Choice Feminism and the Fear of Politics

Article · March 2010with408 Reads
DOI: 10.1017/S1537592709992830
Abstract
Choice feminism is motivated by a fear of politics. It arises in response to three common criticisms of feminism: that feminism is too radical, too exclusionary, and too judgmental. In response, choice feminism offers a worldview that does not challenge the status quo, that promises to include all women regardless of their choices, and that abstains from judgment altogether. Moreover, it enables feminists to sidestep the difficulties of making the personal political: making judgments and demanding change of friends, family, and lovers. Yet judgment, exclusion, and calls for change are unavoidable parts of politics. If feminists are not to withdraw from political life altogether, we have to acknowledge the difficulty of engaging in politics. Political claims are partial; we will inevitably exclude, offend, or alienate some of those whom we should wish to have as allies. The political concerns and dilemmas to which choice feminism responds are very real. However, we can take seriously the political motivations behind choice feminism without withdrawing from politics. Instead, we need to complement an acknowledgment of the political dilemmas facing feminists with a celebration of the pleasures of engaging in politics with those who differ from and disagree with us.
Choice Feminism and the Fear of Politics
Michaele L. Ferguson
Choice feminism is motivated by a fear of politics. It arises in response to three common criticisms of feminism: that feminism
is too radical, too exclusionary, and too judgmental. In response, choice feminism offers a worldview that does not challenge the
status quo, that promises to include all women regardless of their choices, and that abstains from judgment altogether.
Moreover, it enables feminists to sidestep the difficulties of making the personal political: making judgments and demanding
change of friends, family, and lovers. Yet judgment, exclusion, and calls for change are unavoidable parts of politics. If feminists
are not to withdraw from political life altogether, we have to acknowledge the difficulty of engaging in politics. Political claims
are partial; we will inevitably exclude, offend, or alienate some of those whom we should wish to have as allies. The political
concerns and dilemmas to which choice feminism responds are very real. However, we can take seriously the political motiva-
tions behind choice feminism without withdrawing from politics. Instead, we need to complement an acknowledgment of the
political dilemmas facing feminists with a celebration of the pleasures of engaging in politics with those who differ from and
disagree with us.
A woman can and must judge other women. A woman can and
must face the judgment of other women. . . . A woman’s judg-
ment on her fellow woman always impresses her and can have an
enormous importance for better or for worse, whether it is
acknowledged or not. We do not propose to submit to it but, on
the contrary, to acknowledge its weight, and therefore to think
through and actualize a regime of social relations where female
freedom is guaranteed by women themselves.
—The Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective
1
Linda Hirshman coined the phrase “choice feminism
to name the widespread belief in the US that the
women’s movement has liberated women to make
whatever choices they want. While Hirshman focuses on
the choices women make about wage work and unpaid
labor in the home, choice feminism is a much broader
phenomenon. The view that today all choices are feminist
can be invoked to support decisions to wear lipstick and
high heels, to participate in Girls Gone Wild!, to sleep with
men, to enjoy pornography, to not have children, to hire a
maid, or to adopt a gendered division of labor. It’s the
creed of third-wave feminists like Jennifer Baumgardner
and Amy Richards, whose capacious understanding of fem-
inism includes every life choice, so long as it is accompa-
nied by “a political consciousness.”
2
It is the implicit
feminism of the Bush Presidency,
3
whose foreign policy
emphasized giving women abroad “access to more oppor-
tunities.”
4
As my colleagues confirm, it is in our class-
rooms, where students profess strong views on controversial
feminist issues, yet refuse to apply them to others, saying,
“but that’s just my personal opinion.”
What unites those I call “choice feminists” on the left
and the right, in the academy, the workplace, and the home,
is not so much an ideology or a specific political platform.
After all, one could be a choice feminist who endorses
women’s varied choices about working and mothering, and
yet insist that certain sexual choices are demeaning to all
women. Or one could be quite the opposite: endorsing sex-
ual freedoms of all kinds, while insisting that women should
occupy particular kinds of roles outside of the bedroom.
Hirshman, then, addresses only one variant of choice fem-
inism. What I analyze in this essay is the way of thinking
Michaele L. Ferguson is Assistant Professor of Political
Science and junior faculty affiliate with the Women and
Gender Studies Program at the University of Colorado
at Boulder (michaele.ferguson@colorado.edu). She is co-editor
of W Stands for Women: How the George W. Bush
Presidency Shaped a New Politics of Gender (Duke,
2007). She would like to thank the Department of Polit-
ical Science at the University of Colorado at Boulder for gen-
erously funding the 2008 conference on Women’s Choices
and the Future of Feminism that supported the develop-
ment of this symposium. In particular, she would like to
thank Lorraine Bayard de Volo, David Mapel, Celeste
Montoya-Kirk, Steve Vanderheiden, and Bozena Wel-
bourne for their participation in the conference. She also
thanks the Center for the Humanities and the Arts at the Uni-
versity of Colorado at Boulder for a Faculty Fellowship
that supported her work on this project. She is grateful to
Jill Locke, Laurie Naranch, Karen Zivi, and the other
symposium participants for the conversations that provoked
her to write this essay, and the critical feedback that
made it better.
| |
Symposium
doi:10.1017/S1537592709992830 March 2010
|
Vol. 8/No. 1 247
    • 9. The celebration of choice per se by some third-wave feminists, coupled with the reluctance to make judgments about the content of choices, has generated debates about " choice feminism " (Ferguson 2010;Snyder-Hall 2010;Budgeon 2015). 10.
