Feminism is not, nor should it be, a monolith; it would be counter-productive – even destructive – for feminists to expect women to become some sort of Borg collective, where all thoughts are one and all individuality is erased. The idea that choice in unimportant in the collective liberation of women is fallacious: when part of the oppression focuses on denying autonomy over the body in which one lives, and the life that one leads – choice matters very much. That is why ensuring access to, for example, reproductive health care is so important, and why the right to safe abortions is so central to feminist praxis. Preventing pregnancy or choosing not to carry a pregnancy to term are choices which I suspect most feminists would fight for.
Choices, then, matter in feminism; reclaiming the many ways that patriarchal society seeks, or has sought, to restrict or deny completely many aspects of being able to be fully autonomous goes hand in hand with dismantling the structural inequalities that perpetuate those restrictions. After all, the suffragettes did not seek to dismantle the patriarchy before fighting for the right to vote, and patriarchy did not hand in it’s resignation notice before making abortion legal here in the UK. (Or did I miss the memo…?)
There are many types of oppression which are structured to support and maintain patriarchy: sexism, homophobia, transphobia, racism, classism and able-ism for example, and none of those types of oppression operate individually – they intersect in many and various ways to rob people of their ability to make choices that would allow them to reach their potential as human beings and, in turn, contribute to and play an active part in their communities.
One of the impacts of patriarchal oppression is to ‘other’, de-humanise and demonize the bodies of those who live under those many facets of the patriarchy, and that becomes more acute when those bodies do not ‘fit’ the able bodied binary that is held as the ideological ideal. In the face of that, the choices that someone makes can be particularly powerful, and the choice to embrace the very body that is so loathed and feared can both empower others similarly oppressed, and speak with great impact against those structures which despise it.
In such a context, then, choice is not liberal but radical.
The arguments against what is disparagingly called ‘pop feminism’ fail to recognise the power of choice, because it assumes that choices are made because of imagined freedoms, when in fact those choices are usually made fully understanding the absence of them: but it also assume a function of feminism that is prescriptive of what feminism – and by extension women – should and should not be. Meagan Dylan makes the same error that Meghan Murphy made before her because it is rooted in false notions of a universal experience of girlhood and womanhood, and therefore assumes that all women who, for example, have photographs taken of them naked, are doing so because they are in thrall to the male gaze.
It is ironic that one of Dylan’s criticisms of ‘pop feminism’ is that it supposedly ignores structural systems of oppression, when the criticism itself is so largely absent of any awareness of racial, colonial, able bodied and binary concepts of feminine beauty and sexuality.
I am not under any illusion that we ‘choose’ our way out of oppression, and the assumption that ‘choice feminism’ believes that it can is patronising and without foundation: it is a view that has assumed instead of listened, and frankly feminists, most particularly white feminists, spend far too little time listening.
What choices can do is speak truth, loudly and powerfully, to those who hold power and can it be radical, courageous and beautiful when that happens.