An exploration of relational autonomy with reference to the autobiographical poetry of Afrikaans female poets

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The tension between autonomy and relationality is an intriguing topic in feminist relationality theory. In The female imagination Patricia Meyer Spacks (1972:267) warns against the dangers of relational female self-definition in terms of woman’s struggle to create a positive identity of self-mastery. Friedman (2000:36) states that the cultural term autonomy should be altered in order also be applicable to women. She discusses the examples of said change as (1) new paradigms of autonomy, which include female protagonists; (2) redefining autonomy so as to avoid stereotypical male characteristics; and (3) the redefining autonomy to include social relationships.

The methodology of this article entails that the term autonomy be closely scrutinised with the aim of conceptualising the possibility of redefining autonomy in terms of relationality. This conceptualisation follows the framework provided by Friedman (2000:37–41) in “Autonomy, social disruption and women”. Friedman’s framework entails a characterisation of autonomy which is typical thereof in contemporary philosophical literature. Her characterisation of autonomy is done under the headings of personal autonomy, autonomy and female identity, autonomy and gender stereotyping, the social reconceptualisation of autonomy, and a critical view of autonomy as disruptor of personal relationships. 

In striving to redefine female autonomy in terms of relationality this article elaborates on the discussion based on Friedman’s framework by constructing a relational model of autonomy with additional reference to Nedelsky (1989), Keller (1997), Mackenzie and Stoljar (2000), Dryden (2013) and Stoljar (2013). Autonomy is also elaborated on in view of Stone (2011) and others in terms of relationality and motherhood, an important identity marker in terms of female subjectivity.

New paradigms of autonomy which include female protagonists are illustrated by illuminating the theoretical discussion of relational autonomy by means of autobiographical poems from the oeuvres of Elisabeth Eybers, Ingrid Jonker, Antjie Krog and Ronelda S. Kamfer. In these corroborating poems an autobiographical poetic speaker is used in a way that causes the woman’s voice and her relational position to be highlighted and/or problematised. 

This article’s scope allows for the analysis of only a limited number of female poets’ poetry, and necessitates a demarcation of poets. The focus is not so much on identifying detailed similarities in the poetics of the chosen poets as it is on analysing these poets’ autobiographical poetry in determining similarities from a critical approach by which certain theoretical frameworks can be illustrated. 

The theoretical discussion and analyses of poems in this article lead to the conclusion that autonomy and relationality cannot be viewed as separate phenomena with regard to the identity formation of women. Both autonomy and relationality influence the formation of the female poetic speaker’s identity, and an analysis of the various poems indicates that social embeddedness and agency are embodied by women, and that women can take a position by which to articulate this. 

This article’s focus on a feminist application of autonomy entails that the narratives of women will react against patriarchal limitations in order to articulate and redefine their awareness and relationality of the self. This can entail that a narrative reflects on the fact that women are, according to the conventional stereotyping of gender roles, linked to a motherly function. It is shown that a narrative that reflects on the motherly role, or even redefines it according to new paradigms not dominated by patriarchal views, can constitute a feminist application of the term autonomy.

A further insight entails that the gender-stereotypical separation of emotion and reason has become less prominent in contemporary contexts. It is found that rationality is made up of both emotion and reason, and that the reconceptualisation of autonomy also necessitates a reconceptualisation of the gender norms which influence gender roles and gender-specific characteristics. 

It is inferred from the discussion of the social reconceptualisation of autonomy that one develops the capacity for autonomy by means of social interaction. This development is subject to the context of values, meaning and modes of self-reflection as formed by social practice. The influence of social norms on the identity of a person forms part of the relational approach to autonomy, and implies that within a feminist framework the role of social norms (and specifically gender norms), relationality and autonomy are interactively and inseparably involved in the conceptualisation of the self. 

The argument that autonomy can, in certain cases, be regarded as disruptive to personal relationships is acknowledged, as is evidence of situations where this disruption does not necessarily manifest. It is also determined that the potential of autonomy for social disruption should not be viewed as exclusively negative. Autonomic reflection can offer women an opportunity for critical review of their relationships and the influence these relationships have on her identity.

Viewing autobiographical poetry through the lens provided here offers enriching possibilities. The poet who in an autobiographical poem reflects on certain relationships – i.e. reflects on her relationality ­– is simultaneously enacting her autonomy. Autonomy enables critical reflection on relationships, and a relationship cannot, in the first instance, exist without the possibility of relationality. Therefore, the writing of an autobiographical poem which critically reflects on the poetic speaker’s relational position can also be regarded as an exercising of the poetic speaker’s autonomy.

Keywords: autobiographical poetry; female poets; feminist relationality theory; identity; poetic speaker; relational autonomy


Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans

’n Verkenning van relasionele outonomie aan die hand van die outobiografiese poësie van Afrikaanse vrouedigters

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