Feminism is about Choice

Over at reappropriate, I was half responsible for hijacking one of Jenn’s threads, The Sexism of Father’s Day, with a lively debate on gender roles and choice. I highly recommend reading through the post itself, as well as all the comments, because there is a lot of interesting discussion on all sides.

phillyjay drew me into the debate when he said:

I just don’t think it so bad if men and women live up to their gender roles.

I responded with:

I would just like to say this outright: there is nothing wrong with people choosing what is best for them, whether it fits in the accepted gender roles or not, what the problem is that society in many ways forces it on us.

And, really, that sums up what I think is one of feminism’s biggest points: people should have the right, and opportunity, to choose to do what’s right for them. Now, there are obvious limits; my ability to choose ends when it impedes someone else’s life. Debates within and outside of the feminist community arise because that division is not a simple line to draw, but, at the root of it all, the feminist ideal is that of choice.

One traditional stereotype of feminists is that we look down upon women who choose to be homemakers or stay-at-home moms. While some people devalue that choice, it is completely anti-feminist to believe that. Ideally, feminists want homemaking and stay-at-home-parenting to be seen as a valuable activity, one that can be (and should be) open to either gender. Many feminists advocate the elevation of these “caring” activities (and professions such as nursing and teaching) to the same level as traditionally masculine jobs. If that is achieved then it will bring us one step closer to giving people a real choice in what they do, whether that be working outside of the home or inside of it.

Now, we feminists say we want choice. Some people may wonder how all of our social activism comes in. Some may argue that, instead of equalizing society we’re just trying to gain supremacy for women. I mean, we live in a world that seems, on the surface, to be pretty equal and no one is forcing a gun to our heads to make us act a certain way, right?

I address this a bit in my response to phillyjay:

Most times it’s more a very firm pressure that implies that if one steps outside these preordained roles then they will be branded as an outcast for the rest of their lives.

We have in our society what I like to call a “cult of masculinity” and a “cult of femininity”. What this means is that, from birth, we’re presented with images of what a “man” is and what a “woman” is with very little room for anything in between. This can be as simple as the “pink for girls” and “blue for boys” regimen, or as devastating as forcing a transsexual or intersexed child into the gender one wants them to be. We are, in many senses, robbed of the choice to be exactly who we are from a very young age. Sometimes all it takes is growing up and becoming aware of the issues to take back some of your choice. To say things like, “it’s ok for me to like racing cars” or “it’s ok for me to like makeup.” In a truly equal society, there would be nothing wrong with advertising that shows women in nurturing roles or men in overseer roles, because there would be other things to show the opposite is ok, too.

Freedom of choice means that a person should be able to be who they are without fear of being ridiculed because they don’t fit the traditional norms. It also means that they should be able to be without fear of being ridiculed if they do fit the traditional norms.

While feminists fight for choice on many fronts, we aren’t some perfect beings. We aren’t the Borg and there is no hive collective. Not all feminists want the same things, think the same way, or hold all “feminist” ideals. The same is true for non-feminists and anti-feminists. I know many people, women and men, who don’t identify as feminist and yet hold many feminist ideals and act in very feminist ways. And yet it is feminists who are held to some standard of “man-haters” as if that’s one of our basic tenets.

But, get this, feminism isn’t about hatred, it’s about giving people the choice on how to live their lives. It’s about letting women choose to use power tools, to read romance novels without shame, to work on the same level in the same jobs as men, to be valued for the work done at home and not be seen as “lazy” or “freeloaders” because they don’t earn a wage. It’s about letting men choose to play with Barbies, to watch sports on TV, to be able to enter “caring” professions without being branded a failure, to be able to contribute to the work done at home without being seen as some bumbling man incapable of even the easiest domestic tasks. It’s about seeing those who don’t fit into the binary of “man” and “woman” as people instead of freaks, to allow transsexuals to explore their gender identity without fear of being teased or worse, to stop the barbaric hospital procedures that force the intersexed children who are born with both a penis and a vagina into being “female” by removing their outward male organ, to let those uncomfortable with the implications of male and female exist as they are. It’s about all that, and much, much more.

People need to be free to choose who they want to be. But we’re not. And that is why I fight. That’s why I blog. And why I debate. And why I want to educate people out there about the world beyond constricting binaries. That’s why I sometimes come off as angry or, as two people close to me have suggested, “man-hating”. Because I am angry. I’m angry at the institutions that have taken away my ability to choose how to live my life. I’m angry at the media that has told me and the people I love that a feminist is a “man-hater” and that if you attack a dominantly male institution then you must be attacking the men that make it up. And I’m not going to stop being angry until I have done all I can to give the choice back to people.

