Taming the Shrew?
Choice Feminism and the Fear of Politics
Michaele L. Ferguson
University of Colorado at Boulder
Prepared for the Gender and Sexuality Studies Workshop
at the University of Chicago, May 3, 2011
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.
If you write about sexual politics you’re going to piss people off.
A woman can and must judge other women. A woman can and must face the judgment
of other women. … A woman's judgment 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 Collective2
In 2005, Linda Hirshman coined the phrase “choice feminism” to name the widespread belief
in the U.S. that the women’s movement has liberated women to make whatever choices they
want. As she describes this view, “A woman could work, stay home, have 10 children or one,
marry or stay single. It all counted as ‘feminist’ as long as she chose it.”3 For Hirshman, this
insipid celebration of any and all choices a woman might make undermines feminists’ capacity
to engage in political critique. And it underlies what she claims is a recent trend for middle and
upper-middle class women in the U.S. to be “homeward bound” – leaving promising careers to
become stay-at-home moms (SAHMs), or to languish on the Mommy Track. Hirshman laments
how this trend is producing a single-sex brain drain from the nation’s law firms and
While Hirshman focuses on 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 feminism includes every
life choice, so long as it is accompanied by “a political consciousness.”5 It is the implicit
feminism of the George W. Bush Presidency,6 whose foreign policy emphasized giving women
abroad “access to more opportunities.”7 It is echoed as well in Hillary Clinton’s State
Department, whose rhetoric calls for the economic and political “empowerment” of individual
women.8 As my colleagues confirm, it is in our classrooms, where students profess strong views
on controversial feminist issues, yet refuse to apply them to others, saying, “but that’s just my
What unites those I will 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.9 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 (e.g., engaging
in submission, stripping, enjoying pornography, dressing in a ‘slutty’ way). Or one could be
quite the opposite: endorsing sexual freedoms of all kinds, while insisting that women should
occupy particular kinds of roles outside of the bedroom. Hirshman addresses only one variant of
choice feminism. What I mean to analyze in this paper is the way of thinking about feminist
politics that underlies all of these different variants. We might call it an orientation to feminist
Understood as an orientation, choice feminism has three important features. First, it
understands freedom as the capacity to make individual choices, and oppression as the inability
to choose. Consequently, as long as a woman can say that she has chosen to do something, it is
considered by choice feminists to be an expression of her liberation. Second, since the only
criterion for evaluating women’s freedom is individual choice, we should abstain from judging
the content of the choices women make. It is definitionally impossible for a woman to choose
her own oppression; all choices she makes are equally expressions of her freedom, and therefore
equally to be supported. Finally, this view of freedom is undergirded by a particular historical
narrative: it is the women’s movement in the past that has made it possible for women to make
free choices in the present. In some cases, this is a way of celebrating the successes of the
women’s movement. In other cases, however, this narrative supports the view that we are now
post-feminist, the women’s movement achieved all that was necessary some time ago, and
women today are fully liberated.10
In this essay, I critically examine choice feminism, understood as a particular orientation to
politics. In the following section, I argue that it arises as a response to the structure of feminist
politics. In particular, I suggest that as a response to criticisms that feminism is too radical,
exclusionary, and judgmental, choice feminism evinces a fear of politics. It aims to avoid having
to make judgments, to avoid taking controversial stands that might offend and exclude, and to
de-radicalize feminist claims. The political concerns and dilemmas to which choice feminism
responds are very real. Consequently, I conclude by suggesting that we take seriously the
political motivations behind choice feminism without withdrawing from politics. Instead, I
argue that as feminists 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.
The Allure of Choice Feminism
The literature about choice feminism tends to follow a generational logic: an older generation
of feminists fought for women’s liberation; a newer generation takes this liberation for granted
and uncritically celebrates all women’s choices.11 An older generation of women wanted to
pursue careers; a newer generation wants to choose stay-at-home motherhood. Choice feminism,
therefore, is always represented as a comparatively new position in contrast with an older
position, usually figured as more true to feminism. Interestingly, though, there is no agreement
in this literature about which is the new generation of women responsible for its emergence.
Hirshman marks the historical turning point all the way back in 1972, with the ascendance of
“the confrontation-averse Gloria Steinem.” 12 For bell hooks, the downturn took place in the
early 80s with the rise of “a lifestyle-based feminism which suggested any woman could be a
feminist no matter what her political beliefs.”13 Judith Warner locates the shift with “the first
post-baby boom generation, girls of the 1960s and 1970s who came of age politically in the
Carter, Reagan, and Bush I years”;14 this is the same generation that Lisa Belkin famously
identified in The New York Times as the vanguard of the ‘opt-out revolution.’15 Other recent
articles in the Times reveal that the logic of choice feminism is prevalent among undergraduates
currently attending elite colleges.16 And Claire Snyder identifies choice feminism with Third
Wave feminists writing in the 1990s and 2000s.17
This generational logic, whether the authors intend it or not, risks reinforcing a false
generational divide within feminism. It encourages those of us who are critical of choice
feminism to see other, younger women as the problem: they take feminism for granted, and they
lack the courage to pursue careers, reject traditional marriage, or otherwise fail to live up to our
conceptions of what feminists should be and do. It encourages those of us who are sympathetic
to choice feminism to see older feminists as the problem: they are closed-minded and
judgmental, they try to tell us how we should live our lives according to an outdated and narrow
understanding of feminism, and they do not accept that we might have good reasons for making
different choices than they have made. In either case, this generational way of understanding
focuses our attention on conflict with one another: on other women and other feminists.
