I had something all thought out for my post today, but what with Baby M refusing to sleep anywhere but in my arms and some thought-provoking stuff at I Blame The Patriarchy, that is going to have to go on hold.
“Making traditional, patriarchy-approved, feminine submissive ‘choices’ is like spitting in the eye of every woman who has ever been raped, humiliated, harassed, denied birth control, abandoned, passed over, or beaten… The consequences of asserting this faux choice mimic the consequences of oppression…. What if, instead of blindly asserting our ‘right’ to ‘choose’ the patriarchal sexbot model, we… examined what it is, exactly, we’re supposedly choosing?
I assert that we’re choosing the path of least resistance. It’s much easier to acquiesce to a set of established conventions—social, aesthetic, political, sexual, sartorial—for which the rewards (dudely approval, other women’s satisfying jealousy) dangle brightly ahead, than it is to blaze forth in a fury of white-hot anti-feminine iconoclasm and risk ridicule, ostracism, and male reproach.”
Twisty also cites and links to this article by Linda Hirshman, who discusses the position of highly educated, elite women choosing to stay home and look after the kids – or even, in some cases, to stay home and play wife before there is any thought of children.
She asserts that such choices are damaging not only for the women involved but also for wider society. Given the power that these women could wield but reject, and given the fact that as an educated elite they do act as role models to other women, Hirsh argues that as a society we would be a lot better off if more of these women stuck to their careers rather than chaining themselves voluntarily to the kitchen sink. Moreover, the women themselves are less well off, because they are choosing to cut themselves off from the possibility of a flourishing life, she says – Hirsh’s conception of the good life requires a person to do more than the menial labour of domestic duties.
I’m not so sure I entirely buy this latter part of the equation, since I am convinced that it is possible (albeit rare) to find relationships of equality where one partner has freely chosen to take on housekeeping duties and to be a full time carer for the children of the family.
The other part of Hirsh’s argument – that women sticking to their careers would be better for society – implies to my mind some kind of responsibility on those women to stick to their careers for the good of society. The premise that we really would all be better off with more women in positions of power is sound. But these women have their own lives, and to co-opt their lives and careers for our own benefit strikes me as wrong. Or is it? Am I blinded by the ideal of Choice?
Betty Friedan’s original call to arms compared housework to animal life. In The Feminine Mystique she wrote, “[V]acuuming the living room floor — with or without makeup — is not work that takes enough thought or energy to challenge any woman’s full capacity.”
Thereafter, however, liberal feminists abandoned the judgmental starting point of the movement in favor of offering women “choices.” … A woman could work, stay home, have 10 children or one, marry or stay single. It all counted as “feminist” as long as she chose it… Great as liberal feminism was, once it retreated to choice the movement had no language to use on the gendered ideology of the family.
Feminists could not say, “Housekeeping and child-rearing in the nuclear family is not interesting and not socially validated. Justice requires that it not be assigned to women on the basis of their gender and at the sacrifice of their access to money, power, and honor.”
(They could not say those things because they implied judgement – and therefore either blame or dismissal – of women who said that they chose to do house-keeping and child-rearing, and that they found this work interesting and validating.)
I do believe in choice as a good, including the choice to do patriarchy-approved things. However, I also believe that the choices we make should, in principle, be examined choices. We should have an eye to their consequences, including their consequences on other people and on society as a whole. We should also have an eye to the reasons for our choices, in order to help us properly understand any underlying motivation. And if our choice is one that complies with a gender-stereotypical norm – and we claim that we want to stay at home with the kids, or that we like wearing bikinis, or that we enjoy servicing our men in time-honoured fashion, or that we choose sex work as a career – then I assert that there is even more reason to examine those choices.
Are we claiming as our own “choice” or “preference” something that in fact arises from patriarchal indoctrination? Do we merely rationalise a situation imposed upon us as one we chose (or would have chosen if we had had the choice, which might be rationalised as the same thing)? Did we make that choice only because all the other choices looked worse? Is our choice fully informed, by a thorough understanding of all the options (not necessarily just the “obvious” ones) and their consequences? What are the consequences of those choices? Do they in some way harm the chooser or put her in a vulnerable position where harm could result? Do they do harm to other women? What are the positive effects of our choices? Would more or less harm, or more or less good, have come from any other choice?
A choice, once examined in this way, might seem not to be a choice at all. It may seem like an imposed choice between the lesser of two evils. It might start to look like a bad choice. Of course, it might not – it might come out of the process looking even more like a freely adopted choice, and the best choice in all the circumstances. However, if other reasonable and intelligent women are suggesting that you may have got something wrong in your choices, that what you thnk you have chosen is in fact quite likely to be something forced upon you or indoctrinated into you, that the reality has in some way been hidden from you – then there is at least a possibility that they are right and that a thorough examination of your choices will prove them so.
When it comes to choosing “traditional” roles, and choosing compliance with patriarchal standards, I think it is reasonable to ask, with Twisty, that such choices be examined. We need not necessarily sit in judgement on our sisters’ choices, but if a person (especially one who claims to be a feminist) says that she freely chooses to do more than her fair share of the housework, or to wear make-up and shave her body hair, or to change her name on marriage – we can reasonable ask that she should at least examine that choice. Intended or not, actions have consequences, so I repeat: when we are given choice, it comes with responsibility. We must treat it as a thing of no small value. At the very least, when we have the luxury of choice, we must ensure that we think carefully about how we exercise it.
And feminism can reasonably seek to offer women the tools to do this effectively: by opening our eyes to, and offering an analysis of, the false stereotypes that may influence us; by helping us to be more self-aware; by raising awareness of how what we do affects our lives, and other people; and by creating opportunities for dialogue about choice and responsibility.
That isn’t being judgemental – it’s being a feminist.