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In search of feminism | the challenges of “choice feminism”

Can a woman be a feminist if she has chosen to become a stay-at-home mom?  Can the choice to leave the workforce and devote her life to child-rearing and housekeeping be considered a “feminist” choice?

There’s a lot of talk in feminist circles these days about the validity, or lack thereof, of “Choice Feminism” — an approach to feminism which states that any choice a woman makes is inherently “feminist,” simply because it was a choice freely made by a woman.  Some believe very strongly in this paradigm, while others reject it, considering it too simplistic.  In understanding this issue, it’s important for us to examine what the implications of this idea actually are.

One of the main goals of the feminist movement, if we’re thinking really big, is to liberate all of us from expectations and roles arbitrarily assigned to us due to gender.  “Choice Feminism” can be an appealing view because it means that we’re that much closer to achieving our goals.  The options women have for careers, appearances and relationships have expanded, and that’s a victory.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.  Yes, a woman can shave her head, date another woman and work as an engineer, but her life choices will be scrutinized in a way that more conventional choices won’t be.  Society has expectations of how the female life will be lived, and it doesn’t always take kindly to those who decide to go against those expectations.

So is the bald, queer engineer more of a feminist than the straight, married mother of three?  Not necessarily.  But the way she is living her life is certainly more subversive in the face of patriarchy.  Likewise, my butch straight sister is not necessarily any more feminist than femme queer me, nor I her, but we both subvert gender roles and expectations in our own ways.

I don’t like the label “feminist” when it comes to the decisions one makes for one’s own life.  While not all choices are equally subversive, feminism is still about liberation, not ignoring one’s own desires in order to make the “right” choices.  Further, larger life choices will have smaller associated choices, all with different implications and impacts.  A woman becoming a Christian isn’t challenging American society, but a woman becoming an Episcopal priest certainly is. I resist demands that I meet a narrow standard of beauty by choosing to love myself exactly as I am, but “loving myself” manifests as growing out my hair, wearing makeup and shaving my legs.

There are no easy answers here.  What we do know is that all women should be free to live their lives as they wish, and we’re not there yet.  We must work hard to support those who go against society’s script.  We must examine the choices we make in our own lives and why we make them, and — most importantly — we must always resist the notion that there is only one way to be a woman.