Moreover, since this logic focuses our attention on pointing fingers at each other, it keeps us
from seeing current articulations of choice feminism as only the most recent manifestation of a
recurrent position in the feminist political imaginary. What if we take seriously Hirshman’s
observation that choice feminism, in some form, has been present in American feminist politics
since at least 1972? That suggests that choice feminism is not the rebellion of a particular
generation of younger women against a particular set of feminist foremothers. Instead, it appears
to be a recurrent political position that finds its adherents again and again: from 1972, to the
early 80s, to Third Wave feminists writing in the 90s, to the current crop of undergraduates in
Indeed, I contend that choice feminism echoes back through the history of Western feminism
at least to John Stuart Mill.18 He tempered the radicalism of his policy recommendations
(granting women more rights within marriage, and access to higher education and the
professions) with the moderating reassurance that, given the opportunity to pursue careers, most
women likely would not choose that path. Instead, he assuages his readers’ concerns that his
proposals might undermine the institutions of marriage and family when he suggests that most
women would choose to continue in traditional roles as wives and mothers rather than compete
with men for wage-earning jobs.19 His aim, therefore, is only to provide women with more
choices; it is oppressive, unjust, and bad for society to prevent talented women from becoming
educated and pursuing careers in which they may benefit the public. Yet his goal is simply to
make more choices available to women, not to ensure that they will, in fact, choose to exercise
their new options. This is choice feminism in another form: as long as we can say that women
have the choice to pursue careers, they are liberated; we cannot call them oppressed if they
subsequently decide to devote their lives to only being wives and mothers.
When we situate contemporary feminist concerns about choice feminism in a broader
historical tradition, this shifts the questions we should ask. Rather than asking what’s wrong
with a particular generation, we should be asking: what could explain the persistent appeal of
choice feminism, such that it appears again and again in the feminist political imaginary? Is
there something about feminist politics, or about Western or Anglo-American feminism in
particular, that produces and reproduces the allure of choice feminism? How does our
understanding of contemporary feminism shift if we start with the assumption that choice
feminism arises from and continues to be sustained by feminist politics itself?
I propose that we think of choice feminism as a way of responding to three interrelated and
common criticisms of feminism that disaffect potential allies. Choice feminism hopes to defuse
these criticisms by representing feminism as a nonthreatening, capacious movement that
welcomes all supporters – however discordant their views -, while demanding only the thinnest
of political commitments. In other words, choice feminism’s political function is to try to make
feminism seem appealing to the broadest constituency possible.
Criticism #1: Feminism is too radical.
Feminists are frequently charged with demanding political and personal changes that go too
far - that undermine institutions like marriage and the family, or restrict individual freedoms to
dress, love, and have sex as we please. This is the kind of criticism that Mill anticipated in The
Subjection of Women: that extending political and economic rights to women would undermine
marriage and the family. If we let mothers work, who will take care of children? Mill reassures
his readers that we are not necessarily in for dramatic social changes if we were to extend equal
rights to women: his feminism does not require that women all become educated and pursue
careers; it only requires that they have the opportunity to do so.
The twenty-first century equivalent of Mill’s move is to reassure us that feminism’s demands
are minimal. As Baumgardner and Richards put it: “You’re sexy, a wallflower, you shop at
Calvin Klein, you are a stay-at-home mom, a big Hollywood producer, a beautiful bride all in
white, an ex-wife raising three kids, or you shave, pluck, and wax. In reality, feminism wants
you to be whoever you are—but with a political consciousness.”20 Being a feminist does not
mean that you have to have a job, that you have to give up shaving and wearing a bra, that you
have to be anti-sex, that you have to be critical of the fashion industry. In fact, you can keep
doing whatever you have been doing – all that Baumgardner and Richards ask is that you do
these things ‘with a political consciousness’ (whatever that is).21 Consequently, choice feminists
can market feminism to a broad audience as compatible with virtually any life choices, and
seemingly at odds with none.
Criticism #2: Feminists are exclusionary.
The classic (and often well-placed) form of this criticism is that American feminists are only
concerned about the rights and needs of white, middle-class, Western, straight women.
American feminism since the 70s has come under repeated attack for excluding or disparaging
the needs and viewpoints of women of color, lesbians, working-class women, non-Western
women, and intersexed persons. For many feminists, faced with a long history of scathing
criticism, it sometimes seems that the worst sin a feminist could commit would be to exclude
Choice feminism is a reaction to this fear of excluding some of those whom we would wish to
have as political allies and fellow-travelers. Hirshman describes Steinem as particularly
concerned to include as many as possible: “Under her uncritically accepting eye, feminism
expanded to embrace every oppressed group.”22 This concern to avoid exclusion is also
dominant in contemporary Third Wave feminism, as Leslie Heywood argues: “for the third
wave, feminism is a form of inclusiveness; a feminism that allows for identities that previously
may have been seen to clash with feminism. For example, one can be a devout Christian or a
Muslim and also be feminist, one can identify with ‘male’ cultures like sport and also be
feminist, or one can participate in as well as critique beauty culture and also be feminist.”23 The
logic of choice feminism is one that aims to be as inclusive as possible. Baumgardner and
Richards accomplish this by stepping back from the notion that feminists are united by a
common identity or a political platform: for them, feminists are merely “a loose collection of
individuals.”24 If feminists only loosely form a collectivity, then we can more readily
comprehend diverse identities and perspectives, and avoid the problems of essentialism and
exclusion that plagued the Second Wave.
Criticism #3: Feminists are judgmental.
