Anyone involved in the feminist/ladyblogging community knows about I Choose My Choice feminism (a division of EmpowerfulCorp). Basically, there’s a well-trodden and tiresome pattern in which women defend problematic actions on the basis that feminism is about giving women choice, and therefore any choice made by a woman is feminist, even if it’s antifeminist.
The frustration here is not just with the logical contradiction, but with the way it subverts the “feminism is about choice” mandate. Because they’re not wrong — feminism is, in large part, about expanding women’s viable options. But that’s not the same as tucking every possible option in underneath a big, cozy, infinitely expandable feminist quilt. Feminism doesn’t aim to make more choices feminist; it aims for a situation where the feminist-ness of your choices is beside the point. But not all actions support that goal.
That’s right: I just said that feminism’s ultimate goal is eventually to obsolete itself. Well, isn’t it? What feminists are aiming for is a world that doesn’t need feminism to be a deliberate, discrete worldview. We’re not going to get it any time soon, so youngsters just starting out should not despair — “a world that doesn’t need feminism” is a little like “a sun that’s blown into a red giant,” inevitable with sufficient time and activity but very, very, very far in the future. But yeah, that is in a sense the goal. I Choose My Choice Woman’s sidekick in crime, I’m Not A Feminist I’m A Humanist Lad, takes some well-deserved drubbing from the Liberated Lady League, but really, we do want those things to someday be equivalent. In a sense they’re equivalent now. It’s just that some humans — not only women, obviously, but women in this case — are not currently on an equal footing.
For example, I was talking to a friend today about the historically thorny problems of having a kid and changing your name. In both cases, the problem is not that we don’t have the option to buck tradition — obviously women are free to remain childless, and free to retain their original monikers. But that technical freedom isn’t enough. If you don’t want a kid, say because you think it will hinder your career, sure, you will not be strapped down and inseminated. You’ll just come in for reams of judgmental shit from preachy bozos. And if you go ahead and just bear them and mother them, while the dad (if he’s in the picture) looks on proudly and takes them to the zoo on weekends? Well guess what: they’re going to hinder your career. Oh, plus a certain subset of feminists, not all of them straw, are going to wonder whether you care about that career as much as you said you did. Obviously, the sensible humane solution is that, in a two-person kid-producing partnership, the work is shared equally OR the bulk of the parenting falls to the less busy, less ambitious partner. But if you’re a woman who wants the male half of the equation to shoulder most of the child-rearing so the shrimps won’t slow you down, good luck getting support from the rest of the world. Even if your fellow’s up for it, he will get his measure of passive and active crap — from disbelieving looks to outright hostility for being Not The Mama. Plus you’ll have to contend with the fact that very likely there is no part of his brain — and almost certainly no part of his family or cohort — that ever considered fatherhood to be something he would need to do full-time.
Changing your name is maybe even a clearer example, though the consequences aren’t as dire. If you change, you lose some of your old identity; appealing for some (I was psyched about a new name) but problematic. If you don’t change, you forfeit a new identity where you have the same name as your new nuclear family. If you change, you may endanger your career — scientific papers and other publications, for instance, are not cross-referenced to your maiden name. If you don’t change, you endanger your valued right to not be a total crap target. In a reasonable world, the onus wouldn’t all be on the woman. If you wanted both partners to have the same last name, you could forge a new family identity with either or both of your old names or a total new one, with no negative consequences — you could choose who changed based on who needed to leave a paper trail, or who was excited about getting new initials. In real life? Yeah, that’s legal. Good luck with it.
This is really what feminism is about. It’s not about decrying some choices because they don’t move women ahead (the feminists who will give you shit about having a family or changing your name are mostly stories made up to scare children, but not all — and at any rate we are often called upon to defend ourselves against these specters, whether or not they’re genuine threats). It’s not about jealously protecting any choice a woman makes, as though she made it in a vacuum where she wasn’t influenced by patriarchy or societal approval and disapproval. It’s about working towards a situation where all reasonable options are equally supported. To jump on the back of a whole new example: plastic surgery, a favorite topic of ICMC feminism. It’s absurd, if popular, to argue that the decision to enlarge your breasts or make yourself look younger, in our current patriarchal climate, is somehow just as enlightened and unburdened a choice as the decision not to. But if we could somehow eliminate the advantage women get when they conform more closely to men’s ideals, if we could shrug off the cult of youth and decriminalize female aging, if we could dethrone the male libido from its seat as the arbiter of women’s worth? Then yeah, go ahead and choose your fucking choice. That’s the goal: not defending at any cost the decisions women make to survive in a patriarchy, but gradually reducing the patriarchy’s ability to decide what choices are supported.