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“The Autonomy Myth: Lies We Tell Ourselves About Dependency and Self-Sufficiency” By Martha Albertson Fineman The New Press, $25.95 Marriage has always meant different things to different people, and has, in the past six months, begun to take on a potentially dizzying array of legal interpretations as well. One county in Oregon has decided, until the courts explain just who can lawfully wed, not to issue marriage licenses to anyone. Martha Albertson Fineman would consider that a step in the right direction. In “The Autonomy Myth,” the Cornell Law School professor makes two arguments. First, she sets out to refute the proposition that married couples should be the primary building block for legal recognition of the family. Then she argues that the law should recognize and support all “caretaking relationships” that provide for children and elderly or other dependents. The book succeeds in its negative critique but inexplicably shortchanges its advocacy of a new paradigm. The title refers to the American credo of self-sufficiency and the ways it plays into public policy. Fineman points out that all people — at least during childhood, and often during old age — are dependent upon others for part of their lives. In many of the most critical ways, the law only supports those who care for dependents if they are in one specific relationship: as husband and wife. The professor questions that bias. When on target, Fineman’s analysis is thought provoking, revealing some of the circular logic that surrounds the preferences for marriage in society. Why deny certain kinds of assistance to single mothers? Because society wants to promote married parenting. Why promote married parenting? Because children raised in homes with both parents tend to prosper more. (Fineman disputes some of the studies that demonstrate this, but accepts it for the sake of argument.) Why do children with married parents prosper? Because they benefit from greater economic stability and more time with less-burdened parents. So why not give benefits to single mothers, which would create greater economic stability and more time at home with children? Fineman brings the conclusion back to a preference for marriage that is more rooted in tradition and religion than in practicality. And why, Fineman asks, are children treated as luxury goods — items people choose to have and therefore must pay for on their own? This seems obvious — individuals choose to have children — but Fineman points out that the survival of society requires many of us to make that choice. In one of the book’s best twists on the status quo, Fineman suggests that we treat parents not as consumers of goods, but as producers of goods — people who fulfill a vital role in the economy and society by creating what it most needs: new members. If automobile manufacturers can expect government bailouts for creating jobs and products, why can’t parents and caretakers expect government support for raising children or caring for the elderly? (Fineman’s vision for this support goes far beyond the tax deductions that parents receive.) The economy cannot survive without both functions being performed, so why is the commercial function the one that deserves funding? At this point, society still relies on the institution of marriage to make up for the lack of legal/financial protections afforded parenting and caretaking. Fineman presents compelling evidence that marriage, as an institution, is no longer sustaining that burden as it once did. If marriage cannot serve as the source for care of dependents in society, what institution can? According to Fineman, only individuals will ever be able to answer that question. Therefore, personally negotiated pairs and groups, whether connected sexually, familiarly or simply by mutual need, should be afforded many of the same legal protections and financial benefits now given to married couples. Not all of Fineman’s discussions of the inequities and confused traditions surrounding marriage are directly on point. There is much flogging of standard feminist targets, with a well-worn critique of the Promise Keepers movement that might have been fresh seven years ago, but still would have been only tangentially related to her thesis. Fineman retraces the now familiar litany that marriage may never have been as the Promise Keepers proclaim, that society is unlikely to adopt such a model again, and that the group’s platform of voluntary submission of wives still constitutes oppression of women. However, for the most part Fineman’s arguments are fresh and well made. Perhaps too well. Fineman doesn’t just argue that marriage is incapable of shouldering all society’s caretaking needs. She argues that marriage has never shouldered them well, that it is in many senses poisonous to women and that the institution of marriage itself may need to be destroyed. This judgment seems to merit a book of its own — Fineman’s earlier “The Neutered Mother” may be that book — rather than dominating such a large portion of a book that claims to be about new ways of caretaking. In fact, the imbalance in Fineman’s arguments has the perverse effect of working against her claims. She doesn’t detail her model for formalizing a new breed of caretaking relationships — certainly not as thoroughly as she attacks marriage. By neglecting the theoretical constructs of the caretaking relationships, Fineman fails to fundamentally differentiate them from marriage. This raises the question: If the one caretaking relationship currently recognized by law is so structurally flawed, so inherently abusive and exploitive, then how can expanding such an institution be a good idea? Fineman takes it as a given that, without the burdensome traditions that surround marriage, new kinds of partnerships will be healthy and equitable; this confidence in human character will perhaps not be shared by all readers. So, although past inequities caused by marriage are thoroughly and carefully explained, Fineman is sketchy on the details of the partnerships she wants to replace marriage with. Readers searching for discussions of how such partnerships would be dissolved, how inheritance would work or many other fundamental legal changes such caretaking relationships would call for will not find much. Fineman suggests that the ramifications of each partnership would be individually contracted, with very little discussion of the results of such a policy. “The Autonomy Myth” therefore fails in part of Fineman’s mission: It provides too little detail about the new social institutions she’s advocating. But if she doesn’t provide the answers the book seems to promise, she does pose penetrating questions — questions that will challenge most readers’ assumptions about the way society operates now and the ways in which it should evolve in the future. Marriage will undoubtedly be redefined again. Even an incomplete road map may help the law find its way.

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