Choice feminism is an alibi. It's time to come clean.
Kristin Davis plays the scene impeccably, because when Charlotte screams—“I choose my choice! I choose my choice!”—you can still hear her trying to restrain her voice. The anger is involuntary, uncontainable. Charlotte is about to marry Trey, a wealthy and vacuous WASP she doesn’t love, whose defining characteristics are his Machiavellian mother, Bunny, and an emotional repression so potent that it manifests in erectile dysfunction. Ahead of the wedding, she announces, she’s going to stop working.
Nominally, this is what Charlotte wanted. She’s devoted much of her life’s energy thus far to romantic, rather than professional, ambition, gauging her worth by her ability to attract and keep the right kind of man—namely, a rich one. But even Charlotte seems a bit uncertain about giving up her job at an art gallery to devote herself to Trey full time. Her friends try to broach the subject gently—is she sure?—but they don’t pierce the armor of her denial. Later, she calls Miranda and explodes into a paroxysm of defensiveness. She is choosing this, she insists, not trying to persuade her friend so much as herself. Who are her friends to say if it’s the right choice?
I think of this scene often, because there’s something familiar in Charlotte’s anxious defensiveness about becoming a housewife. Deeper forces are at play in the scene, a shame and defensiveness I see not only in the fictional Charlotte but in many real-world women in my own life—adherents of what’s come to be known, in feminist parlance, as “choice feminism.”
Choice feminism is the assertion, as Charlotte puts it, that “the women’s movement is about choice”—and that therefore, we should not critique the content of women’s choices in feminist terms. Sometimes this idea extends into a bigger claim: that any act or circumstance can become “feminist” by virtue of a woman choosing it, or by her finding some sort of satisfaction in it—a satisfaction usually referred to in tellingly nonspecific terms, like “empowerment.” “Choice,” “empowerment”; under choice feminism, these words act as political shields, covering for the reality of much of women’s lives the way a handcuffed mobster covers his face as he's hustled into a police car. And this is another way we might define choice feminism: as a series of elaborate denials and defense mechanisms.
By this I mean that choice feminism, with its insistence that the only way to evaluate the gendered justice or injustice of something is to consider how individual women feel about it, is a distraction. It distracts us—or indeed, forbids us—from evaluating gender inequality on the merits. Part of how it achieves this is simply by moving the goalposts. The goal becomes not “equality,” but “choice”; not “liberation” from sexist structures, but “empowerment” to comply more successfully within them.
Even the definition of “feminism” changes. The choice rubric transforms “feminism” from a political movement into something more like a feeling. In the wake of this shift, “feminist” is now used to mean “feminine,” or “pleasurable,” or “morally good.” Sometimes, like when Charlotte screams “I choose my choice!” it means “something I do not want to be honest about.”
This quickly leads to absurdities. Anything and everything becomes “feminist”—particularly anything that we might not want to look too closely at, or which we might want to shield from political scrutiny. Getting your nails done becomes feminist. If you squint, so does taking your husband’s last name. High heels and bikini waxes and lip injections and all manner of other investments in male approval become feminist, too. Sex stuff that people understandably want to defend as morally neutral gets laundered by the choice rubric into the genre of “feminism,” even when it just does not fit there; think of stripping, or BDSM.
More insidiously, under the rhetoric of choice feminism, gendered humiliations or inequalities get disguised as “choice” when they’re anything but. No one loves the rubric of “choice” as a measure of gender justice more than a white man who is trying to argue against a feminist policy intervention. It’s not that women are paid less than men, he’ll tell you—it’s that they simply “choose” less remunerative fields. It’s not that women are forced to drop out of the workforce when they have kids, he’ll say—it’s that they “choose” to spend that time with their adorable little babies, instead of working. Pay no attention to the reality that these choices are structurally incentivized, or that alternatives have been placed out of reach. When you’re playing by the strict rule of “choice,” then even the most bald-faced and intentional oppression of women can be disguised as volunteerism. Choice, here, is a way of studiously avoiding the central question: what choices do women really have?
But if choice has become an alibi for antifeminism, it’s become a kind of cage for feminism itself. In choice feminism, women’s “choice” acts as a political sanctification, placing the content of those choices beyond judgment. In some cases, “choice” is used to make coercion look like volition. In other cases, “choice” is used to shield individual women’s participation in misogyny from feminist scrutiny. In this way, the weaponization of “choice” has kept feminists from analyzing women’s compromises with patriarchy for what they really are: compromises.
