Choice Feminism and the Power of Choice

Choice Feminism is little understood in certain circles of Feminist thought; most people are under the mistaken impression that Choice Feminism believes that all choices made by a woman are Feminist choices by default; that a Woman making a choice is always making a Feminist choice by default of calling herself a Feminist.

This is not, however, the case at all. In short, it is about not infantilizing people; it’s about upholding our inalienable right to choice and our personal agency as individuals, and recognizing our differences– as well as acknowledging the unique experiences of others.

A commentor on an article concerning an interview with a porn star- which I have long since lost the link to) hit the nail on the head back in 2013 when they stated:

[I think] there are like 3 different groups that get called “choice feminists.”

There’s the Charlotte Yorks, who aren’t feminists but would like feminism to stop judging them for their personal choices […] [which is] fair enough, actually. I’m not sure judging Charlotte York is really more effective than judging Trey MacDougal, and either way, I think it’s fairly anti-feminist to judge women for their personal decisions, like if they just felt enough shame the various factors that influence their decision would just fade away.

There’s the feminists who have more than one [axis] of oppression and might actually be claiming that (whatever) is actually subversive, but aren’t saying it’s always subversive, just subversive in certain ways within certain contexts pertaining to how they are situated in the larger oppressive framework. For example, I don’t think Stoya could claim her porn is subverting patriarchy and is a feminist choice, but I think Courtney Trouble could.

And lastly, I think there’s the group that’s probably closest to an actual “choice feminist”, and that’s those who basically want to expand the framework we use for abortion and use it for other personal life choices: analyzing and challenging the system that generally influences women’s choices, while recognizing woman’s right to navigate their matrix of oppression as they see fit; that while we can get a broad sense of what creates statistical norms, what actually influences each woman is going to change dramatically based on region, ethnicity, various sub-cultures (and sub-sub-sub-cultures), socioeconomic status, etc […], as well as the good chance that there’s always going to be a certain level of indefinable personal preference that cannot be accounted for solely or even mostly by socialization. I know Melissa McEwan’s a big proponent of this, and while she annoys the crap out of me, I generally agree with her.

True and genuine Choice Feminism is not about the actual choices we make- but about our right to make the choices we deem the best for ourselves based on a number of factors… Factors which ultimately cannot be recorded or accounted for in full, for all people; it is about allowing people to be in control of their own lives and their own bodies when a large part of these oppressive structures is to control us through the sociopolitical limitation of our choices– either through enacted legislature, or through societal conditioning and punishment, and so on.

From an ideological perspective it upholds the idea that each individual has different preferences, needs, wants, and experiences- and that we all live our lives under unique conditions. Because of this, how we experience and perceive our oppression- as well as how we ultimately tackle inequality- is going to be based on those things. And since these things are different, the result is likewise going to be unique from individual to individual.

From a Feminist action standpoint, it strives to ensure that people have all resources and avenues of choice available to them in all aspects of life- regardless of their sex or gender, race, class, education, ability, and religion (etc), and the societal expectations based around them. And the way it sees to do that, is through the dismantling of the core systems which limit those avenues only to certain people. It then seeks to ensure that everyone has the comprehensive and inclusive educational and other materials that are needed in order to exert their agency and free will to the fullest ability possible.

Ultimately, at its core Choice Feminism establishes that we are not gatekeepers and do not have a right to dictate what is or is not the right choice for another individual. And while, yes, what is good for the goose is not always good for the gander, the reverse is also equally true: What is good for society as a whole is not always good for the individual people who make up that society due to the differences in lived experiences, race, sex, religion, and thousands of other factors; we are all intelligent and autonomous people with personal agency, who are fully capable of making our own decisions. Therefore, it boils down to individuals being able, in all ways, to make the best choices for themselves concerning all aspects of their lives- including concerning how they deal with the Feminist problems that they perceive.

Most discussions around Choice Feminism, though, focus on the want of material things- such as our choice to wear makeup, dresses, or heels. The strawman is that Choice Feminist says we should be allowed to do this, and that it is powerful and even sometimes subversive to participate in or make the willing choice to do such things… But that it is only white, middle class women who have these choices, therefore invalidating any and all pro-choice Feminist arguments.

While this is partially true in that greater levels of choice are undoubtedly afforded to white, middle class women… And in that we need to look more into the socio-economic and other factors behind the limited choices for others not in this group… I feel that it is still just that, however: A Strawman which is used to argue against Choice Feminism without actually considering or looking at the whole ideology and what it stands for.

Yes, the focus on personal choice inherently includes such things as the materialistic choice to wear makeup if that is what we want to do. It is a given that when you discuss various aspects of choice, materialistic choices such as this are going to be included. It is impossible for them not to be, and it would also be hypocritical not to include them in the discussion as they are choices just like any other. But it also includes other choices such as having your choice of different jobs, education levels, marriage options, and any other aspect of human life available to you- and to have them available without the social consequences, social stigmatization, social enforcement, and the like, which we are often faced with when attempting to make such choices for ourselves.

