The Cult of Choice Feminism

Laur Fitch argues for a feminism that goes beyond celebrating our choices.

When I was a very young feminist, I read the literature. There seemed, to me, to be no way to escape the Patriarchy without tearing it down limb from limb. I looked to our foremothers like Andrea Dworkin, Catherine MacKinnon, Gloria Steinem, Bell Hooks, and even Simone de Beauvoir as my heroes. They were willing to do and say what others would not.

In recent years, I’ve come across something that quite frankly disturbs me to my core: the rise of “choice” feminism. These choice feminists include “boss babes,” “girl bosses,” mothers who refuse to deconstruct, pick-me girls, and women who get all of their information on what feminism is from social media. It’s hard not to fall into these patterns these days, when “having it all” isn’t just a myth, but an unattainable pursuit. Marriage is seen as a “choice.” We forgot that forty years ago, it wasn’t a choice, but a necessity, and our foremothers who have passed are rolling in their graves.

The conversation around motherhood has shifted from advocating for things like subsidized child care, paid maternity leave, and other benefits to outright shaming women who choose the opposite path – reminiscent of Marcia Drut-Davis’ firing from her job as a teacher after declaring on 60 Minutes that she did not want children. We’ve moved from the concept of liberation to attempting to make tomorrow a little more bearable. We’ve seen a rise in states promoting anti-choice laws, and a renewed spirit in the fight to overturn Roe v. Wade, without any frank discussion about the history behind that case, and why the religious right moved in that direction in the first place. We’ve come to complacency, and how to live within the system.

We forgot our dream: freedom.

We are moving backwards in time. I, for one, don’t wish to return to the 1950’s, but that is what choice feminism will do, and what it has done. Feminist has become a commodified term, ironic for an ideology born out of the working class: we sell workout routines, makeup, shapewear, cosmetics, and even allow ourselves to be objectified under the guise of “feminism.” We can’t take power back by choosing which products to buy, which businesses to support.

In her book Why I am not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, Jessica Crispin describes it as “the belief that no matter what a woman chooses, from her lifestyle to her family dynamic to her pop culture consumption, she is making a feminist choice, just from the act of choosing anything. The idea is that under the more rigidly patriarchal past, women’s choices were made for them. So simply by choosing anything at all, you are bucking the patriarchy and acting like a feminist.” While, according to writer Amelia Ayrelan Iuvino, Crispin’s book falls short on one ideal: “it’s capitalism’s fault, and it’s capitalism that offers us so few alternatives, and blaming anyone or anything else just keeps us from recognizing the source of our oppression and effectively fighting against it.” And she is right.

So what happened? How did we get here, and how do we move forward?For starters, choice feminism is an overwhelmingly capitalist ideal. Corporations don’t want women to eschew the products that led to our oppression, nor do they want poor, working class women to escape poverty. 

They want women to have more children, to create more workers, to have someone to oppress. They want women to be complacent.

What we are overwhelmingly seeing is emotional and propagandistic manipulation.

During the second wave, feminism overwhelmingly addressed the struggles of white, upper-middle class women and their struggle for equality. Today, upper-middle class white women can buy their way out of oppression, but what about the rest of us? And why have we bought back into the idea that anything we do is our own personal choice?

Choice feminism argues, for instance, that a woman’s decision to stay at home is equally as feminist as another woman’s decision to work because they are both exercising their right to choose. I unequivocally support the rights and dignity of stay-at-home moms and housewives, but their choices were not formed in a vacuum; like all of ours, they were shaped by years of socialization under patriarchy. It isn’t productive to uncritically laud each choice a woman makes while ignoring the factors that led up to it.

The issue is not with women who choose to be stay-at-home moms, but the cultural inability to critique that decision. Each and every decision should be deconstructed and analyzed. The commitment to radical change is interrupted when we no longer feel a need for self-reflection.

Further, women of color cannot participate in these “choices.” Women of color overwhelmingly face barriers to social mobility, economic challenges, and barriers to things like healthcare, education, and the wage gap is even more stark. It is simply impossible in current structures for them to have access to some of these “choices.” Rema Bhat talks about the current trend of Bimbofication and what it would mean for women of color in her article It’s Time to Move Past Choice Feminism.

If women of color, and in particular Black women, were to participate in this trend, there would be violent repercussions. Black women and Asian women are already in a state of hyper–sexualization. Because these women suffer from disproportionate rates of sexual violence, participating in Bimbofication would most definitely be implicated by these realities.

Still think choice is the way forward?

This is not to say that individual women who choose to become stay-at-home moms are bad, or inherently oppressing other women, but it would be misguided to call that choice “feminist,” especially because the option to be a stay-at-home mother in this economy is inherently a class privilege. A woman who has the ability to choose to wear makeup, shave her legs, or sexualize herself has a privilege that other women do not. Either for economic reasons or worse, because her life would be put in danger. A woman who chooses to take her husband’s last name is supporting the patriarchal structure of society. Trans women do not have the option not to wear makeup in most cases: their lives may be put at risk.

And when we utilize this language to describe feminism, we are inevitably commodifying and reinforcing a long line of Patriarchal structures. An individual cannot take down a system of oppression, that takes organizing, that takes sacrifice, and it takes a willingness to analyze our own decisions.

But if a woman does analyze her own wants, separate from her own socialization, and she still wants it, then yes, make that choice, but stop calling everything feminist. You can be a feminist and make traditional choices, it’s the language that needs changing.

This article was originally published on Laur Fitch’s Medium.