The Power of Choice; Setting the Record Straight on Choice Feminism

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. 

True and genuine Choice Feminism isn’t about what choices we make or why we make them; a commentor on an article concerning an interview with a porn star (which I have, unfortunately, long since lost the link to) hit the nail on the head back in 2013 when they stated:

[I think] there are 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 […]

There’s the feminists who have more than one [axis] of oppression and might actually be claiming that (whatever) is 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 […]

And lastly, I think there’s the group that’s probably closest to an actual “choice feminist”, and that’s those who [… are …] 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.

The third type of “Choice Feminism” that the commentor describes is the Choice Feminism that I (and most others I’ve met who identify as legitimate Choice Feminists) whole heartedly believe in. And the primary core of it revolves around three things:

  1. Recognizing that oppression is a complex and multidimensional topic that cannot, by nature, be described in an adequate manner which reflects all types of oppression faced by all people at all times.
  2. Recognizing our individual differences and acknowledging our unique experiences; that each individual has different preferences, needs, wants, and experiences- and that we all live our lives under unique conditions (what I personally like to call “our factors of difference”).
  3. Upholding our inalienable human right to agencand autonomy– or our ability to decide for ourselves, make decisions on our own terms, and enact them in our lives as we see fit.

In other words, Choice Feminism believes that we are not gatekeepers to the world; we do not have a right to dictate what is (or is not) the right choice for another individual because we cannot account for all factors of difference, or even all types of oppression that may be experienced. Instead the individual has an inherent and inalienable human right, in all ways, to agency and autonomy– or the ability to decide for ourselves, make decisions on our own terms, and enact those decisions as we see fit concerning all aspects of their lives… And that right should not be intruded upon within reason.

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 often twofold:

  1. Through the dismantling of the core systems which limit those avenues only to certain people- whether through social conditioning, legislature, or other methods;
  2. Through ensuring everyone has access to comprehensive and inclusive educational or other materials that are necessary to exert that agency / autonomy to the fullest extent possible.

This is incredibly important when a large part of the oppressive structures we face is ultimately to control us through the intentional limitation of choice- whether through enacted legislature, societal conditioning and punishment, or other methods.

Feminism means gender should not be a source of persecution or a restriction of your choices. Feminism means the type of person you should be is based on what you value, not what outside forces pressure you to value because of your gender or biological sex. [Unknown]

Most discussions around Choice Feminism, though, focus on the want of material things. This Strawman claims that Choice Feminist says we should be allowed to do whatever we want- and that it is powerful, subversive, and even Feminist to make the willing choice to do so. And while this is partially true? It is still just that, however: A Strawman that ignores the foundational philosophies of Choice Feminism.

A favorite harping point is often the choice to wear Makeup, and so I’ll use that as an example: The emphasis on an individual’s right to exercise autonomy and agency (their right to choice) inherently includes the materialistic choice to wear makeup. It is a given that when you discuss various aspects of choice, materialistic choices such as this are going to be included- and it would be hypocritical not to include them. It is, after all, a choice just like any other and it is impossible for us to account for all the reasons why someone would make that choice or think it the best for them.

But Choice Feminism also recognizes that (yes) it is predominantly White. Middle Class, Abled Women who have that choice available to them in the first place; that, by and large, other groups are often denied the ability to make that choice in various ways, through various means…. And the purpose of Choice Feminism is to give people the ability to make a well informed, non-coerced choice to (or not to) participate as the see fit, however they see fit. As a result, we must inherently participate in and promote actions which help to break down the societal conditioning to wear makeup, remove societal stigma surrounding it, critically engage people in discussion about makeup, educate them on the realities of the makeup industry, seek reform of the makeup industry and its methods and practices, and more; actions without which the quest for a non-coerced, freely made choice for all individuals is ultimately impossible to achieve.

“But wait!” I hear the cries in the background. “Not all choices are Feminist choices!”. And to that I will gladly say that you’re entirely correct. Not all choices are Feminist in nature. However, it’s genuinely distressing that we hold an ideology which states 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.

Erin Matson strikes the nail on the head about it 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.

Why should a choice not being Feminist honestly matter? Why should that mean we shouldn’t support people’s inalienable human right to make their own choices in the first place- or mean that we shouldn’t support or respect their decisions once made?

Women don’t have any duty to not be “stereotypes” any more than they have a duty to embody them. None of us can live each others’ lives […] What’s wrong with acknowledging that we have a lot of choices, and that some of us might see fit to choose differently? None of us are truly stereotypes. [There’s Nothing Retro About the Retro Housewife If She Gets to Choose]

Choice is powerful. It is more powerful and more empowering than almost anything else on the planet; giving people the ability to decide for themselves- and giving them the resources to do that to the best of their ability- is one of 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 largely oppressive because they attempt to make our choices for us; they remove the ability to make our own decisions for ourselves, and deny us the personal autonomy that choice brings us.

To do that, to give them that choice, 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 us to stop doing, in part, 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 accept that it’s where they ultimately want to go for whatever reasons they may have.

Having it all might be a debate that resonates for few. But having what it is that you want, and the opportunity to figure out what that is- and then, if you think you’ve achieved it, not being judged for it… That seems a modern sort of feminist ideal to me; so what if women want to stay home and take care of their kids? So what if they don’t? The day that we stop freaking out, one way or another, about what women choose […] the day we stop couching the new discussion in these same old terms, the day we don’t get worked up about a stay-at-home mom anymore than we do about a woman who works 90-hour weeks and doesn’t have children, is the day that we stop slapping old norms on new ways of being, and it’s the day that we really are different. [There’s Nothing Retro About the Retro Housewife If She Gets to Choose]

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