Feminists have often been criticized for being judgmental – that is, for making moralizing
judgments where such judgment is inappropriate and therefore unwelcome.25 These criticisms
have come from the right – for example, the criticisms that feminism is anti-homemaker, anti-
men, anti-heterosexual, and anti-family. They have also come from the left, from those
concerned that feminists are critical of women who choose motherhood – especially SAHMs—,
whose family lives follow a gendered division of labor, who have and enjoy heterosexual sex (or
any sex), who choose to be married, and who wear makeup and enjoy femininity. Judgmental
feminists, according to these critics, think they have the right to tell the rest of us what to do and
how to live our lives, to tell us who counts as a feminist, and who has betrayed feminism by
failing to live up to their standards. Such feminists unnecessarily intrude into personal matters,
when they should be more tolerant and open-minded. They denigrate and devalue other people’s
personal choices, which has the negative political consequence of turning many people off of
feminism who should be drawn towards it.
In response to these concerns, choice feminists try to avoid making judgments about other
people’s personal lives. Naomi Wolf, for example, castigates what she calls “victim feminism”
for being “judgmental of other women’s sexuality and appearance.”26 In its place, she advocates
“power feminism,” which is pro-sex, pro-money, and whose core tenets include that “women
have the right to determine their lives.”27 Another Third Wave feminist, Rebecca Walker, urges
feminists to “Avoid making judgments about people based on generalizations and stereotypes.
While you’re at it, avoid making judgments about people at all. Make up your mind about
people based on your actual experiences.”28 Even a critic of choice feminism like Warner
nonetheless tries to avoid coming across as judgmental herself when she writes, “I do not think
that women should do anything---other than remain true to themselves so that they can be
happy.”29 After offering a devastating critique of the current American cult of motherhood, she
nonetheless declines to judge the women who indulge in and perpetuate it. Anxious to avoid
appearing judgmental, we accept all choices as valid and sidestep the difficulty of judging
Feminism will continue to provoke these three criticisms so long as it is deeply critical of
existing institutions, it aims in any way to speak for or about a collectivity (such as women), and
it claims that the personal is political. As long as feminism provokes these criticisms, some
feminists will be tempted to adopt a choice feminist orientation in response. Nonetheless, while
I am suggesting that choice feminism is a response produced by the structure of certain kinds of
feminist politics that can be found at least 150 years back, this does not mean that it always and
everywhere will manifest in the same ways. Choice feminism in the U.S. today is a position
adopted not only by self-proclaimed feminist activists, but also (and perhaps more significantly)
by people who do not even think of themselves as feminist. It is found in popular television
shows Sex and the City and 30 Rock, and it is expressed by conservative political figures like
Laura Bush and Condi Rice.31 Choice feminism today is not simply a position taken by
advocates of feminism; it is a commonplace in U.S. culture and politics.
In order to explain the widespread appeal of choice feminism to non-feminists in the
contemporary U.S., then, we have to make recourse to additional factors. The emphasis on
women’s liberation as liberation to make individual choices has purchase in contemporary
America because it resonates with other political ideas already widespread. Many commentators
have noted that the women’s movement in post-Roe reproductive politics made the language of
choice synonymous with women’s liberation.32 As Summer Wood puts it, “The word’s primacy
in the arena of reproductive rights has slowly caused the phrase ‘It’s my choice’ to become
synonymous with ‘It’s a feminist thing to do’—or, perhaps more precisely, ‘It is anti-feminist to
criticize my decision.’”33
Furthermore, the language of choice resonates with the liberal individualist political
philosophy that is widespread in American political culture, grounded in the Millian position that
individual freedom is to be tolerated so long as it does not bring harm to others. Warner suggests
this connection when, attacking choice feminism as it is manifest in the Mommy Wars, she
characterizes it as “a perverse form of individualism,”34 which by individualizing choices and
problems, privatizes them.35 This broader resonance, Rickie Salinger notes, helps the language
of choice seem nonthreatening and conventional, and appeal to a wide audience: “’choice’ could
be perceived as an essentially conservative claim of personal freedom from state intervention.”36
Feminism, understood as empowering women to make individual choices, is thus compatible
with both liberal and conservative worldviews.
Finally, and perhaps most problematically, the language of choice is compatible with and
complicit in neoliberal consumerism. Ariel Levy notes this connection to neoliberalism when
she argues that raunch culture is a narrow form of sexuality that is being marketed to women and
girls as sexual freedom.37 Wood summarizes the consumerist logic of choice feminism thus:
“The cult of choice consumerism wills us to believe that women can get everything we want out
of life, as long as we make the right choices along the way—from the cereal we eat in the
morning to the moisturizer we use at night, and the universe of daily decisions, mundane and
profound, that confront us in between.”38
Yet choice feminism is not just being marketed to women and girls by corporate interests;
feminism itself is becoming neoliberalized. As Wendy Brown describes it, “neoliberalism
normatively constructs and interpellates individuals as entrepreneurial actors in every sphere of
life.”39 Choice feminism embraces the liberated woman as liberated, neoliberal
consumer/entrepreneur. This feminist consumerism was expressed poignantly in a Sex and the
City episode fittingly titled “A Woman’s Right to Shoes,” in which Carrie Bradshaw celebrates
her choice to be single and childless by proclaiming the legitimacy of her desire to acquire a
large stash of expensive, designer shoes.40 Moreover, choice feminists like Jessica Valenti see
feminism itself as a kind of commodity to be marketized.41 As Nina Power puts it, choice
feminism “believes it has to compliment capitalism in order to effectively sell its product.”42
Given the broad cultural resonances of the language of choice and its marketability, we should
not be surprised to find that today’s choice feminism has widespread appeal in American culture.
