Oh, those magic, debate-ending words: “feminism is about choice”. If I never hear them again I’ll consider it a victory but I seem to hear them more and more these days. Being a woman does not automatically make you a feminist – so why should feminists endorse the choices of all women, as a feminist act? I am mostly baffled by this expectation.
Feminism is an ideology that seeks to enable the equality of the sexes by addressing gender-based limitations and degradation – which is an endeavour far more complex and nuanced than those words. Of course free choice is a vital feature of that, but advocating purely for free choices without a vision of the society you wish to achieve seems like getting a license in order to drive around aimlessly. Where are our choices taking us? At most, “freedom of choice” is a mechanism through which we can actually achieve some of our feminist goals. It is both an indication of freedom and a means of exercising it. But at its least, it is a philosophically thin but basic requirement of a life not lived as chattel. Surely we can aim for more than that? It seems unwise to stop analysing the context in which our options are incubating, and it begs more questions than it answers: What kinds of choices are we limited to by our society? How do my choices affect others? How do we go about making changes if we are unhappy with our society? The “feminism = choice” distillation cannot meaningfully address these.
What’s worse, this choice-adoration smacks suspiciously of pro-consumerist cheer leading. And what a distraction! We are loudly assured by companies competing for our (supposedly) almighty consumer dollar that we have power as consumers and that the way to wield it is to make a choice. The winning object is the anointed Chosen-One… Cue choirs of angels and warm glows of satisfaction all round (except for The Non-Chosen – those losers!). By this process, the mere act of choosing anything has become exalted in our consumerist culture, entirely equated with an act of self-determination. Unfortunately, this thinking has also bled into the spaces where our hearts and minds ought to be evaluating ideology and creating vision. The cultural world in which gender issues exist is not akin to a free-market economy. Whichever way you slice it, feminism is unavoidably about gender-based repression, not purely about free choice.
The current pressure on feminists to refrain from analysing the choices any woman makes, based entirely on the fact that she’s a woman, just seems counter-productive. And if you think something is unjustly tagged as “non-feminist” then argue the point and try to convince. How else do we learn if not by thoughtfully challenging, listening and engaging in debate? But the idea that every choice a woman makes must never be remarked upon or analysed is just a form of self-gagging that is ultimately self-defeating: “Ssshh, lady! Women are making choices here!” It reduces feminist debate to an exercise in nonjudgemental peer-endorsement.
If you need unconditional acceptance of your life choices, perhaps join a support circle. If you crave the thrill of the choice, try your local Smorgasbord every night. But if you envision a world in which women and men challenge and subvert the gender-based expectations and limitations of today (even if you’re not sure how!) then feminism is for you.