You’ve heard the term “choice feminism” right? Usually used derisively by a person who is arguing: Just because a woman makes a choice does not make it a feminist choice, we have to be able to examine issues on a systemic rather than individual level, some choices that individual feels are good for them are actually going to be bad for the group as a whole and even bad for that individual when systemic issues are taken into consideration.
Here’s what annoys me about this argument. It always comes from the perspective of a white, cisgendered, currently nondisabled, middle-to-upper-class, heteronormative, and otherwise socially privileged person.
That doesn’t mean that it’s that kind of person saying it: it means that the very idea comes from a very specific perspective, in response to a very specific situation.
And not all of us are in that same situation.
The assumption, when this person says “we have to be able to make some sort of systemic analysis and that will mean some choices have to be wrong” they are almost always assuming some specific things.
* Women have been historically locked in their homes tending their houses and families, and larger society pushes against women’s ability to participate in the workforce, and women should participate in the workforce at the highest level possible.
* Women are oversexualized, and that sexualization takes specific forms, such as high heels, lipstick, makeup, dresses.
* Women are stereotyped as demure and submissive, soft and giving, caring and intuitive.
* Women are forced into roles as family carers, encouraged to have as many children as possible and to be the primary carer to those children, stereotyped as having special natural ability to raise children.
That’s just a few.
Here’s the thing. Everything I just said above about “women”? Isn’t true for women. Rather, it is true for white women. Or cisgendered women. Or nondisabled women. It is not true for women as a class.
Yet we continually operate on the assumption that it is!
But ask some other women, sometime, what their experience has been. Many poor and lower-class women, for example, would gladly tell you that they have never had a whiff of an option to stay home with their children — they’ve been out there washing the rich women’s drawers, or sewing them in the first place, so that they can afford dinner for their family a few days out of the week. Ask a black woman about being a nanny and wet nurse. Ask both of those women, and a few mentally or physically disabled women, about when they had their children taken away from them or weren’t allowed to spend any time with them at all (apart from the time they spent cleaning up the messes of the children of those rich/white/nondisabled women they worked for).
Ask a little black or brown girl in some poor neighborhoods about being expected to be virginal (a concept that depends on whiteness from the very beginning) until her wedding day. She’ll probably laugh at you. She’s been continually harassed, abused and assaulted since age six. She’s portrayed in larger culture as an unsexual unwoman and yet every man who crosses her path sees her as a potent sexual opportunity.
Ask the little girl with developmental disabilities about sex sometime, too. No one ever sees fit to give her any information on the subject. They fight to have her sterilized, or even be forced with serious drugs and surgical interventions to stay in a prepubescent state for the rest of her life, so that no one will ever have to deal with the messy proposition of a menstruating or pregnant r*t*rd girl. And if she does get pregnant, that baby had better be aborted immediately, because she could never, ever be anything but an utter failure of a parent. Sterilization is proposed precisely so that she will never get pregnant even if she is sexually assaulted by carers — precisely because everyone knows that she will be.
Ask the visibly disabled woman about being expected to dress up in skirts and high-heeled shoes. Everybody around her will wince at the thought of her in form-fitting, skin-showing clothing. Because, you know, “women” are oversexualized in that way. Ask her about those super-special parenting powers she supposedly has. Everybody around her will bristle at the thought of her having primary responsibility over a child. Because, you know, “women” are stereotyped as having those super-special powers.
All of these girls and women live very different lives as girls and women. The fact that they are marginalized as girls and women is one thing they share in common. But the ways in which they are marginalized are different!
A white woman is marginalized in a different way than a Latina woman is. And a Latina woman is marginalized in a different way than an indigenous woman! A nondisabled woman is marginalized in a different way than a paraplegic woman is… and a paraplegic woman is marginalized in a different way than a bipolar woman is. An upper-middle-class woman in urban New York is marginalized in a different way than a poor woman in urban New York — and a poor woman in New York is marginalized in a different way than a poor woman in Indiana.
There are different mechanisms of marginalization for different types of people — and the greater your difference from the presumed default person, the more different your type of marginalization looks than the privileged-other-than-gender woman.
And that means that what affects you, how it affects you, what issues are important to you, what is good for you and what is bad for you, is different for different sorts of people.
So we cannot, cannot assume, if we agree that “choice feminism” is misguided (and indeed, I believe that straw-ideology would be misguided — well, surely many people think that way, but that is not usually the argument that is being put forth in these discussions), that high heels, lipstick, being submissive, foregoing paid work to raise children, etc. etc. are clearly problematic under a systemic feminist analysis. Because they might be clearly problematic for one set of women — but they are not clearly problematic for the set of all women.
Actually, sensible shoes and baggy desexualized clothing might be clearly problematic for a different set of women who have been historically deprived of their right to any sexuality. Actually, full-time participation in the paid workforce might be clearly problematic for a different set of women who have already been working outside the home for centuries and have historically been denied the right to raise their own children. Actually, being aggressive and dominating or even merely appearing assertive and self-confident might be clearly problematic for a different set of women who are culturally typed as bossy, loud, demanding and unyielding and rarely read as anything but.
Given all of this, I am distrustful of anyone who argues against “choice feminism” or the idea that “any choice is a good choice for that person” because that is not the point. When people protest as you judge their choices against your standards, they are not claiming that no choice could ever be problematic. They are protesting because you are applying the standard of your particular experience against their very different experience. They are protesting because you are assuming that your experience is universal. They are protesting because you are invalidating their own experience, their own feelings and thoughts and desires, in the process. They are protesting because you are objectifying them. And it feels pretty shitty to be objectified.
(Cross-posted at three rivers fog.)