The Politics of the Personal
So far, I have argued that choice feminism is a reaction produced by the structure of feminist
politics, and that its spread in contemporary America is facilitated by its resonance with pro-
choice rhetoric, liberal individualism, and neoliberal consumerism. While these are all important
to explaining the allure of choice feminism in contemporary America, in this section I contend
that perhaps the most intractable source of its appeal lies in the personal dilemmas faced by those
of us who would be feminists.
Feminists live in relationship with people who (whether consciously or unconsciously) are
sexist and anti-feminist. We live with people whose lives have gone seemingly untouched by the
women’s movement, or who lack an awareness of the political character of their personal
decisions. Our world is one that has only been partially and imperfectly transformed by
feminism; all of us who would be feminists live at odds with the world around us.
The disjuncture between our political principles and our personal lives produces dilemmas for
feminists. Consider that many of us have mothers, sisters, friends, and colleagues who have –
whether by choice or not – been homemakers and SAHMs. Adopting a political position like
Hirshman’s – that homemaking and childrearing do not make full use of women’s capacities –
places feminists in an impossible bind: they have to disrupt and potentially undermine
relationships with people whose choices they condemn, or they have to bite their tongues and
support the problematic choices of those they love. From this dilemma, a choice feminist
position is born and sustained. To do anything less than to celebrate all women’s choices equally
is to ask of us that we judge those who are closest to us and risk severing or damaging our
relationships with them. As some students of mine have put it, to condemn homemaking as a
valid choice for women is to condemn their own mothers – which they cannot do. And so they
refuse to make judgments and instead adopt a choice feminist position.
This dilemma – that feminist political consciousness requires of us that we understand those
we love and care about as having made nonfeminist or even anti-feminist choices, which
understanding puts in jeopardy those same relationships – is pervasive for feminists living in a
world only partially transformed by feminism. Our political views and consciousness necessitate
judgments about those we love: about the gendered division of labor within a friend’s marriage,
about the choice a sister makes to leave the workforce to stay at home with her children, about
the way a teenage daughter wants to dress and act, about the sexist and homophobic jokes a
friend likes to tell, about how one’s partner places his career goals above one’s own, about a
colleague’s desire to have another child before tenure when her case is already shaky. Yet, if we
articulate these judgments, or allow them to affect our relationships, we risk triggering
passionate conflict – which makes relationship unpleasant if not impossible. However, if we
suspend judgment in the context of our personal relationships, we seem to be failing in courage
as feminists – for feminism is precisely about reworking and revisioning the personal.
Our political views also exact a demanding standard for ourselves: we, too, must strive for an
egalitarian distribution of labor in the home, for nonsexist relations with others, to not fall back
into traditionalist gender roles. If I do the dishes tonight, have I given in? If I wear lipstick and
show some cleavage, am I selling out the women’s movement? How much time should a
feminist take off from her career to spend with a newborn? It can be exhausting to subject our
every thought, our every decision to feminist analysis. And if our most personal relationships
are with people who are not equally committed to feminism, we may find ourselves unsupported
in making changes in our personal lives.
It is possible to imagine living as a feminist with this dilemma: accepting that being a
feminist means loving nonfeminists, and accepting one’s own inability to fully embody one’s
own feminist principles. This is the kind of feminism that Lori Marso urges us towards: a
feminism involving humility and self-forgiveness, an awareness that we are all constrained by
the demands of femininity.43 Yet this is a position that is difficult to occupy, and perhaps even
more difficult to sustain.
By comparison, choice feminism offers us an easy way to opt out of the dilemma altogether.
It releases us from the burden of judging those close to us: our older friends and relatives can be
excused because they did not have the choices available to us now; our peers can be excused
from judgment because in making choices, they cannot be sexist or regressive – they are just
making free choices in a world in which we all have options. Choice feminism also relieves us
of the burden of being consistently feminist ourselves: we do not have to struggle to bring our
own personal lives into line with a demanding set of principles, because the only relevant
principle is that our personal arrangements be freely chosen – and it is dangerously easy to
convince ourselves that what we do is a simple matter of free choice.
Choice feminism will continue to have broad appeal to feminists because it gives us an easy
way out of the dilemmas of politicizing the personal. If we wish to counteract the influence of
choice feminism, then we need to do a better job as feminists of acknowledging the difficulty of
living a feminist life. We need to give voice to these dilemmas, and we need to provide guidance
to one another on how to live with them.
