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.