Choice seems to be one of the most divisive debates in feminism at the moment. Choices women make, the liberty to make choices, the implications of those choices for other women, the pursuit of free-choice at all other costs… it can turn two women who claim to be liberated, claim to be independent, claim to be feminist, into arch enemies. And the main thrust of the Company article seems to be promoting it as the central tenet of feminism today. I don’t think Company have got it wrong as such, for many women free choice is what defines feminism, but there is a whole world of feminism out there which doesn’t think that any choice made by a woman is automatically feminist.
Like oil and water, the two camps divide. Personally I find myself panicking in the middle. I procrastinate about choice anyway. I especially hate big choices. I think it’s part of being an academic. You train your mind to look at every angle, to step back, to consider, to realise everyone and everything is subjective in some way or another, to think and think hard. So I’ve been thinking about choice, and women’s choices, and feminism, and the rut the argument can often fall into. If you pushed me I’d be in the camp which maintains some choices women independently make, are just that: independent women’s choices, made independently. They’re not feminist choices. I know that some feminists would disagree and personally I want to keep listening and discussing it, because I’m sure that some people would say some of the things I hold to be feminist, aren’t. It’s not easy, especially when there are such strong feelings involved, people’s lives and people’s very selves. But I can’t help but feel the division over choice indicates something else, something bigger. I don’t have an answer about women’s choices, but perhaps it’s not the choices that are wrong, it’s the question.
And the most important thing of all is what makes that feminist choice possible?
Is choice ever a neutral, independent judgement? Any choice? By anyone? Of course not. We are all affected by our environment, our beliefs, our upbringing, our friends, our education, our experience etc. We don’t think and choose in a vacuum. And so women, (who now, after feminism’s past battles, have more choice than ever before) never make choices in an ideological vacuum, no-one ever does. The task that feminism has is to decide what constitutes feminism now? What is a feminist choice? And the most important thing of all is what makes that feminist choice possible?
For me that’s the big issue and it comes down to the simple and central proposition of feminism: that women are equal to men. I think so much ground has been gained by women entering the public world of men in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s but I think there is a long way to go for that world to become a more gender inclusive environment where women feel they can make their choices and remain a valued, equal, and most of all active, member of society.
What does that mean in reality though? Well, I’d like to choose to take my baby into work with me (I’m dreaming dreams here, bear with me) to have facilities available to accommodate that, to be able to undertake some of my work at home in the evenings when my baby’s asleep, to live in a community where that was normal, to have a partner who takes equal weight in domestic and childcare arrangements, to live in a society where fatherhood impacts on work too (beyond 2 weeks) and that’s OK… I could go on. But I can’t make that choice if it’s not available to me. And so the choices I can make are a) get childcare that is away from my work and away from me; or b) don’t work.
For me it modelled something different, a different way of seeing women in the workplace.
I was invited to lecture at an independent college when my son was about 18 months old. It included taking part in a teaching week and I would need to be there 3 nights. They invited me, my son and a carer (his dad came in the end). They provided meals and accommodation for the 3 of us. I was bowled over. Their reasoning? Well, there were women on the course who had children and they did the same for them too, it mean they got my expertise and they felt it was an investment. It paid off not only for me, but also for the women (and men!) on their course, as well as students looking at coming on their courses. What did they get out of it? For a start they got a hugely grateful lecturer, who put 110% into the work she did for them. They got me on board. So I was back the following term doing extra work there. I expect my future working with them will extend well beyond my childbearing years. For me it modelled something different, a different way of seeing women in the workplace. Needless to say it was a rare occurrence.
So, we do need to debate the choices we make as women, not all choices are feminist choices, but as feminists we also need get beyond that and to continue to push the boundaries of the ‘choice’ there is, how women are seen in society and how they are able to play an equal part in it.
To be honest I think I have more questions than answers. I think I need to go and think about it some more…
ps. if you made it to the end you deserve a medal! Normal shorter posts will follow!