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This entry was posted in Advertising, Eradicating Divisive Discourse, Feminism, Gender issues, Media and journalism, Queer Issues. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Feminism is about Choice

  1. Sour Duck says:

    Great post! Especially the para about anger.

    I’d love to hear more about your idea of the “cult of masculinity” and the “cult of femininity”. How are they produced? How do you see them interacting with each other? Do they work in harmony? How would you *like* to see them working?

    RE: choice. Do you think people can actually make choices, given the many stigmas attached to not following gender norms?

    For instance, women are given alot of approval from family, friends and total strangers for “choosing” to have a kid; how much do you think that’s a choice for her? I guess what I’m saying is choice is a very fuzzy term that operates differently in people and is influenced by cultural influences. A person’s apparent “choice” can be simply a way to gain social status.

    Having said that, I agree with your basic assertion that feminism is about giving people choices.

    Hope that makes sense, I’m a bit tired. Thanks – good reading.

    Sour Duck

  2. tekanji says:

    Ask the easy questions why don’t you :P

    Re: Cults of Masculinity and Femininity

    I pretty much use the terms as a label for how society still in many ways worships gender roles to the point of socially mandating them. Different cultures have different versions of the cult, but most have them in some form or another. These societies tend to view gender as a strict binary and fear/ridicule anything that falls to far outside the gender “norm”.

    How are they produced?

    Well, that’s not a simple question. The easy answer is that they’re a product of a few thousand years (or more) of human growth and development, more specifically the vestiges of traditions that resist change. Of course, it’s much more complicated that since there’s never been one homogeneous society from which everything sprang, and each society/culture, like I said above, has its own notions of “masculinity” and “femininity”.

    How do you see them interacting with each other? Do they work in harmony?

    I’m not so sure that I’d say they work in “harmony” as much as I’d say that most of the time they work in tandem. The whole yin/yang thing, to borrow from Eastern thought. It’s things like the idea that the man is the active partner (hunter) while the woman is the passive one (hunted), or the man is the breadwinner while the woman takes care of the home, etc.

    How would you *like* to see them working?

    Well, ideally I’d like to see them abolished and replaced with the idea that people’s personalities aren’t defined by their gender. We shouldn’t feel bound to act a certain way because of our primary/secondary sexual characteristics, but that is what existing in (and around) the cults do: they take away our choice to be who we want to be and replace it with their dogma.

    Re: Making Choices

    Do you think people can actually make choices, given the many stigmas attached to not following gender norms?

    In our current society? Yes and no. No matter how much we try to avoid it, we will always be influenced by our surroundings. I think that the more aware we are of how our environment influences us the easier it is to make choices based on what we actually want. People have made those hard choices, have faced societal ridicule, and because of efforts like that we’re slowly (too slowly for my tastes) moving towards a more open society.

    How do I know, for instance, that my dislike of leg hair is because I really don’t like it? It’s very likely influenced by the female standard of beauty and it’s definitely influenced by peer approval/disapproval. I’ve made the conscious choice to shave/wax only when I feel like it, but when my legs are hairy I normally wear pants or stockings with my skirts. When I don’t, I get comments from my friends and family. It’s annoying, it makes me feel bad, and it makes me want to cover up my hairy legs. I shouldn’t have to feel that way; no one should. I want to shave my legs? That’s fine, but if I don’t want to shave my legs then I shouldn’t be shamed into covering them up.

    For instance, women are given alot of approval from family, friends and total strangers for “choosing” to have a kid; how much do you think that’s a choice for her?

    I won’t go too much into this one because it’s a big enough subject on its own that it deserves a post or three. I believe that childbearing/rearing is another “cult” – our society worships babymaking to the point where you’re seen as a freak if you don’t want kids. When that cult overlaps with the cults of masculinity or femininity… well, it’s painful to think about. So, in short, no, I don’t think that everyone who “chooses” to have a kid is really making a choice based on what they want.

    Anyway, I hope I did some justice to the questions. I’m glad you liked the article and thanks for commenting!

  3. Sour Duck says:

    Thanks for the reply, I appreciate it. Most of it is convincing; I look forward to catching up on your archives.

    “…we’re slowly (too slowly for my tastes) moving towards a more open society.”

