“Feminism is about choice! It’s my choice to [decidedly unfeminist thing]!”
This is a common idea and refrain in feminist circles. It’s usually invoked as a defense by a self-identified feminist, after another self-identifying feminist has questioned a choice that the former has made.
“Choice feminism”, while without an official dictionary definition, basically boils down to a woman deciding that any choice she makes is supported by feminism. Clearly, women should be allowed to make choices about how to live their lives.
Regarding choice feminism, Fem Magazine points out, however,
The argument… seems to ignore the results of socialization, which mediate every decision humans make within a given culture. We are socialized to uphold a power structure in which women are valued based on their adherence to strict Eurocentric beauty standards. Deviating from norms can result in social rejection or at the very least, endless questions on why you are not simply conforming to certain standards. Our fear of these consequences subsequently influences how we navigate our own behavior and social interactions.
So sure, a woman may choose to wear makeup and that can be a feminist method of self-expression, but often times the “choice” women make to wear it is rooted in the desire to conform to patriarchal beauty standards. The same goes for shaving and most other beauty rituals, which all serve to reinforce the same narrow and oppressive idea of femininity.
Feminism can’t always be invoked as a woman’s justification of her choices, otherwise it begins to lose all meaning. (Reminder: feminism is a political ideology that is concerned with the economic, political, social, and cultural equality of all genders.)
I, for one, have made the choice to not have children, romantic relationships, to live alone (for now, anyway), not to wear earrings, makeup or dress in a “feminine” manner. These choices go against patriarchal conditioning and norms that state that a woman is to enter a cishet marriage, change her name to the man’s name (this varies depending on culture), be responsible for all emotional labor while being being the submissive partner in the relationship (see: changing her name to her husband’s name), have children who also take that man’s name, because, well, women are men’s property, and women exist to create more property for men. Don’t @ me.
Sure, everyone has a right to make choices, as long as these choices don’t harm others. Still, I would also argue that not everyone has to agree with everyone’s choices, particularly those that are made as a result of, and thus support, systems of oppression. Even while typing, I recognize what a slippery slope it is to say that not everyone has to like everyone’s choices. This is, after all, the argument used by bigots to justify their homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny. What’s the difference between saying “I don’t agree with the homosexual ‘lifestyle’” and saying “I don’t believe that children should automatically be given their father’s surname”? The difference is obvious to me: one of these is a choice made out of being is conditioned in an oppressive system, and the other…. well, isn’t.
No one’s choices are made in a vacuum, and no one’s choices are above critique. This includes mine. I’ve chosen a field of work whose goal is to loosen the grip of white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy around the world’s throat. So then, why do I choose to be an active participant in a capitalist society when I could move to the woods and live off the grid when I know that capitalism is an oppressive system that enriches very few while undermining the rights of many? While I try to make the most ethical choices possible, I no doubt fail to live up to all of my ideals, probably on a daily basis.
Where I start to find it difficult to reconcile things, is when women make choices that are clearly rooted in patriarchy, choices that help to fundamentally sustain women’s oppression in both overt and insidious ways, and pressuring other women to do so. As I’ve written about before on this blog and elsewhere, women constantly hassle me about my choice not to have children, demanding what I would do if I found a man who wanted them, telling me that I’ll change my mind, or alternately just pretending as though they don’t know that I’m not having children (despite me having been explicitly clear on the subject. I have this blog, for fuck’s sake). Women constantly hassle me about my choice to not engage in romantic or sexual relationships, when plenty of anecdotal evidence indicates that hetero relationships require far more work on the part of the female partner. The stories being told by women (and some men) right now also suggest that the safest thing a woman can do is to stay away from men, both socially and professionally.
People actively choosing to participate in their own oppression extends beyond gender and applies to other systems, and is manifested in myriad ways. It’s gay or poor people voting Republican in the United States. It’s black people having complete and utter disdain for their phenotypical characteristics to the point of using damaging chemicals on our hair and skin to change them. It’s British people voting to Brexit when they didn’t really want to leave the European Union.
Maybe instead of yelling that “feminism is about choice”, when making unfeminist choices, women should own that their choices run counter to the goals of feminism, but that they’re choosing them anyway.
I don’t have all the answers. I’m not sure I have any answers. But these are issues that I’ve been grappling with for quite some time, and it seems they won’t be going away any time soon.