Where ‘Choice Feminism’ Has Got Us

Choice feminism, for those of you who haven’t been following along, is the name given to the idea that feminism equals women choosing what sort of life they want. Even if they choose to be a woman who defines herself as a man’s helpmate, they can still call themselves feminists. And by ‘helpmate’, I don’t mean simply women who decide not to work after having children. I mean a woman who thinks that a man’s role is to be in the public sphere and a woman’s is to stay home and help him succeed. Yes, folks, it’s now feminist not just to ‘opt out’ of earning a salary but to argue (and publish a book trying to persuade other women) that women should spend their time helping men get more money and power .

Rather than a platform that says that women should be equal, we’ve wound up with one that argues that women should be equal if they choose to be. And it’s easy to see how it happened. The most powerful argument one can make politically in America is one that protects individual rights from the infringement of the state. That’s how we made abortion and gay sex legal: by arguing that the state should not make decisions that violate the right to privacy–that is, the individual’s right to make determinations that primarily effect his/her own body and life. But the same right to choose that gave us legal abortion is giving us a politics that calls anything a woman wants to do ‘feminist’, even if it involves arguing that men are made for careers and women for domestic nurturing.

But it wasn’t just America’s focus on individual liberties that created this situation. ‘Choice feminism’ is also the natural outcome of a politics centred on women for whom choice is a really significant category–women who can stop working or not, use their Harvard educations or not, pay huge amounts of money for reproductive technology or not. Once you focus on women who have lots of choices–in the old days, we called it ‘privilege’–it’s easy to get hung up on what they decide to do with them.

In all the debates over race and class in feminism over the last thirty years, feminism was usually cast as needing to focus on race and class so that it could be truly just. The idea was that feminism needed to improve so that it would not simply be repeating the discrimination of the world at large.

Choice feminism makes it clear that we missed other half of the story: feminism needs good race and class politics because without them it quickly ceases to exist. It gets reduced to the individual wishes of privileged women, and then, when some of those women decide that equality isn’t really to their liking, feminism finds itself either without a raison d’etre or rendered equivalent to whatever self-deluded lifestyle choice an individual middle-class woman makes.

Choice feminism can only survive in a hothouse world where women can be presented as having all the equality that they want, if they want it. I wouldn’t put it past the likes of Megan Basham or Jessica Valenti to propound their ‘I Choose My Choice‘ version of feminism to a room full of incarcerated women or women on welfare, but I think it’s a safe bet they’d have a harder time selling it there than to the readers of the Guardian, the Atlantic or the New York Times.

jke

7 Comments

Filed under feminism, women, work

7 responses to “Where ‘Choice Feminism’ Has Got Us

  1. megdaly

    I appreciate the critique you make, but I would refine it. The problem is not a problem of politics, but rather of lifestyle. I disagree with you that protecting individual rights is what led to “choice feminism.” Fighting for women’s rights is a cornerstone of the feminist movement, and it is absolutely a GOOD thing. It’s the essential thing. And, in fact, feminists have been fighting for poor women’s rights, lesbian women’s rights, young women’s rights, the rights of women of color, since the movement began. To overlook the very real achievements that affect(ed) ALL women — suffrage, repro. rights, divorce laws, and the recent fair pay law in the U.S., to name just a few — is to misrepresent and obscure the vital work of millions of women of all classes and colors to create a more just world.
    Choice feminism is a lifestyle, not a political movement. It is a product of a society based on consumerism and relentless advertising that focuses on the individuality of Americans. That feminists fall prey to this is unfortunate, but perhaps unavoidable. As much as I may disagree with how some feminists live their lives, as the same time I don’t want them coming in and passing judgement on how I live mine. (“Oh my god, did you see how she just brought her boyfriend coffee in bed! The slave!”) The last thing we need is a feminist lifestyle police force.
    I think we should keep our attention on issues that we can all rally around, no matter what our lifestyles are: ending poverty, protecting reproductive rights, education for girls and women, stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS, fair pay, lesbian rights, immigrant rights, anti-racism efforts, health care and child care… and even toppling corporate power!
    Let’s not confuse the lifestyles of some with the politics that affect us all.
    Thanks for a provocative blog!

  2. jke4

    Thanks for the comment, Meg. I wasn’t actually trying to suggest that we ditch rights or politics based on rights, but rather that we need to attend to the ways in which rights rhetoric tends to lead to a focus on individual choices, which in turn leads to the sort of lifestyle emphasis I think is a limitation. I think we need to pay attention to and be critical of this tendency, but not simply abandon rights.

    I really like your use of ‘lifestyle’ to categorize the kinds of decisions I’m discussing. I think that’s exactly what I’m critiquing–a politics that finds itself ONLY arguing about lifestyle, rather than anything else. At the same time, though I don’t think we can just say that lifestyle is the opposite of politics so we don’t need to discuss and debate it. As feminism taught us, the personal is political–and things like who watches the kids and who makes the money are steeped in politics of every kind (race, class, gender, you name it). The problem I’m trying to point out is that when the political is limited only to the personal, to debating over and over the lifestyle choices of the privileged, all the important feminist issues you mention get abandoned.

  3. megdaly

    Thanks for your reply and clarification, jke4. I concur! And I really like this blog.

    • dentata

      Hmmm . . . think I’ll choose to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation, and destroy the male sex.
      No, on second thought, maybe I’ll just choose those blue flats with the ankle strap. They’re way cuter than overthrowing the government!

      The continual, silly, apolitical valorization of choice that jke persists in pointing out (even though she knows my life is hard enough right now and I don’t need my head exploding on top of it all) really makes me go all Valerie Solanas. Sorry, I mean it makes me CHOOSE to go all Valerie Solanas.

  4. tearsndreams

    Wow!
    I loved this post because it says everything that I ever wanted to say. Came here after checking what others on wordpress are saying about Megan Basham. I read an article written by her in the WSJ and then did a google search on her name and reached her blog. My BP rises everytime I read what she has to say and yet I keep checking out like a sadist.
    I attempted saying why I dislike choice feminism here:

    http://tearsndreams.wordpress.com/2009/03/30/55-words-in-love-with-a-feminist/

    • jke4

      Thanks very much for your kind words. I am glad to know I’m not the only one who tortures herself reading idiots like Basham! I liked your post as well. I often think, when those women who ‘opt out’ talk about how great it is not to work, why they think their partners should suffer all the horrors of work they’ve been able to escape!

  5. Pingback: The Stigma of Being a Feminist « The Mama Bee

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