The Fear of Political Freedom
Most criticisms that have so far been levied at choice feminism attack its focus on individual
choice. This focus divorces choice from the broader institutional, political, historical, and social
contexts in which choices take place. This means that choice feminism obscures how our
choices are shaped for us.44 Hirshman argues that the “choice” for women to quit their jobs and
become SAHMs is shaped by the current U.S. tax code that penalizes two career married
couples;45 Warner argues that the “choice” to become a super-mom is framed by a historically
contingent cult of motherhood with roots in child psychology, an underfunded and
underregulated child care industry, and a conservative backlash against feminism;46 Levy argues
that the “choices” to express one’s sexuality through public exhibition for men, to have cosmetic
surgery to meet a porn star ideal of beauty, and to learn to striptease are produced by the
commodification of a narrow range of sexuality sold to women as sexual liberation.47
Furthermore, choice feminism fails to differentiate between those who can choose and those
who cannot; analysis of how class, race, sexuality, and power affect women’s choices is often
missing.48 Since it represents choices as a matter of individual responsibility alone, choice
feminism can be deployed to punish women who have “made” the wrong choices.49 It also
misleadingly suggests that since choices are individual, they have no social consequences;
women are therefore relieved of responsibility for considering the broader implications of their
decisions.50 Indeed, individual choices are figured as private matters of no one else’s concern.51
This means that it is inappropriate to politicize women’s choices. Consequently, choice
feminism is radically depoliticizing: it discourages us from forming judgments about the value
of different choices, it discourages us from giving a public account for the choices we make, it
shuts down critical discussion about which choices should be valued and which choices are mere
illusions,52 it uncritically embraces consumerism,53 and most problematically for the future of
feminism, it deters women from being active in politics to improve childcare, public schools, and
working conditions – all of which are deemed private matters.54 As Hirshman depressingly puts
it, “the invitation to leave one another alone is really an invitation to leave the current unjust
arrangement in place.”55
Some choice feminists – following in the footsteps of Baumgardner and Richards – might
respond to these criticisms by suggesting that we can avoid these problems of choice as long as
we complement a celebration of the diversity of women’s choices with a political
consciousness.56 In other words, a modified choice feminism would not celebrate all women’s
choices equally – but only those made by women who are conscious of the politics of their
choices. For example, a woman might choose to end her career and stay at home to raise
children; her choice would be feminist not as such, but only insofar as she “reflect[s] on her own
desires and seriously consider[s] how her choices might play a role in propping up or calling into
question the sex/gender system.”57 This modification might go a long way towards satisfying
some of choice feminism’s critics. However, it does not go far enough.
My concern is that this move does not address the political drives behind choice feminism:
the drive to make feminism appeal to as many people as possible and the drive to escape the
dilemmas of feminism in our personal lives. Ultimately, the problem with choice feminism is not
that it celebrates women’s choices without having a political consciousness. The problem is that
– even complemented by a political consciousness – the turn to choice feminism is motivated by
a fear of politics. It aims to sidestep the need to make judgments, it aims to avoid making
exclusions, and it aims to downplay the radicalism of feminism’s challenges to the status quo.
Yet judgment, exclusion, and calls for change are unavoidable parts of politics. What is
ultimately being expressed in a choice feminist position is a fantasy of a world without politics:
a world in which we are never called upon to defend our views to those who disagree, in which
we never offend anyone because we tolerate everyone, and in which we do not attempt as a
collectivity to bring about structural changes. This is a vision of a world in which we all get
along not because we agree, but because we studiously avoid conflict. What good is a political
consciousness if we are afraid to use it?
The conception of freedom at the heart of choice feminism is the classic freedom of modern
liberalism: individual license to do as one pleases free from political interference. However,
there is a countervailing tradition of feminist political thought that expresses a very different
understanding of freedom - one which is inseparable from political engagement.58 On this
account, women have been oppressed not so much because they have been denied the freedom to
choose their own individual paths,59 as because they have been denied participation in public life.
Feminists in this tradition have decried the historical absence of women in positions of power not
as the symptom of a lack of choices, but as the systematic exclusion of women from involvement
in shaping the world in which they live. The remedy for this form of oppression is not mere
opportunity to get involved, but the active exercise of political freedom – what Linda Zerilli
describes as “the capacity to found new forms of political association.”60 Women are free only
to the extent that they are engaged in the political practice of creating, reimagining, and
transforming the shared world in which they live.
The exercise of political freedom is difficult and demanding because it requires that we make
judgments - hard, messy judgments. Claims about the relative value of different choices, claims
about the justice or injustice of particular courses of action, are exercises in judgment. Without
making judgments, politics becomes vacuous relativism: we have no reason to prefer one course
of action over another. Yet making judgments is always potentially terrifying and demands a
certain amount of courage because, when it comes to political matters, we have no objective set
of standards for judging that could serve as a set of guidelines for us to follow. Political freedom
requires that we make the best judgments that we can, without knowing for certain that the
judgments we make are correct.
Moreover, politics involves making our uncertain judgments public, submitting them to the
scrutiny of others, and trying to persuade these others to share our views. However, there is no
guarantee that when we share our judgments, other people will agree with them. Simply because
I believe my judgment is the best does not mean that others will, too. As Zerilli argues,
“political claims have a fundamentally anticipatory structure.”61 That is, when we express
judgments and claim them as valid for others, we anticipate, we hope that others will agree with
us; but we cannot know in advance whether they will. Making judgments therefore always
involves taking risks: a risk that my justifications will not be persuasive to others, and a risk that
after subjecting my views to public scrutiny, I may find that my judgments are no longer
persuasive to me. Most importantly for our discussion, Zerilli notes that political judgment
always risks exclusion: I may claim to speak for a group (say ‘women’) and find in response that
not all women agree with what I say, or agree that I have the authority to speak for them.62 The
choice feminist orientation misunderstands this disagreement and exclusion as evidence of the
failure of politics; yet it is an expected part of the public exchange of uncertain judgments.
When we make judgments, we take the risk that others will not agree with us, that we are going
to offend some people we would like to persuade, and that we are going to turn off some people
from feminism who we would prefer to have as allies. That’s politics.
