a person's critical competence can be compartmentalized—that is, one can exercise critical capabilities in one arena but be unable to exercise these capabilities in another (Benson 1991, 397).


(4.) I would like to refer readers to an intriguing psychological discussion of the experience of control that lends support to my skills‐based approach to autonomy. Ellen J. Langer and Justin Pugh Brown observe that psychologists have generally identified experiences of control with the ability to dictate or predict an outcome, and they argue that this conception is misguided. Reflecting on the problematics of control and self‐blame in the psychology of victims of sexual violence, they maintain instead that one experiences control when one is “mindful of the choice one was making,” that is, when one regards oneself as an able decision maker and made one's decision in a thoughtful way (Langer and Pugh Brown 1992, 269, 273). Presumably, individuals who developed proficiency with respect to the agentic skills I have enumerated are more likely to view themselves as good decision makers, more likely to exercise those skills when confronted with choices, and therefore more likely to feel in control of their lives. If culture‐transcending free will is an illusion (as I believe it is), there can be nothing more to self‐determination than feeling in control as a result of competent decision making.

(5.) It might be objected that the premium that feminist voice theory places on articulateness betrays a racial and class bias. I do not believe, however, that articulateness is raced or classed. What I believe is that styles of articulateness are raced and classed and that these stylistic differences lead many middle‐class whites to discount the articulateness of members of other social groups. Thus, I would deny that feminist calls for hearing women's voices are elitist and exclusionary. If anything, they oblige members of privileged social groups to acquaint themselves with unfamiliar rhetorics and to learn to recognize different forms of articulateness.

(6.) Feminist scholars have catalogued many of the ways in which gender has come to function as a “root metaphor, one that has become so deeply embedded in our thought that we no longer recognize it as such” (Rooney 1991, 87, 91–95; Lloyd 1993b, 10–17, 1993a, 74–83; Kittay 1988, 72–77; Gilman 1985, 76–108; W. Williams 1991, 20–24).

(7.) I am mindful that cultural representations of womanhood are not freestanding. They are matched and sustained by cultural representations of manhood. Thus, successfully refiguring womanhood requires refiguring manhood as well. Moreover, I am mindful that refiguring manhood and integrating emancipatory images of masculinity into the cultural imaginary may prove to be the more difficult task—Westerners adapt more readily to a woman in pants than to a man in skirts, although, as I shall point out, there are severe limits on the acceptability of women's assimilation of masculine norms. In Chapters 2–6, I occasionally touch on these questions, and in Chapter 7, I emphasize that feminist counterfigurations must take into account men's needs for self‐esteem and agency as well as women's. However, for the most part, I focus on critiquing and replacing cultural figurations of womanhood.