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Guest post: Is Feminism About Choice?

by Heather

Recently, as I was procrastinating something important or another, I came across a picture on somebody’s Tumblr. It was a silly graphic of a woman shaving her legs, and it said, “To me, feminism means choice. I can choose to shave my legs, and I can choose not to. There is no right answer, one option does not make me any more or less of a feminist than the other. I can shave or not shave. Whatever the hell I want to because it’s my choice!” This was reblogged hundreds of times and posted on Reddit and various other places online. It received quite a lot of support.

I find this disturbing. It’s as though somebody took the entire lexicon of feminist theory, feminist literature, history of feminism, and women’s studies, and then crossed out billions and billions of words and circled the one that justified literally anything they wanted. Feminism is not about choice. Feminism is about equality of the sexes.

Does the word “choice” sometimes occur in arguments and discussion about women’s equality? Absolutely. We want choices. We want our choices to be sexy, be parents, or be feminine to necessitate sacrifice no greater or lesser than those of our male counterparts. We want to be attractive and have sex without being reduced to a sex class, where every inch of skin, pound of fat, and follicle of hair on our bodies are monitored for youthfulness and open to all for comment. We want to choose to be parents without having to choose between putting brand new babies in expensive daycare ten hours a day, or lose our careers entirely. Those are the choices we want. Those are the choices we don’t have.

When a woman chooses to shave her legs, she is making a choice that has absolutely no negative consequences, real or imagined. For feminism was never about not shaving legs. It was never about being sexually unappealing, not having children, or not sleeping with men. In fact, when a woman “chooses” to shave her legs, she is choosing a course of action that will earn her approval from men and women alike. When a woman chooses not to shave her legs or underarms, she is making a choice that will earn her almost universal disapproval. Her femininity and heterosexuality (if she is heterosexual) will both be called into question. Her politics will be assumed radical and man-hating. Her decision will be considered an aggressive rejection of men, sex, and femininity. She will have broken the barriers of her class, assigned by her sex, and for that she will be rejected and punished. The choices to wear makeup to work and parties, or not, follow the same lines of consequences, as do the choices to battle wrinkles and gray hair or not, eat daintily or not.

Nonetheless, a choice either way on any of those questions does not determine whether a person is feminist or not. The defining choice that determines whether or not a person is feminist is whether they’re going to be satisfied with the unequal set of choices they have. It is the choice between being complacent with a society that teaches us that we must put financial independence and ourselves second to men and babies, or wanting a better reality that gives us the options to have both, as men have had since the beginning of time. The future of feminism is in breaking the glass ceiling, unraveling the sex classing of women, and equalizing the sacrifices of parenting and careers between the sexes. It has nothing to do with the state of your legs.

Comments

  1. Stacy says

    Yes! Brava.

    I’ve tried to explain this to people myself. It’s fucking offensive to have feminism reduced to that vapid buzzword, “choice.”

    • lee says

      it might be offensive but you dont have the right to deny women their choice. IN ANYTHING NO MATTER HOW MUCH YOU STAMP YOUR FEET AND/OR THROW A TANTRUM. when you all get that into your ugly hairy heads you might just find more women choosing to call themselfs femnists again

  2. says

    Hmm, I started this post with “arrgh I’ve thought about this subject WAY too many times” and ended with “wow, that’s a really clear way of talking about what a loaded/socialized choice means.”

    Thank you.

  3. Nepenthe says

    Nonetheless, a choice either way on any of those questions does not determine whether a person is feminist or not.

    However, awareness of the implications of choices is a prerequisite of feminism. It seems like the same women who bandy about “choice” as a panacea tend to deny or at least pointedly overlook the consequence of not “choosing”.

    (Example! I have a medical condition [trichotillamania] that makes shaving a profoundly bad idea for me, because I have better things to do with 5 hours a day than pluck stubble and get infected wounds from that. After “choosing” not to shave for almost a decade my family, especially my mother, still mock me mercilessly for my body hair.)

    • says

      My “choice” to not shave my legs lead to the “choice” to never let anyone at work see my legs, not after I caught them snickering at me.

  4. brianpansky says

    I saw that picture on tumblr. It was being used as a response to other people’s ideas. Other people were saying ridiculous things like “if you shave you are a slave of the patriarchy!” and things like that.

    Perhaps you saw this “choice” picture as trying to simplify the entirety of feminism. However when I saw it, it was a discrete correction [about what actions could be considered feminist] in regards to only one situation: shaving.