Why would any woman invest herself in such a flimsy feminist politics? But the truth is that many believe in choice feminism, or have believed in it, and it’s a rubric with a lot of appeal. Who wouldn’t want to think that the end of women’s subjugation is just around the corner—or at least that the end of your subjugation can be, if only you could seize your own agency. It’s much easier to mentally silence the little inward voice that says this wouldn’t happen to a man than to confront the vast and staggering matrix of gender injustice that is built into the foundation of our politics, economics, and culture. One of these tasks I can accomplish on my own, maybe before lunch; the other is a project I won’t ever live to see completed.
Choice feminism offers women a way to see their own abdications in the fight against sexism as principled victories, or to cast themselves as being safely in possession of a power they do not really have. There’s an element of childish make-believe there, something like the way I used to run around the backyard with my cousins pretending to be a wise and benevolent wizard: In the games, I imagined myself as all powerful, yet having never done anything wrong. The insistence that a woman’s choices are necessarily feminist and untainted by patriarchy—I choose my choice!!—might be an extension of this same kind of delusion. More than anything, it sounds like a plea not to be judged.
And look, it’s true: a more rigorous feminism would demand a lot from individual women, asking them to make feats of energy and attention that don’t get much support and are difficult to sustain. In a world where misogyny has permeated our social structures large and small, resistance is exhausting. If I allowed myself to dwell on the meaning and cultural weight of every moment of sexist condescension I had ever experienced, it’s possible that the rage would blind me. It's certain that I would never do anything else. Under these circumstances, asking an individual woman to justify all her choices in principled feminist terms is like asking her to account for how she has spent every moment of her life, down to the minute. What woman wouldn’t want to throw up her hands, perhaps a bit defensively, and declare that she’s doing her fucking best.
Maybe part of choice feminism’s appeal is just this quality: that it insulates the personal from political critique. Sexism permeates into the private sphere more often and more intimately than other kinds of oppression tend to, and that means that individual women’s acts of resistance or complicity are often very personal, too. There is maybe no adult woman living who has never had the heartbreaking realization that some intimate, emotionally vital relationship she shares with a man is tainted by the sexism that has contaminated his view of her. No woman I know, even the most well read and politically committed feminist, has a prescription for how to deal with that heartbreak. Each one shoulders its pain alone. To judge how she carries it—how she copes, what she salvages—seems cruel.
But the truth is that we make compromises with sexism every day, and we often do it in the pursuit of emotionally fraught and vulnerable goals: to pursue our ambitions, or to nurture our relationships, or to stave off loneliness. To examine these compromises—to look honestly at where we fight sexism and where we surrender, what power has been taken from us and what we have relinquished voluntarily—is part of what a more honest, more adult feminism would ask of us. “The personal is political,” the second wave feminist slogan went, and at the time, it rang out as a terrifying challenge. It can feel like an imposition of feminism, to insert itself into our intimate lives this way. But sexism planted its flag there first.
It's tricky to critique “choice” as a feminist model right now, because one of the ways the word is most frequently used is as a euphemism for abortion. In politics, “choice” serves this purpose well: an emphasis on agency and freedom makes abortion more palatable in the political sphere. This is because “choice” helpfully obscures just what it is, exactly, that abortion allows women to do. That kind of choice—the choice to opt out, the choice not to submit to every demand that our gender places on us—has been legislated away by Republicans, and litigated away by the Supreme Court. Feminism’s enemies seem alert to the content of our choices. They distinguish quite readily between the choices they approve of, and the ones they do not.
Feminism needs to make these distinctions, too. But choice feminism doesn’t: it is studiously value-neutral. It does not see any difference between the worthiness of a choice to cooperate with patriarchy and the worthiness of a choice to resist it. But there is a difference. It is better to resist.
We need not condemn every woman who takes her husband’s last name admit this; we need not deny that sometimes resistance has been made impossible. But it is time to put away childish fictions about how women get free from sexism. Only then can we take on the much more difficult task that many of us have been ignoring: trying to imagine what a truly free woman’s life might look like. Without the crushing incentives to comply with patriarchy, without the foreclosures of possibility—structural, economic, psychic—that have made another life impossible, what options would that woman really have? We don’t have to condemn ourselves for our own choices. We can simply wonder whether she might choose differently.