Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Degree

Doctor of Philosophy

Program

Philosophy

Supervisor

Dr. Helen Fielding and Dr. Carolyn McLeod

Abstract

My goal in this dissertation is to articulate an Arendtian conception of feminist agency, that is, agency that aims at resistance from within oppressive situations. There is a tendency in feminist literature to depict women in the global south as if they are passive victims of their oppression, with no opportunities to resist. This tendency is replicated in feminist responses to transnational contract pregnancy, the practice in which people travel across national borders to hire a woman to gestate an embryo.

I argue that the feminist literature on contract pregnancy is polarized and unable to resolve the problematic trend of ignoring women’s agency. On one side, some feminists argue that contract pregnancy can enhance women’s agency by challenging oppressive norms or by expanding women’s choices. On the other side, some feminists argue that contract pregnancy obstructs women’s agency by perpetuating oppressive norms and by inappropriately commodifying women’s reproductive labor.

To depolarize the debate, I propose a conception of feminist agency that allows for women to exercise agency against aspects of their oppression. Drawing from Hannah Arendt, I contend that feminist agency is a relational enterprise by which the agent comes to know herself, and by which others come to know her. Moreover, feminist agency necessarily contains an element of resistance. The central feature feminist agency is drawn from Arendt’s conception of thinking, which refers to critical reflection that enables people to reject certain beliefs and commitments. I suggest a contract pregnant woman may be motivated to think by lived contradictions within her experience. In other words, the inability of dominantly held social beliefs to explain the woman’s experiences can prompt her to think. The rejection of oppressive social norms allows the contract pregnant woman to understand contract pregnancy in a new way, and can encourage individual acts of resistance to oppression. Thus, feminist agency is able to appreciate how women in oppressed circumstances may resist aspects of their oppression. In addition to using Arendt to resolve a problematic tendency in feminist theory, I also argue that feminist theory helps to open up Arendt’s work to new application, specifically with respect to reproductive justice.


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