    • says

      It’s not isolated to specific matters of shaving, though perhaps that particular image was. A couple years ago “Blag Hag” Jen gave a talk for the Skeptical Society of St Louis in which she just as plainly said “feminism is about choice”. Now I’m not about to revoke Jen’s feminist card, but in that particular talk to our particular crowd, that was the message which came across: feminism is about choice.

  5. says

    There’s a serious problem in any important discussion with trying to distill all the meaning and context down to a single word or phrase. Although “equality” seems to be a better match than “choice”, there would still be issues with declaring that one word the final governor of feminism. Feminism doesn’t actually require (or expect) men and women to be exactly identical in any sense. In fact, that’s one of the most common tropes used by opponents against it.

    In our society, it’s become basically the new normal to reduce any complex topic down to a few sound bites. The media played a huge role in establishing this, but everyone sometimes makes this mistake by oversimplifying a deep topic. We should fight the tendency to simplify and isolate, and instead promote analysis and comprehension because it’s the only effective way to actually solve problems.

    Perhaps the motivating factor behind these oversimplified statements is the desire to be immune from criticism. That’s natural, but it has to be fought because it can close off the discussion entirely.

  6. Sassafras says

    Feminism is not about choice. Feminism is about equality of the sexes.

    The graphic didn’t say feminism is about choice, it said feminism means choice, as in feminism leads to choices women otherwise wouldn’t have the freedom to make. Of course it didn’t detail the entirety of feminist thought, it’s a single drawing making a very specific point about how personal grooming doesn’t have a “correct” answer decreed by Feminism. If you expect an in-depth analysis of feminist theory in comic format, you’re going to at least need a series of graphic novels, not a one-panel cartoon.

    Nonetheless, a choice either way on any of those questions does not determine whether a person is feminist or not.

    Which is exactly what the graphic said, that neither choice regarding the shaving of one’s legs is what makes someone a feminist. Nothing in your post contradicted the drawing and even supported it (despite your claiming it was disturbing), so I’m afraid your message is just not clear.

    • Everest says

      The point the author was trying to make was that, sure, it’s a choice but it’s a choice you’re making with a gun to your head. If you make one choice (shaving) you are rewarded by society. If you make the other (not shaving), you are punished by society. It hardly seems admirable to congratulate women for making the societally-approved choice. I’m not saying everyone necessarily needs to do the opposite of that but don’t make it that you’re so brave for doing exactly what society says you should.

  7. KT says

    I think the difference is that making the choice is not in and of itself feminist. The choice to do something or not is made regardless of your stance on feminism. Feminism requires a further step, which is to understand the implications of your choices and actively work to change the implications that are caused by negative stereotypes and gender inequality.

    Feminism is about choice, but it’s in trying to ensure that the choices are two equal choices, not just stating that you make a choice without addressing the fact that one option is much easier to choose than the other, particularly if you are making the easy choice.

  8. Ben says

    I spend a lot of time explaining to people that sexism is about women having to be a certain way, and feminism isn’t just the opposite and about women having to be the opposite way, so feminism is superior because it’s about women being whatever they want. It’s not about being just as oppressing as sexism, just in a different way. And then Heather comes along to fuck that all up.

  9. End Wage Slavery says

    Shave if you want to, don’t if you don’t want to. As a man I will say that I prefer shaven legs and armpits but if I was living in 1814 instead of 2014 and had never seen shaven legs before I wouldn’t know the difference anyway. It’s all in what we’re accustomed to. The part that got me however was this: “We want to choose to be parents without having to choose between putting brand new babies in expensive daycare ten hours a day, or lose our careers entirely. … It is the choice between being complacent with a society that teaches us that we must put financial independence and ourselves second to men and babies, or wanting a better reality that gives us the options to have both, as men have had since the beginning of time.”

    I don’t really see how that is possible aside from having a career where you can have a baby crib right there in your office with you. Unless you can work online from your home and your bedroom is your office good luck finding that career as for the most part it doesn’t exist. And how exactly is a man who works his guts out 40 or 50 hours a week allowed the time to be a parent in that sense either for that matter? How does he see his child enough either? You act like somehow men are magically able to be a superdad to their kid, always there for him when he needs him etc. and still hold down a 40-50 hour/week job.