Exercising judgment is not the same as being judgmental (although choice feminists often
equate the two). Judging is coming to a decision where there is no objectively right or wrong
choice to be made. Rather than inappropriately imposing personal standards on other people
from without, the practice of judgment involves becoming aware that we make political claims
within in a world of others who are differently situated and who need to be persuaded of the
validity of our claims. Zerilli argues that political judgments require “learning to make claims
that take others into account and to elicit criteria in an effort to persuade them of one’s own
view.”63 To say that feminists should make judgments is not to say that we will all from the start
be capable of making good judgments – judgments that fully acknowledge others and are
persuasive to them. Feminists who fail to make ‘claims that take others into account’ are not
thereby being judgmental. Instead, they are practicing judgment – that is, judging without
having become masters of judgment. Judging is a political skill we learn to do better by
practicing it in the company of others.
The criticism that feminists are judgmental, therefore, may sometimes be a misplaced
criticism. What is meant may be something like: your judgment is narrow-minded and does not
take my perspective into account, and I think we can do better. The disagreement, in other
words, may be a political one about how we should judge – rather than a disagreement about
whether we should judge in the first place. For example, the charge that certain feminists are
prudishly anti-sex need not be understood as a claim that these feminists are judgmental about
other people’s sex lives. Instead, it can be understood as a political claim: that we feminists
ought to endorse sexuality as an important expression of human flourishing, perhaps, rather than
an irremediable site of the oppression of women. What pro-sex feminists are arguing against,
then, is not judgmentalness, but a particular anti-sex judgment. Choice feminists disavow their
own position when they reject judgment as such; after all, they are passing judgment on their
fellow feminists even as they claim to want to avoid judging!64
Nonetheless, some people do mean to suggest that feminists are judgmental, and not merely
making poor judgments. In such cases, what is meant is that feminists are making judgments
about personal matters that do not concern them. In other words, the charge of judgmentalness is
grounded in a liberal worldview: it suggests that there is an appropriate sphere for the exercise
of judgment beyond which judging others is unacceptable. We need to see this accusation for
what it is - an attempt to reassert the boundary between public and private that many feminists
have long contested. If we are to take seriously the premise that "the personal is political" - then
we have to resist the notion that to critically analyze the politics of the personal is necessarily to
be judgmental. Feminists need to publicly make judgments about personal matters – sex, career
decisions, dress and makeup, power in intimate relationships – because reimagining our personal
lives is an essential component of a feminist reimagining of the world we share.
Political freedom is very demanding: engaging in politics requires time, energy, commitment,
courage, and a willingness to take risks. If we make a political claim that is worth making – one
that is markedly different from the dominant views in our society, rather than a mere parroting of
the status quo – chances are we are going to offend and alienate some people just by speaking
out. Politics takes courage – the courage to be unpopular, to say what one thinks, to be
criticized, to have to admit that one’s judgment was poor and needs revising, to give a defense of
one’s positions to people who challenge us. It is understandable that choice feminists would be
afraid of politics because of what it demands of us. But we should not run from a fight65 simply
because the fight is hard and its outcome is uncertain. What we need is to remind ourselves of
the pleasures of politics, the parts of political action that make being courageous in the face of
risk enjoyable and worthwhile.
Towards Taking Feminist Pleasure in Politics
When I suggest that feminists need to take pleasure in politics, I do not mean that political
action is always and only pleasurable. On the contrary, I believe it is extremely important for us
to acknowledge how very difficult and demanding it is to be a politically engaged feminist. This
is especially so because of the dilemmas of making the personal political that I described above.
Making judgments as a feminist means making judgments about myself, and making judgments
about others - friends, lovers, parents, co-workers, and other feminists - that may have very
painful consequences. We have to make difficult choices about which battles to fight – because
surely it would exhaust any activist to pick a fight each time there is cause to do so.
Consequently, we have to make compromises, and we often have to compromise ourselves and
our principles in the process. We need a feminist account of politics, therefore, that helps us to
make sense of the impossibility of being a feminist in an only partially transformed world.
Moreover, we need to acknowledge that engaging in politics – whether in the bedroom, the
boardroom, or the Oval Office – is risky. It involves taking the risk of being rejected and
ridiculed, offending others, losing a fight, and even undermining the very causes we would
support. It is no wonder choice feminists fear politics. We need to acknowledge these fears as
legitimate without allowing them to paralyze us.
Hirshman, worried that women are opting out of elite careers, calls on feminists to sing the
pleasures of work.66 In contemporary America, it has become unfashionable to proclaim that one
finds work pleasurable, and politically incorrect to insist that women who opt out are thereby
missing out on some important element of human flourishing. Against these trends, she urges
women to embrace “the love that dares not speak its name: love of work.”67
It is in this spirit that I call on feminists to resist the temptation to reject judgment and
exclusion, and to instead remind ourselves of politics’ many pleasures. In particular, we need to
celebrate the pleasures that arise from engaging in politics precisely with people who are
different from and disagree with us – the ones who most threaten feminism with the criticisms
that it is too radical, exclusionary, and judgmental. Encounters with our critics contain an
important possibility of pleasure.
Here, I draw on Iris Young’s argument that the eroticism in the encounter with otherness that
happens regularly in city life can serve as a model for thinking of a new ethos of democratic
engagement with otherness. Just as in politics, the eroticism of the other in city life is both the
source of pleasure and danger:
The erotic dimension of the city has always been an aspect of its fearfulness, for it
holds out the possibility that one will lose one’s identity, will fall. But we also take
pleasure in being open to and interested in people we experience as different. We spend
a Sunday afternoon walking through Chinatown, or checking out this week’s eccentric
players in the park. We look for restaurants, stores, and clubs with something new for us,
a new ethnic food, a different atmosphere, a different crowd of people. We walk through
sections of the city that we experience as having unique characters which are not ours,
where people from diverse places mingle and then go home.68
This urban pleasure in difference – while it is not without its own risk of exoticizing otherness,
or reducing it to a cuisine or lifestyle – serves as a model for reimagining the encounter with
difference in democratic life as erotic. There is, for Young, a “pleasure in being drawn out of
oneself to understand that there are other meanings, practices, perspectives on the city, and that
one could learn or experience something more and different by interacting with them.”69
This is the pleasure of exercising political freedom: in exchanging political judgments with
others, I encounter new positions, new perspectives, that take me outside of myself.
