So often, I wish the debates around choice would just go away, and so I try to not start them. But it’s becoming painfully clear that they aren’t going away, and so I must come out: I am a Choice Feminist.
For a bit, I tried to point out that “Choice Feminism” is a strawfeminist that Linda Hirshman created, and that huge amounts of feminists have since run with, never bothering to actually be any more specific with who, exactly, these Choice Feminists were than “over at Jezebel and xoJane.” (This is hilarious, because both are regularly filled with commenters arguing against those choosey-choicersons, and xoJane regularly publishes pieces denouncing Choice Feminism.) But now I think it is better to follow in the footsteps of one of my favorite genderqueer feminists, Ozy Frantz, and try to reclaim the term.
Simply put, I think Choice Feminism is "you do you." For those of you who like things in a more academic jargon, it is, as Jade Hawk put it, "you have the right to navigate your matrix of oppression as you see fit." It is the same basic idea as the "pro-woman line" of the early radical feminist years (though, much as I am inspired by Redstockings co-founder Ellen Willis, I think this now comes from a place of assumed difference rather than assumed sameness.) The idea that women should not be blamed for their oppression should be a fundamental tenant of feminism. Hello? We scream "victim-blaming!!!" at everyone else, and then have the gall to tell women that part of why they're oppressed is because they just won't give up skirts and housewifery? What the actual fuck?
Accusing women of having a false consciousness/internalized misogyny reminds me of two things. It reminds me of how men have told women they do not know their own minds, and diagnosed them with hysteria; how white slave owners have had black slaves diagnosed with drapetomania for running away; how people that now fall under the LGBTQ umbrella have been pathologized, considered to have mental illnesses, and frequently, forced into conversion therapy; how our very understanding of mental illness is based on an ableist notion that mental illness prevents one from knowing their "real" mind and that's why the able-minded have to take their rights and autonomy away from them. But mostly, it reminds me of my abusive parents, who managed to obtain a diagnosis for me that absolved them of any bad parenting and provided them with a psychotropic cocktail to subdue me, while whispering in classic Nurse Ratched tones "you only think you have a problem with us, but that's just the mental illness talking." Y'all, I cannot stress this enough: you have to be better than my abusive parents if you want me to be part of your movement, especially if anti-domestic violence activism is a cornerstone of that movement.
I don't think that just because a woman does something, it's feminist. Rather, I think asking "is this personal choice feminist? Can it ever be empowering for women?" is the wrong question. We shouldn't be ranking personal life choices on a scale of "most feminist" to "least feminist", from "most influenced" to "actually happened in a vacuum." We don't all experience gendered oppression in the same way, many of us have other oppressions to deal with, and all of us have the general shittiness that is life to deal with. Making feminist cred about who can be the most empowered just makes the most privileged women the best feminists.
Nor do I think that just because a woman does something, it's off limits for criticism. But I do think women should not be criticized more than men are for the exact same or comparable thing, or that there should be an expectation that women should be smashing patriarchy that is never put on men. Before you tell me that I "just need to recognize the circumstances in which I wear that skirt", you need to head over to Kotaku and tell a bunch of dudes how they only think they chose to wore pants, but they just haven't recognized the gender socialization that went into that "choice". (Oh, wait, it sounds douchey when we treat men that way? Yeah. No one doubts that men have agency.)
But we should give women the same space and respect to live their own lives as we give men. Maybe you’re an undocumented immigrant who needs to prioritize managing a chronic illness without health insurance. Maybe you’re a femme trying to fight against the queer and feminist privileging of masculinity. Maybe your big concern regarding how feminine your appearance is or isn’t is if you can get your psychiatrist to sign off on your request for SRS, or relieve yourself without getting attacked or arrested. Maybe you’re just trying to not kill yourself from all the abuse you’ve endured, and painting your nails helps you get through things, one day at a time. Whatever. You do you.
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 <3 patriarchy "chose" pens. Real Feminists use artisan charcoal as their only writing utensil.) I want feminism to Trust Women.