Against choice feminism

Recently, the executive vice president of the Energy Policy Center at the Independence Institute caused an outrage when she described herself as an ‘energy feminist – pro-choice in energy sources’ while speaking to ThinkProgress. Feminists of all stripes condemned Cooke, for misinterpreting a key tenet of feminism – choice – and applying it to something – fossil fuels – that harms the environment in an era of increasing global temperatures and rapidly melting polar ice caps.

Cooke thought that framing her organisation’s fossil fuels art contest in a feminist-sounding way would render it immune from further criticism or mockery, and in this way she exemplifies the approach to feminism that focuses on individual choices that are disconnected from any larger feminist framework or set of beliefs. Nowadays, ‘choice’ has been almost completely stripped of its historical and political context, and is being used by pro-market feminists to shield themselves and their actions from criticism. Indeed, Cooke’s comments are the logical endpoint of ‘choice feminism’.

Popular feminism once discussed systemic issues – that is, issues that occurred at a widespread, societal level – and sought to challenge and dismantle them. Of late, a lot of mainstream rhetoric has focused on whether, say, choices like plastic surgery are feminist (because ‘those who choose the scalpel route are doing so to compete in a culture where youthful beauty is beamed at us as the most desirable thing there is’). Or the choice to grow one’s armpit hair out, or not shave one’s legs, or not wear make-up, or not wear skirts, or go on a diet, or even invest in fossil fuels.

I understand feeling powerless when faced with the looming spectre of the patriarchy. I understand wanting to take control by making decisions that we feel fit into a feminist framework. But I don’t understand the refusal to consider the impact these decisions have on others, or where these choices fit in the grand scheme of things: focusing on our individual choices, or the ways we choose to live our lives, does nothing to alleviate the widespread suffering that exists as a result of capitalism, and does nothing to address systemic discrimination. In We Were Feminists Once, Andi Zeisler, founder of Bitch magazine, writes that debates that focus on an individual woman’s choices happen in a quite privileged sphere, one where individual actualisation has prevailed over collective work.

A diet may make us feel empowered. A juice cleanse may make us feel hungry, and empowered in turn (I’m not sure how juice cleanses are meant to work, I just rely on my liver to filter toxins out), but such choices can have a negative impact on others. Consider how our insistence that our bodies are only acceptable when thin might impact those trying to overcome years of similarly destructive thought patterns (and other thoughts reinforced by capitalism).

Consider this piece by American writer Ashley C Ford. In it, Ford describes learning to love her body after her boyfriend (who, we are told, weighs less than her) helps her to feel comfortable in it. On a personal level, I’m happy that she finally feels comfortable in her skin. On a wider level, the essay raises more than a few concerns. Ford mentions having her weight written on the wall, and being glad that her boyfriend never brings it up. This is never discussed again, despite it being an example of an extremely unhealthy behaviour; the fact that this isn’t explicitly acknowledged as such makes me worry that others will see this and feel their own self-harming behaviours are validated.

Because we don’t all live in isolated cabins in the depths of impenetrable forests, our words and actions affect others. While we may feel empowered by our decisions to further conform to societal expectations of feminine appearance, in the grand scheme of things, we end up reinforcing those expectations, which in turn affect others.

Zeisler charts the increase in choice rhetoric from the success of Roe v. Wade in 1973: ‘Once Roe shifted the language of bodily rights from demands to choices, the advent of neoliberalism did the rest, normalising the self-focus and singularity made ever more possible by a booming free market. The parlance of the marketplace became the default way to talk about almost all choices made by women.’

When we accept ‘choice feminism’, not only are we failing to resist or conceive of alternatives, we’re accepting a chewed-up and regurgitated liberation – and allowing the co-option of the language used to discuss one of the most fundamental rights feminists have fought for.

In many ways, framing feminism as dependent on individual choices means everyone is immune to criticism or accountability: if we criticise someone’s politics, we’re criticising their choices, the way they’ve chosen to live their lives, and that is off-limits.  The language of choice has been stolen from the reproductive rights movement and applied haphazardly to many other seemingly unrelated issues.

Enter choice feminists like Amy Cooke. Feminism is a brand now and, as many pop starlets have demonstrated, a brand that can help crack into the market of young women who wouldn’t necessarily give much thought to energy policy. The focus of appointing women to the boards of major multinationals at least makes some sense if your concern is improving capitalism rather than challenging it, but invoking feminism when talking about an art contest sponsored by an energy policy centre is a stretch.

Cooke is an obvious target of criticism and frustration – someone who is evidently completely out of touch with the majority of people. It’s easy to condemn her comments as ridiculous because they are. It’s harder to look at the feminists around us and the popular feminists we idolise and consider how their focus on individual choices influences the conversation. Focusing on individual choices allows us to feel like we’re actually contributing something, even if that something is casting someone out of our inner circle for using the wrong language in a tweet. It allows us to get bogged down in the minutiae instead of examining the bigger picture, instead of considering how systemic issues eventually affect all of us.

If we must talk about choice, can we talk about which choices are made freely, and which are made under coercion because of circumstances or financial pressures or capitalism more generally? We all agree with the basic premise that women deserve to and need to be autonomous. Being a feminist and desiring autonomy doesn’t mean that every choice made is a feminist one, because we still live within a capitalist and patriarchal society that limits our choices and often pressures women to make ones that they aren’t entirely comfortable with.


Catherine Bouris

Catherine Bouris is a writer based in Sydney. She can be found on Twitter @catherinebouris and pretty much everywhere else on the internet.

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