In terms of materialistic things such as makeup (as one example) it includes breaking down the societal conditioning to wear makeup- and removing societal stigma surrounding makeup- thus making it acceptable for both men and women of any class, race, or other status to wear it… Not just the women for whom it is currently not only socially acceptable, but also socially required.

The overlooked part of it, too, is that Choice Feminism also includes discussing these things openly, critically, and educationally; educating people on the realities of the makeup industry, the harmful toxins present in most makeup, the lasting, damaging effects of it on our bodies and environment, the socioeconomic impact of the expectation to wear makeup, and more. This is so that not only are all people given the choice to participate in whatever they see fit, however they see fit, but so that people are also able to make educated decisions about the choices available to them in order to best establish what is correct for their own life and circumstances.

But above and beyond, Choice Feminism believes that those choices should ultimately be supported, respected, and upheld as legitimate by others regardless of our personal beliefs or ideology concerning them.

Though I am unsure of whether or not she describes herself as a Choice Feminist, Erin Matson still strikes the nail on the head in her piece Policing Personal Lives Is Not The Point: Dos And Don’ts Feminism Must Die when she says:

An outcome of feminism for women is agency, or the ability to direct the course of our own lives, and the proper placement of perspective with regard to women, that say, our bodies are actually about our bodies […]  It’s not far by extension that a woman’s personal life is actually about that woman’s personal life and not about what potential should exist for all other women’s personal lives. In the context of a social movement that works for the ability of all people, and especially women, to truly express their own free will, it’s fine to draw inspiration from the lives of other women, but that does not mean that each woman must set an example for others. Men are not subjected to this, not this way.

“But wait!” I hear the cries in the background. “Not all choices are Feminist choices!”. And if you are saying this, I want to ask you a question: Is choosing to shirk traditionally feminine behaviors and dress Feminist? Is getting a college degree Feminist? Is aiming for a high paying career and opting to work outside of the home instead of inside of it Feminist? What exactly is it that makes these choices better or more Feminist than others? What is a Feminist choice to begin with? What exactly makes a choice Feminist?

Is it because these things are inherently expected of Women in a Patriarchal society and they face backlash for not participating? I don’t know, myself; I have asked this question a thousand times and have gotten no answer from those who say such things… The closest answer that I have gotten is that “Feminist Choices challenge the status Quo”. Which one, though? The social status quo? Or the Feminist one?

The ability for us to say “but that isn’t Feminist!” without questioning why we believe this and what we believe makes something a Feminist choice or not, though, is distressing to me. Equally (if not more) distressing to me, is the ideology that everything we do in life, every decision we make, must be measured against the generic yardstick of Feminism… And that if it somehow does not measure up, then that choice is invalid and undeserving of support from our fellow people- other Feminists especially.

But choice is powerful. It is more powerful and more empowering than anything else on the planet; giving people the capacity and options to decide for themselves, and giving them the resources to do that to the best of their ability, is the best thing that we can do in order to exact social change and empower women and men alike. After all, the majority of our problems do come from the fact that the social structures in place are oppressive- and they are largely oppressive because they attempt to make our choices for us; they remove the ability to make our own choices for ourselves, and deny us the personal autonomy that choice brings us.

To do that, though, requires us to step down from our soap boxes; to stop preaching about what is “right” and “better” in terms of Feminism and Feminist Action… It requires, in part, us to stop doing the same thing these oppressive structures do: Trying to take the wheel and steer people for them; it means that we have to allow people to steer their own cars to their own destinations, and to accept that that is where they ultimately want to go for whatever reasons they may have- which, ultimately, are none of our damned business.

I want Feminism to be as awesome as it is on abortion rights: figuring out non-shaming ways to understand the wide variety of circumstances that can influence a woman’s decision, then organizing to increase women’s access to a wide variety of choices by focusing on institutional barriers, and making judgment-free, supportive spaces for women who are stigmatized. I want Feminism to be about organization and activism, not about asking yourself “are blue or black pens the most feminist?” (Haha, trick question. Only women who love patriarchy “chose” pens. Real Feminists use artisan charcoal as their only writing utensil.) – I want feminism to Trust Women.

With that quote, I feel the need to point out that I actually think the article that it comes from is one of the best articles I have ever found that sums up actual Choice Feminism. And for the first time ever in my life, I actually suggest that people read the comments section after finishing the main article. There are some amazing, thought provoking comments and discussions there which do so much better than the article at highlighting the problems with Anti-Choice Feminism rhetoric, as well as outline what Choice Feminism is actually about in more depth.

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