In the peak of third wave feminism, ‘choice’ has become not just a buzzword, but also a school of thought for some feminists. Today there is the notion that making an independent decision or a choice is an inherently feminist act. Read or listen to almost any feminist discussion and you’ll see that the comments inevitably bring up choice. No matter the topic, people are quick to characterize an issue as one of female empowerment and the right to choose. This unfortunately provides an easy way to divert the discussion away from institutional power structures and social norms that restrict feminized people, which compel them to conform, to an oversimplification of an issue.
The idea of a woman’s ‘choice’, as it is so commonly used today, is often more a deflection of the real issue rather than a political statement. If followed to its logical conclusion, the liberal strain of ‘choice feminism’ can justify any act. This is problematic for two overarching reasons.
- This is a low standard.
Let’s give ourselves a little credit here - feminists are strong, intelligent people. As such, we need to come up with a better bottom line than ‘as long as it was their choice.’ I’m sorry to say this, but not everything is feminist. Period.
It is not feminist to call someone else a bitch, whore, slut, etc. It is not feminist to exploit other women for one’s own gain. It is not feminist, or sexually empowering, to have unprotected sex with multiple individuals.
It may be one’s choice to do these things, but these things are not positive actions. They do not promote equality, respect, and peace. These are, quite simply, bad decisions.
- It simplifies how we make choices.
Another criticism of choice rhetoric focuses on how the school of thought can have a deeply deleterious impact on women’s economic status, body image, professional success and more. For example, if a woman wears make up, and it is her choice to do so, many would argue this is empowering and therefore feminist. But this way of thinking generally fails to take into consideration the many external factors that play into a woman’s decision.
A ship may consciously decide to sail West, a choice, but if there was a storm in the South, a strong wind coming from the East and danger in the North, this choice becomes much less empowering and much more of an accommodation of one’s surrounding realities.
For example, to say that it is automatically feminist for a woman to quit work and stay home with the children while her husband continues his career path is mistaken. We need to think about what actually influenced her, compelled her, to make this decision. What is the norm in her society? Was her work/boss hesitant to give her a good maternity leave so she had to quit and was therefore already out of the workforce? Was there pressure from her husband or family members? Was her job already so low paying that there would be little yield if she and her partner had to hire childcare?
If a woman’s community is not plagued by gender norms and she lives in a progressive society that affords her equal opportunities and supports, perhaps an autonomous decision can be made. But to assume that a woman’s decision in today’s world is always self-governing is woefully misinformed and harmful to the feminist movement.
Suggesting that a woman’s choice is always autonomous mistakenly assumes that the institutions around her carry a lack of force. If we tout that societal norms and systemic structures do not have an influence on the average woman (or even the privileged woman) then we are downplaying the pervasiveness of the patriarchy. We are feeding into the idea that many skeptics believe - women in today’s society are equal and that they can make their own decisions.
If only that were true.