Feminism has always had multiple and contradictory goals. On the one hand, feminism has pushed for equality — the idea that women should be able to do whatever men can do. Sheryl Sandberg can be a high-powered businessperson. Hillary Clinton can be President of the United States. Women can earn equal pay and serve in the military.
But, alongside of, and often in contradiction to equality within the current system, feminists have also argued for revolution. Early feminists not only wanted the vote, they wanted the abolition of slavery. Feminists like Virginia Woolf didn’t want women to serve in the military; they wanted pacifism and the end of the military altogether. Equality for women in the society we have has always been in tension with the feminist dream of a different, more just world altogether.
Meagan Tyler, in a recent piece at the Conversation, tries to make the case for feminist revolutionary tradition. In a piece titled, “No, feminism is not about choice,” she argues that mainstream discussion of feminism “never mentions women’s liberation, instead opting for a celebration of ‘choice.’”
Rather than focusing on structural issues that restrict women’s options, Tyler argues that women are encouraged to celebrate any decision they make. Women who get married or cheer on Beyoncé or pose nude (like Laverne Cox) are presented as revolutionary. But, "In privileging individual choice above all,” Tyler argues, choice feminism “doesn’t challenge the status quo.”
When I spoke to Katherine Cross, a sociology PhD student at CUNY and cultural critic, she agreed with Tyler to some degree. Choice feminism can be a problem, Cross said, “inasmuch as we pretend that choices are made in a vacuum with no cultural mediation. Women have our choices winnowed in a number of ways and certain choices – like, for instance, quitting your job when you have a baby – are made infinitely easier to make by the way our society is set up. ”
Cross points to the recent Supreme Court decision preventing women at Walmart from bringing a class action lawsuit. By viewing women as individual actors alone, the court effectively prevented efforts for collective organizing and justice.
The thing is, though, that Tyler, in her article, doesn’t mention Walmart. She doesn’t mention Sheryl Sandberg, either. Instead, most of her criticism of choice feminism focuses on nude images, labiaplasty and Beyoncé.
“Many feminists, particularly my fellow radical feminists, often fixate on sexual and sartorial choices to the exclusion of all else,” Cross told me, “Most feminists who get hung up on condemning choice feminism focus less on economic and legal issues, where the mythology of individualism and choice is especially damaging, and fixate instead on sex and sexuality or anything that smacks of it.”
This can end up policing women in much the same way patriarchy does, says Cross, because it substitutes one form of ideal womanhood for another.
Cross said the perfect sexualized woman who appears in publications such as Playboy is replaced by feminists with a perfect woman who avoids a (long) list of sexual behaviors. Either way, women are held to an impossible standard. And either way it’s often the same women who are criticized and devalued. Sex workers face stigma and persecution from mainstream society, and they’re also, Cross points out, frequently marginalized and stigmatized by radical feminists.
Along those lines, Janell Hobson, an associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany, SUNY, pointed out that often the criticism of choice feminism ends up as a criticism of femininity. The choices that get criticized are choices that are seen as being in line with traditional femininity, like wearing high heels or staying at home with the kids.
“The symbols of femininity are diminished, reduced, degraded,” she told me.
“They are degraded in this way because in patriarchy we value masculinity. We value male domination. I get concerned when feminists say, ‘Women who play up their femininity or sexiness are not feminist.’ It seems to me that when we say that, then we ourselves have bought into the patriarchal system that says femininity is a bad thing.
"As feminists who want to dismantle patriarchy, shouldn’t we also dismantle the definitions that say that femininity is a bad thing? And so when we see Beyoncé wearing a see-through dress and really high platform heels, or when we see Laverne Cox wanting to express herself as a trans woman, are they not trying to re-appropriate signs of femininity and assert a certain kind of power when doing that, rather than accepting that femininity means to be subjugated?”
The argument, for Hobson, is not necessarily about feminism as individual choice versus feminism as critique of structures. Rather, the argument is about different analyses of patriarchy. Is femininity a tool to devalue women? Or is the devaluation of femininity a tool to devalue women? Wearing high heels doesn’t necessarily make you a dupe of the patriarchy. It could mean you’re a super-powerful rock star, and you want to show that femininity can be strong, too.
Tyler’s right that a feminism only about individual choice can be dangerous and limiting. But there are dangers, too, in utterly rejecting personal choice and agency. Rejecting women’s choices altogether in the name of solidarity just seems like another way of telling women what to do. And if individual choices are denigrated, how do you deal with the fact that different women may face different kinds of oppressions or different kinds of struggles?
Without any reference to individual choice or individual difference, feminism can easily become just another way to tell marginalized women — whether sex workers, trans women, working-class women or women of color — to subordinate their choices, and their analyses, to the cause of some unquestionable true feminist agenda. Is it really progress if you just replace a unitary patriarchal law with a unitary feminist law? Liberation can’t just be choice, but it’s hard to see how sneering at the very concept of individual choice gets you to freedom.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is a contributing writer for The Atlantic.