Commentary Media

More Feminist Than Thou: Moving Beyond Self-Defeating “Choose-My-Choice” Feminism

Andrea Grimes

I just can’t have another fight about whether it’s feminist to be a stay-at-home mom, shave your legs, or wear makeup. Let’s stop choosing our choices and start choosing our battles.

I am so tired of “I choose my choice” feminism. So, so tired of it. I just can’t have another fight about whether it’s possible to be a stay-at-home mom, shave your legs, wear makeup, date men, have rough sex, have submissive sex, change your name, watch porn, worship a Judeo-Christian God, shop at Wal-Mart, wear hijab, get breast implants, listen to hip-hop, go on a diet, eat meat, or wash the dishes and be a feminist at the same time.

Let’s stop choosing our choices and start choosing our battles.

Choosing is passive. Choosing is not enough. Choosing devolves into finger-pointing, into holier-than-thou posturing, into casting feminism as some kind of private mental exercise, rather than a powerful force for social change. No one person is making all the right feminist choices, but so many people are fighting good fights. 

Choose-your-choice feminism brought us, for example, the so-called Mommy Wars, which pits women against each other, instead of against anti-family work policies and the intersecting mechanics of economic oppression; it pits a very small group of “each others,” usually deeply privileged “each others” against those “each others” who blessedly have the option of choosing at all.

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Choose-your-choice feminism implies that all women already have the full spectrum of choices available to them in the first place. Choose-your-choice feminism is for people who don’t play the long game, or who are so blinded by their own privilege that they no longer see the need to. Choose-your-choice feminism is for people who think the fight is over.

Do our choices add up to the people we are and the world we live in? Absolutely. But ought we be defined by personal decisions that help many of us simply get by, day-to-day, within a system designed to marginalize and oppress us, or ought we be defined by the actions we take to challenge whatever part of those systems of oppression and marginalization we think we’re best equipped to address?

I say this because I’m guilty of policing other women’s decisions myself, and it’s gotten me exactly nowhere; it helps no one and nothing as much as it helps my own ego. My particular vice? Judging women who take their husbands’ names after marriage. It gets me so riled up. It’s a literal reinforcement of patriarchy! It’s a cultural remnant of coverture, of a time when men actually owned their wives!

And yet, some of the fiercest feminists I know share their husbands’ names. I also know feminists with breast implants, and feminists who wear hijab, and feminists who buy Lil’ Wayne records—and I know they’re feminists because they educate teens about dating violence, volunteer for abortion fund hotlines, and lobby for domestic workers’ rights.

It’s of the utmost importance to make the best-informed, least socially harmful decisions we can, whenever we can. But instead of bringing women down when they don’t (or can’t) make the outright feminist decision—which is so often a moving target—let’s focus on celebrating when they choose to fight, to rebel, to challenge, to speak up.

Certainly the personal is political, as they say. But if we work to get to that “political” part by engaging in a dialogue, by changing the dialogue, by taking real-world action, I think we can quit policing every personal decision. I like “I choose my battles” because it gives us an opportunity to talk about actions and their implications and outcomes, rather than individual people and their beliefs. “I choose my battles” allows us to thoughtfully criticize and analyze results, rather than to blithely criticize individuals, putting women—and so often, only women—through the ringer.

So what if we choose our choices? What are we doing to make life more equitable for other people? Are we volunteering for prison outreach in our communities, forming a union at work, or teaching our kids about enthusiastic consent?

Let’s value activism and intentional change-making more than we value having the world’s most feminist pubic hair, whatever that means right this second. And hell, maybe your feminist pubic hair is being the change you want to see in the world, but it doesn’t have to be everyone’s.

Women cannot be everything all the time; we cannot expect constant perfection. If we expect perfection, and all that comes with it—compliance, poise, graciousness, infallibility—we’re no better than the patriarchy we decry. We have to give ourselves room to fuck up, to make shitty choices, to make easy choices, to make dissonant choices that allow us to fight the fights we care most deeply about. We have to be comfortable with contradictions.

I don’t mean to say that every choice a woman makes is feminist or even good or right, simply because a woman makes it. I don’t mean to say that women shouldn’t be held accountable for their decisions and cheered on regardless of the harm their choices might do to others in the aggregate. To be sure, there is harm done by, say, the multitude of individuals buying diamond engagement rings, or our willingness to turn a blind eye to sweatshops because we really want that great new knock-off skirt.

What I’m advocating for is a move toward positive reinforcement before knee-jerk criticism. I think that creates a better system of accountability, one that focuses on reforming or eliminating overarching systems of oppression, rather than telling women they’re stupid for not defying every possible iteration thereof.

Certainly feminism, at least to me, is a lifestyle. It is absolutely something that comes out of my personal choices, but it’s also something I try to build out of my own activism and my way of living publicly. My feminism is defined and crafted by my whole personhood, not limited by my shoes or my lipstick or my job.

The beauty of an inclusive, intersectional, progressive feminism that champions positive reinforcement is that it allows a wider spectrum of people to participate in social change. Choose a battle that will allow your sisters and brothers in the fight for gender equality to have more and better choices, and someone else will do the same for you in another arena. We have to use our collective efforts to lift each other up, rather than become mired in criticism.

If you’ve chosen a battle, you’re probably doing it right. And if you’ve only chosen your choices, it’s time to step up and choose a fight.

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