Encountering and learning about others, trying to see the world from their perspective, is not
only threatening insofar as it challenges my positions, but it can also be erotic, exciting,
different, and new.
Of course, for feminists whose very survival is threatened,70 the idea that they should see
politics as pleasurable may seem condescending and naïve. It may be difficult – if not
impossible –for women under such conditions to experience politics as pleasurable. Perhaps this
pleasure in learning from others can be experienced only under certain basic conditions – such as
a guarantee of physical security – or only by those with certain habits of listening and being
open-minded. Nonetheless, even – and perhaps especially – in situations where we feel most
threatened, we need to be able to find some pleasure in politics in order to sustain our
With this in mind, we as feminists need to cultivate an erotic orientation to politics, one that
enables us to hear criticisms of feminism as pleasurable invitations to learn about how others see
us, how they experience their lives, how we might make better political claims in the future –
claims that would include not by blandly embracing any and all choices, but by taking more
thoughtful stands and giving more careful justifications to others that, we can only hope, they
will find alluring.
An earlier and shorter version of this essay was published as a part of a symposium on Choice
Feminism as Michaele Ferguson, "Choice Feminism and the Fear of Politics," Perspectives on
Politics 8, no. 1 (2010). I would like to thank the Department of Political Science at the
University of Colorado at Boulder for generously funding the 2008 conference on Women’s
Choices and the Future of Feminism that supported the development of this symposium. My
work in spring 2008 on this project was supported by a Faculty Fellowship at the Center for the
Humanities and the Arts at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I am grateful to Lorraine
Bayard de Volo, Nancy Hirschmann, Jennet Kirkpatrick, Jill Locke, Lori Marso, Celeste
Montoya-Kirk, Laurie Naranch, Claire Snyder-Hall, Steve Vanderheiden, and Karen Zivi for the
conversations that provoked me to write this essay and the critical feedback that made it better.
1 Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (New York,
NY: Free Press, 2006), 206.
2 The Milan Women's Bookstore Collective, Sexual Difference: A Theory of Social-Symbolic
Practice (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990), 142.
3 Linda R. Hirshman, "Homeward Bound," The American Prospect, November 22 2005.
4 Hirshman, Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World (New York, NY: Viking,
5 Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the
Future (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000), 56-57.
6 Michaele Ferguson and Lori Marso, "Introduction: Feminism, Gender, and Security in the
Bush Presidency," in W Stands for Women: How the Bush Presidency Has Shaped a New
Politics of Gender, ed. Michaele Ferguson and Lori Marso (Durham, NC: Duke University Press,
7 Condoleezza Rice, "Remarks at the 'One Woman Initiative' Fund for Women's
Empowerment," U.S. Department of State,
8 The rhetoric of “women’s empowerment” under the presidencies of George W. Bush and
Barack Obama is likely a reflection of language used in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for
Action that came out of the United Nation’s Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995.
"Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action,"
http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/beijing/beijingdeclaration.html. The third Millennium
Development Goal adopted by the UN in 2000 is to “promote gender equality and empower
women.” United Nations, "Millennium Development Goals,"
http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/. For a critical reading of empowerment in relation to
microlending, see Christine Keating, Claire Rasmussen, and Pooja Rishi, "The Rationality of
Empowerment: Microcredit, Accumulation by Dispossession, and the Gendered Economy,"
Signs 36, no. 1 (2010).
9 Indeed, no one to my knowledge has positively claimed the label “choice feminist.” On this
point, see also Jennet Kirkpatrick, "Introduction: Selling Out? Solidarity and Choice in the
American Feminist Movement," Perspectives on Politics (2010): 242.
10 See, e.g., Ferguson, "Feminism and Security Rhetoric," 200.
11 For a critical examination of this generational logic in the debates over choice feminism,
see Lori Marso, "Feminism's Quest for Common Desires," Perspectives on Politics 8, no. 1
12 Hirshman, Get to Work, 19.
13 bell hooks, Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics (Cambridge, MA: South End
Press, 2000), 11.
14 Judith Warner, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety (New York, NY:
Riverhead Books, 2005), 44.
15 Lisa Belkin, "The Opt-out Revolution," The New York Times, October 26 2003.
16 Louise Story, "Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood," The New
York Times, September 20 2005; Nancy Bauer, "Lady Power," The New York Times, June 20
17 R. Claire Snyder-Hall, "Third Wave Feminism: A New Directions Essay," Signs 34, no. 1
18 John Stuart Mill, "The Subjection of Women," in On Liberty and Other Essays (New York,
NY: Oxford University Press, 1998).
19 Mill, "Subjection of Women," 525.
20 Baumgardner and Richards, Manifesta, 56-57.
21 Contrast this with hooks’ equally capacious vision of a feminism for everybody; one which,
however, requires that we take a hard look at ourselves and make significant changes in our
lives: “the most powerful intervention made by consciousness-raising groups was the demand
that all females confront their internalized sexism, their allegiance to patriarchal thinking and
action, and their commitment to feminist conversion.” Feminism Is for Everybody, 12.
