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The Problems with Choice Feminism

Elizabeth Wurtzel actually has a solid point in her latest screed in the Atlantic.

Her argument is that until women have economic equality, and insist on economic equality, other notions of equality will fall flat. She echoes the solid economic and political arguments that have been laid out briskly by both Leslie Bennetts and Linda Hirshman, whose respective books soberly point out the real consequences of what happens when women sacrifice careers for family: they set the bar lower for other women, they risk losing everything in divorces and they miss the chance to affect society on a larger scale.

This argument is also backed up by a recent study that shows that men with stay at home wives in “traditional marriages” tend to treat their female colleagues more poorly:

“We found that employed husbands in traditional marriages, compared to those in modern marriages, tend to (a) view the presence of women in the workplace unfavorably, (b) perceive that organizations with higher numbers of female employees are operating less smoothly, (c) find organizations with female leaders as relatively unattractive, and (d) deny, more frequently, qualified female employees opportunities for promotion.”

Wurtzel lays the blame at the feet of group she labels the wives of the one-percent:

“Because here’s what happens when women go shopping at Chanel and get facials at Tracy Martyn when they should be wage-earning mensches: the war on women happens.”

Now I’m far from a booster of Chanel-shopping one-percent wives, and honestly, I don’t even know what Tracy Martyn is, (I’d probably viciously mock it if I did). But I do think there’s a difference—one I’m trying to tease out as I grow into a feminist adult—between, on one hand, seriously considering the sociopolitical effects of our personal choices and encouraging others to do the same, and, on the other hand, directly judging the choices our friends, neighbors and colleagues make without considering that their circumstances and their needs may be vastly different from ours.

I have come to believe that perhaps one of the most basic, most primal human instincts in our modern, Western world with its endless succession of choices is the need to justify the path we’ve taken. Who hasn’t felt that pang of betrayal or insecurity when a friend decides to do something totally divergent from us, or from what’s expected. This makes us ask: should I be doing that, too? Nowhere is this flaw in our makeup more apparent than in our endless arguments about when and how to start families and raise them—we get so vociferous that we forget that for most in our society, circumstance means these choices don’t even exist.

As Rinku Sen told a group of feminist bloggers at a conference this winter, our tendency to look at these issues from that intense, defensive interpersonal perspective is only allowing us to see part of the story. We need to move up the conceptual ladder from interpersonal (“my neighbor breastfed, homeschooled, stayed at home and I didn’t—therefore she’s a good or bad mom”) to institutional and structural, and ask the questions: why are some women able to do what they do, and others not, and what forces colluded to put me on my path and them on theirs? How much of my choice actually arose from free will and how much was actually because the way our world is set up pushed me in a certain direction?

And as for these fraught choices, it’s surely inevitable we won’t win every personal feminist battle. But rather than pretending our capitulations to the patriarchy are actually feminist because we’ve embraced them, we need to admit that we do them to get by, to smooth our way. Every choice means some gains, some losses. Let’s acknowledge both those facets with honesty. Yes, we should support others and not belittle their choices because we want to be good human beings, friends and neighbors. But as feminists, we can maintain the right to critique the larger structural elements of such choices. To do these things at once isn’t just important, it’s absolutely vital to the survival of our movement.

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