Feminism has become such a popular topic on the Internet, especially among young people. One of the biggest trends I’ve seen in online feminist discourse lately is the talk about choice; not just for the classic issues, like in discussions of abortion or consent, but also in personal experience essays and viral articles. You’ve seen them: “Why Wearing Makeup is a Feminist Choice”, “I’m a Feminist, and I Chose to Take My Husband’s Last Name”, etc.
In so many ways, I am all for this. I think it’s really great to move away from trying to figure out some perfect ideal of feminism that women should be—after all, a woman should totally be able to choose to be a stay-at-home mom, or a stripper, or sexually active, or wear a hijab, or enjoy shopping without being shamed, and on and on. Realizing this is just as important as saying she should be able to work outside the home or choose to not have children. Even if I would not choose some of these lifestyles or choices personally, I also believe that none of these is shameful or incompatible with feminism.
However, I am a little uncomfortable with an interpretation of feminism that you’ve probably seen repeated over the Internet: “True feminism is about women being allowed to choose to be whatever they want.”
First, choices are not made in a vacuum. Way back in the 1950s, it was commonly argued that, since most (white) women ‘chose’ to be homemakers despite getting the right to vote and pursue higher education, that meant society wasn’t actually sexist. It turns out gender stereotypes were correct, and women really do only want to be wives and mothers! We obviously see that this was and is wrong now, but one woman of the era spotted this immediately: Betty Friedan. Friedan challenged this by pointing out the immense social pressure for women to uphold traditional gender norms and the lack of support for women to go against them. This resulted in her book, The Feminine Mystique, which basically jump-started second-wave feminism in the 1960s (I’d recommend it, by the way—I thought I’d have trouble getting into theory, but it’s surprisingly accessible, even if the treatment of issues, such as homosexuality, is quite dated).
Does this mean women who do make traditionally ‘feminine’ choices are brainwashed sheep or are oppressed? Of course not! However, it does mean that feminism has to be about more than just “screw the haters”.
Again, I am one hundred and fifty percent on board with supporting women’s individual autonomy and challenging a culture that often shames their decisions for ridiculous, sexist reasons. I completely agree that policing what makes a ‘good feminist’, or saying there’s only a certain way you can be a feminist, is as restrictive and reductive as traditional gender norms. I also believe, though, that simplifying feminism to ‘a woman’s right to choose’ has its own limitations. Personally, I don’t think feminism that’s largely or only about using the name of women’s empowerment to justify what you would’ve done anyway isn’t all that meaningful or interesting. We can and must respect and protect individual women’s rights to choose a variety of choices. But we can do that and also be critical of the systematic issues in our society that complicate those choices. To me, that’s true feminism.