Year of Award


Document Type


Degree Type

Master of Arts (MA)

Degree Name


Department or School/College

Department of Philosophy

Committee Chair

Bridget Clarke

Commitee Members

Bari Burke, Deborah Slicer


feminist legal theory, Kathryn Abrams, autonomy, Catharine MacKinnon, rape law, Joel Feinberg


University of Montana


Liberal notions of autonomy have shaped our laws, and perhaps more importantly, the way we think about ourselves. In this paper, I discuss various theories of autonomy, and their problems—specifically their implications for understanding human subjects and their experiences. I am particularly concerned with the role of gender in these theories, and want to know whether women’s autonomy is meaningfully different than men’s autonomy—that is, if gender inequality significantly influences or determines women’s actual choices. In chapter one, I discuss Joel Feinberg’s liberal theory of autonomy, which describes an unhindered, self-governing agent, free to pursue his or her own goals. In chapter two, I discuss some feminist responses to liberal theories, and lay out Catharine MacKinnon’s theory of dominance feminism. MacKinnon claims women have the capacity for autonomy, but pervasive systems of gender inequality do not allow them to exercise it. In chapter three, I discuss Kathryn Abrams’ theory of agency—a response to MacKinnon’s dominance feminism. Abrams thinks women’s autonomy is better described as partial or constrained as opposed to nonexistent. Abrams offers a rich conception of agency and challenges us to look at what counts as autonomous action in a new way. In chapter four, I argue that the most comprehensive theory of autonomy will involve both MacKinnon and Abrams. While Abrams’ theory focuses on women’s struggles to exercise agency within systems of oppression, MacKinnon offers an explanation of the patriarchal systems that create and maintain those conditions. Together, Abrams’ and MacKinnon’s theories can help us better understand situations in which women’s autonomy is called into question. Their analyses are particularly illuminating with regard to rape and other coercive sexual interactions. The law has difficulty determining what counts as rape—or rather, when sex becomes rape. In chapter five, I analyze three cases that do not fit the law’s current definition of rape. Abrams and MacKinnon show us how the law should be expanded to cover some of the more difficult cases.



© Copyright 2007 Beth Ann Headley