Choice feminism

Once again, Belledame complains about the use of the term “choice feminism” to tar any feminist who doesn’t think it’s her prerogative to tell people how to behave.

As far as I can tell, the term comes from Linda Hirshman, a feminist who thinks that her exhorting women to go to work is comparable to Socrates’ moral philosophy. She tries contrasting modern feminists with Betty Friedan, “who called staying at home ‘the problem that has no name,'” but ends up just making feminism look more like a religion.

Betty Friedan didn’t tell women to go out and get jobs. She complained that the system forced them to stay home, and that the media inadvertently caused women to mentally atrophy. The Feminine Mystique doesn’t even cite the studies that show housewives are unusually prone to depression (though I’m not sure any was available in 1963). Instead, it talks about empowering women to have the choice to be educated and to work.

As with most rhetorical terms, “choice feminism” refers to two things, one trivial and one odious. The trivial thing is that women should have more choices; some moralists don’t like that, preferring that everyone behaved according to the moralists’ prescriptions. That’s not choice feminism – it’s nearly universal among feminists, at least if the Yearly Kos feminism roundtable was representative of modern feminism.

The odious thing is the idea that since women can in principle choose whether to have children, no legal protections for working mothers are necessary. Strictly speaking a non-patriarchal society can exist without any protection for parents – fathers and mothers will just be equally burdened – but in the real world, not having protections impedes gender equality. The people at the Independent Women’s Forum, who labor hard to concoct some model in which if women behave in a certain way, they’ll barely be discriminated against, can be safely attacked for being choice feminists; people who want to expand women’s choices can’t be.

Incidentally, I can’t help but notice how rhetorically screwed the term “choice feminism” is. When you want to attack a group, you never associate it with a term with so positive a connotation as “choice,” especially given the importance of pro-choice politics to feminism. If you really want to disparage conservatives who say no governmental enforcement of equality is needed, that’s what “libertarianism,” “conservatism,” and “ifeminism” are for. Calling your opponents “choice feminists” associates you with anti-choice feminism.

5 Responses to Choice feminism

  1. KH says:

    It’s partly that the derogated choices aren’t true, or authentic, or whatever. Either external constraints force the decision, or the agent’s preferences are just the patriarchy internalized, or are otherwise inconsistent with human flourishing. In any case, false consciousness. (Which doesn’t account for the moralism & anger that sometimes comes with the accusation.)

    It does seem a maladroit of choice for a term of abuse. Partly that’s just Hirshman, who won’t be long remembered, but it’s also consistent with the deepseated current of hostility to liberalism in some feminist theory. If you’re long since accustomed to taking the scare-quotes around “choice” as given, it might be easy to forget that even many self-identified feminists are actually pretty attached to the idea of their capacity for choice.

  2. belledame222 says:

    >the deepseated current of hostility to liberalism in some feminist theory.

    What I’m currently reading:

    “The Sexual Liberals and the Attack on Feminism,” ed. Dorchen Leidholdt and Janice Raymond.

    Raymond is also the author of “The Transsexual Empire,” a seriously over the top ode to transphobia which would be (is) funny if it weren’t so vile;

    and the two of them, Leidholdt and Raymond, are also co-directors of this little organization:

    I think quite a lot of the talking points wrt prostitution from the radical feminists online stem from here, actually. a lot of other, more general talking points can be found in the l’il anthology i’m reading.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    The problem with the “patriarchy-influenced choices” argument is that most feminists work hard to give women more choices, to make them freer of economic and cultural constraints. It’s not “even many self-identified feminists” so much as “almost the entire feminist movement.” While Linda Hirshman badmouths stay-at-home moms, Kim Gandy lobbies for legislation that will make it easier for mothers to continue working.

    Social movements that are about personal behavior are best forgotten. One of the points I made in my interview with Katie is that personal behavior is so much less important than political activism (it’ll probably be edited out – largely on account of my asking Katie to edit it – but I still said it). If your activism is really based on women choosing to work more, you should look into finding another job. In private life tell people what you want – human stupidity is vast enough that you can find plenty of people who do things that are bad for them – but political movements that personalize things too much don’t ever achieve a single good thing.

    Belledame, why do you read Janice Raymond, anyway? I know you’re into BDSM, but are you that much of a masochist?

  4. “Choice feminism” has always been a pejorative term. It’s a term people use to criticize a kind of relativistic feminism that holds that all non-coerced choices are equally feminist options. Or, to put it another way, that the goal of feminism should be to increase women’s options without making any demands or casting any judgments on what women actually choose.

  5. Alon Levy says:

    Even that formulation splits into two – the obviously bad and the not obviously bad. Obviously, saying that Ann Coulter and Caitlin Flanagan are feminist success stories doesn’t make much sense. But people who defend Hirshman pull a bait and switch here, trying to say that just because it’s anti-feminist for a woman to engage in anti-feminist political activity, it’s also anti-feminist for a woman to behave in an unapproved way.

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