22 Hirshman, Get to Work, 19.
23 Leslie L. Heywood, "Introduction : A Fifteen-Year History of Third Wave Feminism," in
The Women's Movement Today: An Encyclopedia of Third-Wave Feminism, ed. Leslie L.
Heywood (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006), xx.
24 Baumgardner and Richards, Manifesta, 54.
25 On moralizing as a problem within feminist and leftist thought, see Wendy Brown,
"Symptoms: Moralism as Anti-Politics," in Politics out of History (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 2001).
26 Naomi Wolf, "'Two Traditions, Excerpt from Fire with Fire'," in The Women's Movement
Today: An Encyclopedia of Third-Wave Feminism, ed. Leslie L. Heywood (Westport, CT:
Greenwood Press, 2006), 15.
27 Wolf, "'Two Traditions, Excerpt from Fire with Fire'," 15-16.
28 Rebecca Walker, "Liberate Yourself from Labels: Bisexuality and Beyond," in The
Women's Movement Today: An Encyclopedia of Third-Wave Feminism, ed. Leslie L. Heywood
(Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006), 487-488.
29 Warner, Perfect Madness, 276.
30 In the Sex and the City episode often cited as an example of choice feminism (“time and
punishment”), Charlotte criticizes Miranda for being judgmental and not supporting her choice to
end her career and start a family. For analysis of this episode in terms of choice feminism, see
Hirshman, Get to Work, 17; Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs, 172-173; Summer Wood, "Freedom
of 'Choice': Parsing the Word That Defined a Generation," in The Women's Movement Today: An
Encyclopedia of Third-Wave Feminism, ed. Leslie L. Heywood (Westport, CT: Greenwood
Press, 2006), 424.
31 Ferguson, "Feminism and Security Rhetoric," 200; Rice, "Remarks at the 'One Woman
Initiative' Fund for Women's Empowerment."
32 Hirshman, Get to Work, 18-19; Wood, "Freedom of 'Choice'," 423-424; Warner, Perfect
Madness, 45-46, 178-181.
33 Wood, "Freedom of 'Choice'," 423.
34 Warner, Perfect Madness, 56-57.
35 Warner, Perfect Madness, 163.
36 Quoted in Warner, Perfect Madness, 180.
37 Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs, 29.
38 Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs, 29.
39 Wendy Brown, Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics (Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 2005), 42.
40 See also Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs, 172-173.
41 See her self-consciously hip book peppered liberally with pop cultural references, slang,
and the f-word, Jessica Valenti, Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman's Guide to Why
Feminism Matters (Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2007).
42 Nina Power, One-Dimensional Woman (Winchester, UK: Polity, 2009), 30.
43 Lori Jo Marso, Feminist Thinkers and the Demands of Femininity: The Lives and Work of
Intellectual Women (Routledge, 2006).
44 Hirshman, Get to Work, 26. The most extensive academic treatment of the problems of a
liberal approach to choice for women is Clare Chambers, Sex, Culture, and Justice: The Limits
of Choice (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania University Press, 2008).
45 Hirshman, Get to Work, 90-92.
46 Warner, Perfect Madness.
47 Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs, esp. 197.
48 Marso, "Feminism's Quest," 265.
49 Wood, "Freedom of 'Choice'," 424.
50 Hirshman, Get to Work, 36-38.
51 Warner, Perfect Madness, 54, 163.
52 Hirshman, Get to Work, e.g. 17, 25.
53 Wood, "Freedom of 'Choice'," 423-424; Power, One-Dimensional Woman, 27-37.
54 Hirshman, Get to Work, 15; Warner, Perfect Madness, 209.
55 Hirshman, Get to Work, 72.
56 E.g., R. Claire Snyder-Hall, "Third-Wave Feminism and the Defense of 'Choice',"
Perspectives on Politics (2010).
57 Snyder-Hall, "Third-Wave Feminism," 259.
58 Linda Zerilli develops the contrast between these two concepts of freedom in feminist
politics in Linda M.G. Zerilli, Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2005). through an engagement with the work of Hannah Arendt. See especially
Hannah Arendt, "What Is Freedom?," in Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political
Thought (New York: Penguin Books, 1968).
59 Cf. Snyder-Hall, "Third-Wave Feminism," 256.
60 Zerilli, Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom, 98.
61 Zerilli, Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom, 171.
62 Zerilli, Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom, 159.
63 Zerilli, Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom, 159.
64 As Hirshman notes, judging is quite ordinary, if often unacknowledged: “Every time
someone votes, they make choices about the kind of society they want to live in, and they are
willing to use their numbers to impose that choice on the others in the society. Otherwise, they’d
be anarchists or something and refuse to participate in governing, even by voting. And people
give advice—gratuitous or solicited—to their friends and families, and they gossip and judge the
people they know and the movie stars they don’t know. They decide O.J. Simpson killed his
wife and belongs in prison. They judge.” Get to Work, 70-71. Surely choice feminists would
not want women to stop judging in the poll booth, even if they would prefer that we not gossip or
give interfering advice.
65 Hirshman, Get to Work, 17-18.
66 Hirshman, Get to Work, 3, 78ff.
67 Hirshman, Get to Work, 3.
68 Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1990), 239.
69 Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference, 240.
70 Bernice Johnson Reagon, "Coalition Politics: Turning the Century," in Home Girls: A
Black Feminist Anthology (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 2000 ).
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———. "Feminism and Security Rhetoric in the Post-September 11 Bush Administration." In W
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