Rethinking the Feminism of Choice


Someone posted a 10 year old article by Meghan Murphy today, and I liked it so much I'd like to bring it to your attention.

Murphy explains how liberal feminism has made choice the arbiter of whether something promotes female empowerment. So, for example, if a woman says she chooses to be a prostitute, that is perforce empowering.

Murphy suggests this is a manipulation of feminism: "While certainly ‘choice’ is one of the founding concepts of the feminist movement, and of primary importance, I can’t help but feel as though it has been taken from us; that the word ‘choice’ continues to represent feminism but is more often used in an entirely ‘unfeminist’ way. I believe we are beginning to forget where ‘choice’ came from and what it means. And I think it’s time we started paying attention . . . Does anything and everything count as ‘feminist’ just because we choose it?"

Murphy suggests that we have forgotten that we women are not just individuals, but also an oppressed sex class: "Simply, your ‘freedom’ to make ‘choices’ may well represent your feelings of personal empowerment in your own life, but in no way does this liberate anyone but you and, in fact, your ‘choice’ may exist at the expense of another woman’s oppression . . . [For example], your choice to represent stripping as ‘just for fun!’ may well not be ‘fun’ for other women. If choice is going to continue to be a valuable part of feminist discourse and a foundation for activism, we need to start thinking of it in collective, rather than individualistic terms. And we need to stop using it as a way to shut down criticisms and conversations. Your desire to make a choice does not mean we all have to shut up."

She rightly points out how all of this choce rhetoric serves capitalist masters: "Thanks, in part, to capitalism, media, and neo-liberal ideology, female empowerment would appear to rest on the idea that, if we are getting paid, well, that’s feminism!. . . simply because you are paid to objectify yourself and perpetuate an image of woman as sexual object, it does not, in and of itself, equal empowerment."

Murphy suggests we are being sold the lie that "we can ‘choose’ to objectify ourselves now because we are free – and so long as it is labeled as ‘empowering’ then it is. And everyone else needs to shut up because IT’S A CHOICE." Instead, she asserts, "Our ‘choice’ to exist within the, still, very narrow framework provided to us by patriarchy does nothing to change dominant perspectives of women as sex objects. I would argue that, rather, this ‘choice’ framework placed around anything and everything simply normalizes sexism, erases feminism and works to remove the still dire need for radical activism. So I choose my choice. But will choose it consciously."

Murphy is right. The longer I live, the more I believe that the context of choice can be even more telling than the choice itself. When a woman feels she has no other options than to prostitute herself, that is a damning indictment of her society. But she still has agency--to give in, or to rebel. And if she chooses to rebel and not become a prostitute, she not only saves herself horrible trauma, but she has done a good deed for every other woman alive. I will never forget what the female leader of Iceland said when that nation adopted the abolitionist Nordic Model and also banned strip clubs. She said, "Now our men will know that the women of Iceland are not for sale." These bans were not just good for individual women, but good for every woman in the country.

I no longer believe that any choice a woman makes is empowering. I want to know the context in which she made that choice, and I want to know the effect of her choice on women as a sex class. Getting paid does not justify a choice that keeps women in chains. You can, indeed, be a traitor to your own sex.