The Return of 'Choice Feminism'
When did the personal stop being political?
The other night I watched a video of a young feminist arguing that it was classist to point out that stay-at-home wives are at an increased financial risk. Concern about women’s economic insecurity, she said, presupposes that there’s something inherently wrong with being economically insecure.
Do you have a headache yet? Because I sure did!
Now, uninformed feminist takes online are nothing new. But this TikTok reminded me of just how many hoops we’ll jump through to defend the sexism we’re attached to. The sexism we’ve grown up with, or partake in—the sexism so personal, we refuse to see it as political.
That boob job? I did for me! Changing your name after marriage? Women are born with their dad’s last name anyway so who cares! Violent misogynist porn? Don’t be sex negative!
Instead of owning up to the obvious and understandable—that in a misogynist world it’s sometimes easier (or safer) to adjust ourselves to certain norms—we insist our decisions have nothing to do with sexism. Or, like the young woman in that video, we come up with a complicated justification using feminist or lefty language. (Something I’m seeing a lot more of these days.)
Women’s personal lives have always been thorny feminist ground. In part because it’s fucking exhausting—very few of us have the time or privilege to only ever make perfect feminist choices. But it’s also because many of those fraught personal issues tread a little too close to home for men’s comfort.
Let’s be honest: It’s not a coincidence that the sexist decisions people defend most often are those that disproportionately benefit men and their personal lives.
Men might eagerly support better child care policies, for example, but are largely unwilling to do an equal share of parenting in their own homes. “Of course parenting should be equal” quickly becomes “well she’s just better at it” when that first dirty diaper crosses their path.
Political causes are easy to get behind, personal change is a much bigger ask.
Some of this is a natural consequence of ‘choice feminism’—the idea that any choice a woman makes must be feminist because a woman is making it. Setting aside how this kind of thinking has allowed corporations to use feminist rhetoric to shroud their sexism and conservatives to lay claim to the label while rolling back essential rights—it’s also made it taboo for us to discuss women’s choices at all.
Because in a worldview where feminism isn’t a movement for justice, but simply supporting any choice a woman makes, being critical is the same thing as being un-feminist.
It’s a slick way to quash conversation and, as Linda Hirshman pointed out in her book Get to Work, convince women that our personal choices don’t have any impact outside of our own lives. What do you care if a woman decides to stay home? Or adheres to beauty norms? Mind your business!
It’s true, we’re all doing our best to survive in a sexist world—and I’m much more interested in criticizing social and cultural norms than individual women’s choices. But here’s the thing: individual women’s choices are what make up broader cultural and social norms!
Our decisions impact other women. Even the small ones, even if we don’t want to admit it. When we wear make-up or dye our hair, we contribute to a culture that derides women as haggard when they go bare-faced or gray. If we stay at home, we make it harder for women who work. (Men with stay-at-home wives, for example, are more likely to deny women promotions.) It all matters.
Which is not to say that women making complicated choices should be stopped or shit on. But we need to be able to talk honestly about the choices we make under patriarchy as just that, choices made under systemic oppression.
Why pretend we do these things for us? And if we do enjoy certain sexist trappings, why not examine why we like them?
For example: I love my bright red lipstick and wearing mascara and you will pry them from my cold dead hands. But I also am hyper-aware that I feel uglier without them. Being a feminist didn’t make the sexism around that choice disappear. I’ll probably wear makeup for the rest of my life, but I refuse to pretend it’s some self-affirming empowering statement. Not everything I do has to be feminist. (As Roxane Gay wrote in Bad Feminist: “I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”)
This isn’t to say stereotypical feminine trappings aren’t nuanced—people use makeup to gender-bend, affirm their gender, get campy with it, etc. But for me, a cis straight white middle-aged woman, it’s just straight up conforming to norms.
The same is true for lots of personal choices around feminism; they’re complicated and not the same for everyone. But more and more it feels like people cite those nuances not because they’re interested in the subtleties of identity, power, and agency—but because it gives credible political cover to classic misogyny.
Whenever I write about issues surrounding stay-at-home wives and moms, for example, someone will respond that it’s not like jobs are so great to begin with. And it’s true, most women don’t have a choice whether to work or not, and many have unfulfilling, poorly-paid jobs. But why is the answer for women to stay at home (which we know makes them unhappy) rather than change workplaces for the better? And if staying home is so great, why aren’t men doing it?
Or take pornography (*deep breath*). There are excellent feminist creators who have been working for years to uplift more woman-friendly porn, and the internet has made it easier for individual women to do independent sex work where they are in control of their bodies and financial decisions. But that doesn’t change the fact that the vast majority of mainstream porn degrades women—and that it can warp young people’s understanding of sex and consent.
We can dig into complexities without eschewing commonsense.
It’s exhausting to watch the same old issues get resurrected under the guise of progressiveness. To be unable to have a conversation about porn or beauty standards without being labeled a fuddy-duddy. Or to see conversations about women working painted as tedious and privileged while our participation in the labor force is at a 33-year low.
Worst of all, though, is watching younger women buy into the idea that misogyny can actually be beneficial. It’s as if the patriarchy has gaslit us into doing their job for them.
At the end of the day, none of this is about judging women’s choices, but understanding that the decisions we make have an impact beyond ourselves. And that very often, they’re not real ‘choices’ to begin with.
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