Have you noticed that a lot of conversations about female empowerment today seem to be stuck in a discourse of choice that makes it difficult to challenge - well, anything at all?
Falling somewhere between victim feminism and the American dream, choice feminism is the new reigning queen of empowerment discourse. In contrast to political philosophies that explore the ways in which structural inequality limits freedom, choice feminism tells us that every individual is free to choose and that choice is empowering, no matter what the choice actually is.
The result is that the term choice is now employed in feminist debates about everything from the sex industry to marriage and makeup. Choice feminism dictates that any time a woman makes a choice it is an act of feminism.
Because a woman chooses to work in a strip club, for example, the factors that could affect her choice to do this work - which may include class, colonialism, education, abuse or the reality of living in a culture that objectifies women's bodies - are neatly erased. No one is forcing her to be there, choice feminism says. If men will pay, why not take the cash?
The decision made by Slutwalk DC organizers to hold a fundraiser for an event last year in a strip club invoked this notion of choice feminism. Many feminists balked at the idea of using a strip club for a seemingly oppositional cause. However, the organizers responded in a statement on their Tumblr page stating, "This is a non-judgmental movement that embraces all choices a woman wishes to make." Really? Since when is nonjudgmental the descriptor of a movement based on achieving collective freedom from oppression and exploitation? What if the choices being made perpetuate patriarchal ideas?
Part of the problem is that all of the well-intentioned talk about female empowerment in the third wave has left many of us fearful of falling into the much-criticized realm of "victim feminism." Maybe, for some, the empowerment message of choice is simply a reflection of a sense of entitlement to all the world has to offer. Perhaps, too, liberal feminism, commonly seen as being focused on individualism and on reform rather than on structural change, is as far as some are willing to go. Perhaps some think it is the best they can hope for.
Whatever its origins, choice feminism has co-opted feminist language in a way that takes the political out of the personal. It's all about whatever makes you feel good - right now!
We need to reclaim the word choice. After all, it is one of the founding philosophical underpinnings of the modern feminist movement and the slogan in the fight for reproductive rights. Choice is the embodiment of the political demand for abortion. Historically, it was a liberating concept that represented women's freedom and autonomy - not only in terms of their reproductive decisions, but also in more public aspects of life and society. Having the right to choose an abortion allows many women to feel they have a measure of control over their bodies and their lives.
This particular use of choice rhetoric was not without problems, however, since more privileged women always had greater access to reproductive choices compared to more marginalized women. Today, though, choice is no longer a rallying cry for change. Instead, choice has become a gag used to stifle debate.
Denise Thompson wrote about the problem of individualism as a foundation for feminist action in her book Radical Feminism Today. She argues that "if domination is desired, it cannot be challenged and opposed." So, for example, if sex worker is framed as an individual choice, the system of prostitution can be dissociated from the idea of systematic or gendered oppression. If prostitution is only a personal life choice, it need not have anything to do with patriarchy. It becomes a private issue rather than a public one. And yet, as we all know, private choices don't provide the basis for a movement. …