2006–2007 New Perspectives in Social Policy Seminar

The Autonomy Myth: A Theory of Dependency
Martha Albertson Fineman, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law, Emory Law School, and director of the Feminism and Legal Theory Project

Respondent: Joe Soss, Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs and IRP Affiliate

Professor Soss's Response, "Reflections on The Autonomy Myth: Explanations, Justifications, and Vulnerabilities"

Thursday, October 19, 2006

In her work Professor Fineman has taken issue with the American emphasis on the values of self-sufficiency and autonomy, which, she states, is understood in very narrow terms, linked to economic self-sufficiency and a sense of separation from others in society. In The Autonomy Myth, she argues that these attitudes have negatively affected government policy relating to the care of the young, the elderly, and the infirm. Those charged with administering U.S. social policy have long considered the marital family household as separate and self-sufficient, at the cost of the well-being of many families and their members, particularly children. If the state wants families to shoulder responsibility for dependency, Fineman insists, then it should build policies to foster and facilitate caretaking. The fact that caretaking has been un- or undervalued in the market is an argument for government intervention and restructuring to mandate adjustment and market accommodation, as well as more direct reparations.

Dependency, Professor Fineman states, is

both universal and inevitable—all of us were dependent as children, and many of us will become dependent as we age. These characteristics of universality and inevitability support an argument for the reallocation of responsibility for dependency across societal institutions, away from primary reliance on the family. . . .


This theory of universal dependence encapsulates the notion that subsidy is also universal—we all live subsidized lives—as well as the idea that subsidies come in many different forms. . . . [W]hile the state provides what we think of as subsidies, such as those supplied by the tax code, caretakers provide a subsidy to the larger society and its institutions. Far from being independent, the state and the market institutions that it protects and fosters are dependent on the caretaking labor that reproduces society and populates its institutions.


Caretaking thus creates a “social debt,” a debt that must be paid according to principles of equality that demand that those who receive social benefits also share the costs when they are able.
The Autonomy Myth: A Theory of Dependency (The New Press, 2004), p. xvii.

Other publications by Prof. Fineman include "Why Marriage?" Virginia Journal of Social Policy and the Law (Fall 2001) and The Neutered Mother, The Sexual Family, and other Twentieth Century Tragedies (Routledge, 1995). She is coeditor, with Terence Dougherty, of Feminism Confronts Homo Economicus: Gender, Law, and Society (Cornell University Press, 2005).