Thursday, January 03, 2008

On Choice Feminism

The first time I heard the "feminism was all about women's right to choose whatever they wish" theme was some time in the 1990s when Kathy Gifford was razzed by Regis Philbin on morning television for coming back to work after the birth of a child. He was blaming her for being a bad mother for not staying at home, and she responded with that choice argument.

I remember the incident because even then I was pretty sure that I had never read a feminist book where the goal of feminism would have been stated as "to give women more choices". The goal was usually framed as getting women equal rights and opportunities with those men had. That this would automatically give women more choices in most fields of life goes without saying, so Gifford's way of framing the feminist message wasn't that far off.

Or so I thought. But later I learned that this particular way of viewing feminism had odd consequences, consequences which did not follow from the original definitions of feminism. One of those was the commercial use of feminism in a form which equated women's liberation with the "right" to consume and spend more.

Another was the idea that feminism somehow made all choices any woman made into feminist ones or at least immune from feminist criticism. If a woman chose to stay at home, that was a feminist choice. If a woman chose to be employed, that was a feminist choice. If a woman chose to relinquish all her rights and to subject herself to her husband's authority, well, even that was a feminist choice! (No, I'm not making that last one up.) The very definition of "feminist" became identical with "some woman has chosen it" and that "some woman had chosen it" became identical with "feminist." This is circular thinking, but what is worse is the usual addition that these choices cannot therefore be criticized or discussed. After all, wasn't feminism all about giving women more choices?

The impetus for this post lies in an earlier comments thread, long buried now, where one commenter asked why feminists criticize women who choose to become strippers or housewives. Wasn't feminism all about giving women more choices?

What is fascinating about those two choices: being married to a man as a housewife or working in a sex industry for men, is that they are the two occupations that women have always been offered (or required to hold), in all historical time periods and places. No feminism was needed to open the doors to these lucrative careers for women. Astonishing, really. And a little suspicious.

That may provide some necessary background information to understanding why some (actually very few) feminists criticize these choices today. Most feminists do not make such criticisms, and others criticize not the choices themselves but the poor security, pay and working conditions of those traditional occupational "choices" for the majority of world's women. Yet others criticize the societal arrangements which require that women have to make choices between having an occupation and having a family.

My own observations suggest that feminists criticizing housewives or strippers for their occupational choices are less common than non-feminists criticizing employed mothers, say. But in any case feminism never promised the total lack of any questioning about the choices people make.

No discussion of choice feminism would be complete without discussing the concept of choice itself. It is often used to imply that something was voluntary, the decision of only the person affected and that therefore the consequences, both good and bad, are hers to endure. Sometimes it has the additional flavor of being "frivolous" or "optional", and all these meanings play together in the way the term is used in "choice feminism".

For example, if women "choose" to stay at home with their children, the society is then freed from the need to provide any assistance to those women, either with the children or with the women's own later return to the labor market. After all, it was the women who made the choice. At the same time, nobody should interfere with that "choice" because doing so would be unfeminist. See how interesting this all gets?

Add to that all the layers of constraints that actually limit our choices in the real world. Nobody makes choices in some state of complete freedom. A woman who has children and no access to good daycare may "choose" to stay at home if she can afford it, but the reason she did so may well have more to do with that lack of alternative care than her preferences. A daughter of a very wealthy family has a different set of available choices than the daughter of a very poor family. Which of them is more likely to "choose" to become a stripper?

Choice always takes place within constraints, and it is those constraints which have not completely equalized between men and women. As a subtle example, societal and religious norms sanction different behavior from women than from men, even in the most feminist of current societies, and it is women, in general, who are seen as responsible for the hands-on care of children. It is women who are castigated when a child is assumed to suffer and it is women who are expected to adjust to the changing needs of the children. All this means that when women "choose" a particular occupation, including that of a stay-at-home mother or spouse, they are choosing within the female constraint set. This is something that the pure form of "choice feminism" ignores.