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract] ABSTRACT: This article treats the pairing of “transgender” and “transracial” in the intertwined discussion of Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal as an intellectual opportunity rather than a political provocation. I situate the Dolezal affair in the context of the massive destabilization of long taken-for-granted categorical frameworks, which has significantly enlarged the scope for choice and self-fashioning in the domains of race, ethnicity, sex, gender, and sexuality. Anxieties about opportunistic, exploitative, or fraudulent identity claims have generated efforts to “police” unorthodox claims – as well as efforts to defend such claims against policing – in the name of authentic, objective, and unchosen identities. Instead of a shift from given to chosen identities, as posited by theories of reflexive modernity, we see a sharpened tension between idioms of choice, autonomy, subjectivity, and self-fashioning on the one hand and idioms of givenness, essence, objectivity, and nature on the other.
    Article · Sep 2015
    • Some feminists simply dismissed the idea that feminist ideology would inform their everyday experiences or that it is useful to critique an individual's choices. This " I do what I like " attitude can be problematic, as the failure to train a critical eye on one's own choices can lead to participation in practices that are neither in one's own best interest nor the best interest of promoting gender equality (Baker, 2008; Ferguson, 2010). On the other hand, other feminists evaluated their choices in terms of their feminist ideology; for these feminists, the practice of feminism in everyday life is related to the understanding of feminism as more than a general expression of support for women's choices or a vague notion of gender equality.
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract] ABSTRACT: This article examines the relationship between feminist identities and engagement with feminist activism in everyday life, including collective action and individual resistance. I draw on in-depth interviews with women and men in knitting communities, which some have identified as part of contemporary feminist culture. I found variety in feminist identities, including those who identified publicly as feminists and those who identified as feminists only privately. Other participants held postfeminist positions, represented by support for feminist issues but declining a feminist identity. I found that feminist identity was inconsistently associated with feminist activism. Participants with public feminist identities, with definitions of feminism that drew on discourses of equality (rather than choice), and those with broader knowledge of feminist issues were more likely to be engaged with feminist activism. In defining activism, participants put significant emphasis on individual resistance or everyday feminism.
    Article · Feb 2015
    • Participants in my study complained that practices they viewed as anti-feminist could be defended in the current climate as a woman's choice, thus silencing any critique. The radical feminist participants argued that this type of choice feminism does nothing to undermine a patriarchal status-quo in which women, and younger women in particular, are called upon to define themselves as empowered neo-liberal subjects through their consumer practices, or 'choices', in every sphere of life (Ferguson, 2010; Rudolfsdottir & Jolliffe, 2008). These consumer practices were thought to, perhaps inevitably, maintain hegemonic heterosexualised femininity, even perhaps when they were practiced by those identifying with alternative spaces and subcultures, such as those of third-wave feminism (Gill, 2007; McRobbie, 2009).
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract] ABSTRACT: In this article, I present data from qualitative research with 30 self-identified radical feminists who are currently active in the British feminist movement. I explore how participants defined their feminism, and threats to it - particularly challenges to organising women-only political space. I also focus on how participants related to the term third wave feminism, their definitions and critiques of this type of feminism as they perceived it. Many of the radical feminists in my research were keen to disassociate from the term ‘third wave’ and expressed an allegiance and connection to second-wave radical feminism, including those radical feminists too young to have any direct connection to that ‘wave’, being born too late to be politically active during the 1970s and 1980s.
    Article · May 2014
  • Article · Mar 2006 · Perspectives on Politics
  • [Show abstract] [Hide abstract] ABSTRACT: How should feminist theorists respond when women who claim to be feminists make “choices” that seemingly prop up patriarchy, like posing for Playboy, eroticizing male dominance, or advocating wifely submission? This article argues that the conflict between the quest for gender equality and the desire for sexual pleasure has long been a challenge for feminism. In fact, the second-wave of the American feminist movement split over issues related to sexuality. Feminists found themselves on opposite sides of a series of contentious debates about issues such as pornography, sex work, and heterosexuality, with one side seeing evidence of gender oppression and the other opportunities for sexual pleasure and empowerment. Since the mid-1990s, however, a third wave of feminism has developed that seeks to reunite the ideals of gender equality and sexual freedom. Inclusive, pluralistic, and non-judgmental, third-wave feminism respects the right of women to decide for themselves how to negotiate the often contradictory desires for both gender equality and sexual pleasure. While this approach is sometimes caricatured as uncritically endorsing whatever a woman chooses to do as feminist, this essay argues that third-wave feminism actually exhibits not a thoughtless endorsement of “choice,” but rather a deep respect for pluralism and self-determination.
    Article · Mar 2010
  • [Show abstract] [Hide abstract] ABSTRACT: One attraction of “choice” feminism has been its refusal to judge the diverse desires of women. Yet for feminism to retain its political vision as a quest for social justice, we must continue difficult conversations concerning how acting on our individual desires impacts the lives of others. In this essay, I argue that feminists can acknowledge women's diverse desires while forging a meaningful feminist community. I make this argument by considering feminism's relationship to time, and particularly how women's diverse desires are read in each moment in time. If we abandon the generational model, wherein each new generation of feminists improves upon the last, for a genealogical perspective where women recognize our feminist origins and empathize with the diverse struggles of other women, we might reaffirm social justice for the community as central to feminist politics. To articulate this possibility, I turn to the work of Simone de Beauvoir to explain her discovery of how her embodiment as a woman and her relationship to femininity becomes a way of grounding a feminist politics. Recognizing the “demands of femininity” in other women's lives allows us to affirm feminist community while retaining the capacity to make judgments that realize social justice as a feminist goal.
    Article · Mar 2010
Show more