Choice feminism states that any choice is feminist purely by virtue of having been made by a woman: that she is in a position to, and has, made a choice is thereby feminist.
This is something I’ve heard a lot of in the last few years within feminist spaces. It is, as far as I can tell, a core part of sex positive feminism and links closely with “corporate feminism”.
Choice feminism turns a collective movement into individual struggles. Every choice is made within a context, a society and a culture which impacts on that decision.
“a woman who quits her job after bearing a child, for example, may be “making her own choice,” but a society where there is no guarantee of parental leave, where workplaces remain hostile to pregnant women and new mothers, and where our conception of the ideal worker is still inherited from a 1950’s male breadwinner model all make that choice considerably easier for her to make.” (Feministing).
Choice feminism focuses on individual choices and thus erases the idea of women as a group of oppressed people. It ignores the patriarchal influences which affect the constraints around that choice. It reduces our power. One woman making a choice does not have the same power as a group of women making a stand.
Choice feminism empowers those who are already in a more privileged position. It is much easier to make choices when you are white, middle class upwards, non disabled, heterosexual and traditionally attractive. You are likely to have a lot more doors open to you and thus more choices.
Choice feminism allows for choices which hinder the feminist movement and hurt other women. In my view, this isn’t feminism.
Choice feminism reduces the conversation to individual choices to wear heels or lipstick rather than the structural oppression of women the world over. A lifestyle rather than a political movement.
Choice feminism suggests that if you aren’t an MP or CEO it is because you didn’t choose it, you didn’t work at it, you didn’t try hard enough. It removes the barriers of sexism in the workplace, of childcare issues, of educational inequality that stand in our way.
Choice feminism removes the impact of our actions on other women. If you choose to become a sex worker, you are perpetuating the industry and by holding onto your choice, you can deny other people’s lack of choice. I watched a film about sex work recently and three white, well educated women were discussing how it had been their choice and how they hadn’t received any abuse or coercion. And the implication from their language was that they hadn’t been hurt by the sex industry so abuse didn’t happen.
Choice feminism is about choices made within a patriarchal structure. And how can that compliance with the oppressor possibly further the rights of women? Choice feminism does not challenge the system. It cooperates with it and can be used to further oppress.
Choice feminism opens up the space to ask “Can you be a feminist and…?”, turning the focus inwards, dividing feminists and distracting us from unequal pay and sexual harassment.
Choice feminism closes down important conversations about patriarchy, about sexism, about women’s rights and women’s opportunities. It stops discussion about glass ceilings and sexual harrasment. The cry of “anti-choice” is used to shut down people wanting to talk about pornography and the sex industry.
Finn MacKay, more eloquently than I, says in the Guardian:
Choice feminism can be found particularly in media representations of what feminism is and what women’s empowerment might look like. There is an attempt, unfortunately fairly successful, to reduce feminism to simply being the right for women to make choices. Not choices about whether to stand for parliament, or instigate pay transparency in the office or lead an unemployed worker’s union, or form a women-only consciousness-raising group in their town; far from it.
Instead, there are choices about what amount of makeup to wear, whether to go “natural” or try mascara that makes your eyelashes look like false eyelashes, or what diet drink to buy, or whether or not to make the first move with a man.
We all make choices within a context. I will choose to watch an unfeminist box set within the context of very limited feminist options. We have to exist in our society and that involves making the least worst choice or compromising on ones ethics and values sometimes.
Choice feminism is much easier to approach that feminism about breaking down structures and patriarchy. It is alluring and makes life easier to live in an unequal society. I can very much see the appeal.
However, I do not believe that choice feminism is the way to go. It individualises the debates, it turns women on each other, it detracts from the major structural inequalities that we face.
And we are not going to get anywhere if we do not unite…
‘… women’s advances in terms of rights and social and political standing have never been the result of isolated actions of individual women making personal choices. And although feminism has frequently been about giving women the right to make any choice they want, it also recognises that choices are not made in a vacuum any more than movements grow in one.
I’m a writer, not an activist, but this book is, nevertheless, a call to arms. I wrote it because I’ve noticed that some lovely, hip, intelligent progressives, people who can recognise racial, religious and class-based oppression without difficulty, are uncomfortable with the idea that women in first-world countries face discrimination. I wrote it because I’m sick of hearing people say that women aren’t oppressed because their husband does lots of housework or because their company pays women the same as men or because they’ve never personally been raped/groped/called a slut/been denied a human right.’ – Emily Maguire, Princesses and Pornstars
For further reading about choice feminism, try: