Women often do things that serve to uphold or reinforce their own oppression. For generations feminists have sought to understand why this is the case. Various answers have been given, including ignorance; faulty reasoning; false consciousness; internalised oppression and lack of self-respect. But in the last two decades one explanation has won out: adaptive preferences. On this account, women help to reinforce their own oppression because they have formed preferences in response to their unjust social setting, preferences which reflect the injustice of the context in which they were formed. In this paper, I argue that focussing only on the analysis from adaptive preference to understand what I shall call ‘women’s complicity in their own oppression’ narrows the discussion too much and fails to adequately capture the different forms complicity can take and the varied reasons why agents become complicit. In particular, I argue that the account from adaptive preference cannot fully explain cases where agents reinforce their own oppression when there are other options open to them. In order to develop a more nuanced analysis of complicity that can account for such cases, I return to the feminist debate as it stood in the 1980s and 90s in order to critically evaluate alternative resources for understanding the reasons why women often uphold their own oppression. I argue that in these debates one finds an emphasis on the active role of the agent in upholding their own oppression, something that is not wholly explained by the unjust social circumstances of the agent or their limited options, as the adaptive preference theorist would have it. Developing this insight in conversation with work from the phenomenological tradition, I propose a more nuanced account of why women become complicit in their own oppression. I argue that this account is more apt to deal with women’s complicity as it manifests itself in various forms in contemporary society. I conclude with some remarks about what this new understanding means for how we should conceive of complicity and what it suggests in terms of the strategies by which complicity may be overcome.


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