    Please tell me where are these dads who have the option to “have both” all the time they want with their kids and still work a full-time job? Do men have some kind of magical ability to warp time and space to give themselves 48 hours in a day while women are stuck with the standard 24 or what? The dads I know including my own would have loved to have had more time to spend with their kid but the reality of having to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table intervened and made such a scenario impossible. In fact in modern times for most families in America both parents have to work full-time jobs just to keep their heads above water. Meaning so far two generations of kids raised by the day care centers until they’re old enough to become latchkey kids with their video games to keep them company until mommy and daddy get home from work. For this we have capitalism itself to blame and especially America’s cutthroat incarnation of it. Getting worse all the time, wages remain stagnant but corporate profits go through the roof and the cost of living keeps rising year by year. Most Americans hate their job and in order for capitalism to continue to function there has to be a huge gap between the value a worker’s labor adds to a company per hour versus the tiny wage he or she is getting paid per hour. Capitalism has us both, men and women, as its hamsters on a treadmill. Believe me it isn’t exclusively women who are the victims of this wage slavery economic model by any means. It’s everyone who lacks the capital to be able to exploit others. The fact that it cannot exist without the exploitation of everyone who lacks capital shows clearly that it is an economic model that needs to be destroyed for the benefit, ultimately for the long-term survival, of the species. But I digress, that’s another subject of its own.

    As for the other part of the statement, that “or lose our careers entirely” bit, I presume you’re referring to how far behind a career woman’s career lags when she takes three or four years off to be a stay-at-home mom for her new baby until he or she goes off to school. That is unfortunate but here’s the reality of it: If a woman (has a husband making enough money to support the both of them plus the new baby and she) takes three or four years off to be a S.A.H.M. then that’s three or four years that her coworkers are still there, still plugging away and learning new skills etc. and that’s three or four years for whatever industry her employer is in to change drastically. Trends seem to change more quickly nowadays and four years is a lifetime in some industries. She could come back and her entire skill set might be if not obsolete at least pretty lacking compared to someone who has been there the last four years and seen the developments happen.

    Besides, if I’m a male and when she left she and I were at a similar position in the company making a comparable salary but while I’ve been there slaving away for the last four years, learning new things, adding value, doing my job, why on earth should a woman who by no fault of mine decided to have a baby and take the next four years off end up coming back to her career as if she’d never left, getting a raise to bump her salary up to equal mine now and being given the same responsibilities as myself when she’s been absent every day for the last four years and I haven’t? Why should we get the same pay, benefits and responsibilities? Why penalize the man, and that’s exactly what it would amount to, for something he had no part in?

    If a career woman decided to not have a baby to instead focus on her career and her male coworker at a similar position in the company had to suddenly take the next four years off to care for his critically ill father until he passes away should that man come back and take the same salary and responsibilities as that career woman who’s been there and been getting raises the last four years, being productive, learning new skills etc.? Of course not, I can admit that. The woman who’s been there should be getting paid more than the man who through no fault of that woman had a sick father who needed to be cared for. I doubt anyone here would argue that the man should be bumped up to the career woman’s pay grade when he comes back after a four-year absence so why would you argue that the reverse should be true?

    I’m all for equal rights. I just wish that feminists would take more of a look at the larger picture and not forget who the real enemy is. Capitalism. It enslaves us all, not just women. Don’t lose sight of the real enemy in a quixotic search for false equality in situations in which it can never be achieved such as asking a man whose been there the last four years to accept a woman whose been absent the last four years getting a pay raise so her salary equals his, thereby negating the value of all the work he’s done for the last four years. That’s not a fight worth picking and it’s one feminists will never win. Anyway I have to question the value of feminism to the larger battle against class oppression as feminism is by nature divisive, driving a wedge between the sexes no matter how unintentionally it might be driven, while what the enslaved proletariat of this country needs more than anything is UNITY. Unity across racial and ethnic lines, across hetero-LGBT lines and most certainly across gender lines. You can tell yourself otherwise all you want but it’s a cold hard fact that the vampire that is capitalism sees men just like it sees women, as instruments of production, as subhuman machines to be exploited. Regular non-wealthy men are your allies, not your opponents. Let’s focus on the real enemy and it goes without saying that its overthrow by a radically progressive anti-capitalist movement would have the best interests of women at heart just as it would have the best interests of non-wealthy men at heart. We won’t win if it’s every separate group of oppressed people for themselves.

  10. says

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