    I agree. In fact, I feel like it’s moving at glacial speed. :) Isn’t it amazing how the most antiquated notions cling on? I assume it’s because any change regarding women involves power-shifts (it’s not just giving up an old-fashioned, broken mode of thinking; it’s giving up a power structure. The Patrarchy hates that. :)).

    Cheers,

    Sour Duck

  4. Sour Duck says:

    (Sorry, I didn’t mean “most of it is convincing” to sound so patronizing! :( )

  5. tekanji says:

    Is there anything in particular that you can point out that wasn’t convincing? I’d be more than happy to try to clarify things. It’s hard to cover everything in a reply especially since 1) I generally use the “cult” terms in colloquial conversation so I haven’t needed to really explain them, and 2) the topic is so complex it would take a lot of discussion to do more than just scratch the surface.

  6. Sour Duck says:

    “I won’t go too much into this one because it’s a big enough subject on its own that it deserves a post or three. I believe that childbearing/rearing is another “cult” – our society worships babymaking to the point where you’re seen as a freak if you don’t want kids. When that cult overlaps with the cults of masculinity or femininity… well, it’s painful to think about. So, in short, no, I don’t think that everyone who “chooses” to have a kid is really making a choice based on what they want.”

    This is a tricky area and I’m still working things out myself. On an intellectual level I agree with you: feminism is about giving people choices. But it seems to me that there’s a sticky, messy ball of wax when my feminism and motherhood/stay-at-home moms intersect. On an emotive level, it’s far easier for me to admire and praise a woman who went to college in the 1940’s and went on to become a prize-winning chemist, than to feel moved by the work of a stay at home mom. The chemist was working in a male-dominated field, had to deal with sexism and discouragement, she was breaking gender roles, etc. While the mother is doing what patriarchal society wants her to do: make babies and look after them. It’s hard for me to “get behind” stay at home moms. Although I know that that work is hard and very important, valuable (if unrecognized) work. (Perhaps the analogy is too loaded to begin with.)

    Also, I came to feminism by watching the unhappiness that the “June Cleaver” role brought to women. And the vow that I would “never be like that”.

    As a femininst I’m more likely to be interested in preserving women’s history than championing the women who reproduce. Perhaps that’s wrong of me but there you are. Also, I’m more interested feminism calling men to account for their lack of involvement with child-raising. I’d like to see men become way, way more involved in the tasks of child-rearing (not just the fun bits, like taking the kiddies to Disneyland). And for men’s equal participation in child-rearing to be (swiftly, one hopes) normalised through popular culture. (We’re talking cooking, cleaning, bathing, ferrying kids around, reading to kids, etc.)

    Whew! Too much going on, not sure if I’m clear but there you are.

    “Anyway, I hope I did some justice to the questions.”

    Oh, you did, you did! :) I look forward to reading more of your blog…

    Sour Duck

  7. tekanji says:

    Funny thing is, my Shrub.com post was actually on this very topic. I also recommend you to read up on some Marxist feminist theory as it addresses this issue quite well I think. I’m still waiting for some recommendations from an ex-prof of mine, and I’m more than happy to post them once I get them.

    For me, I don’t see feminism as an “either/or” type endeavour. I don’t think we can make true progress without seeing both sides: the woman pioneering in traditionally male fields as well as the traditionally female fields being seen as valued. Yes, this means getting men into it, but that can’t be done as long as society looks down on the homemaker role.

    I think the main problem right now is that women who “choose” to be domestic may not be really making the choice that they want, just like men who “choose” to work outside the home might not be making a choice that they want. Even though in recent years it has become more acceptable for women to work outside the home, there’s still a pressure put on them to stop work once they marry/have kids. There’s even more pressure for those who remain working (out of economic necessity or choice) to be “supermom” – the one who is breadwinner, homemaker, and the one who bears the brunt of the responsibility for taking care of the kids. Education and jobs are, in many cases, still seen as a “temporary” job for women. The M-curve may be gone, but it’s definitely not forgotten.

    I was once one of those who shuddered at the thought of a woman being a homemaker or stay-at-home mom. Someone whose goal in life to do that was simply insane. Most of it I chalk up to my personality; I’ve always been closer to the “male” side of things than the “female” one. Add that to me not wanting kids, perhaps not even wanting to be married, and it’s easy to see how someone wanting those things could boggle my mind.

    Having a best friend whose chief dream is to devote her life to raising her kids has opened my eyes. She is not some lazy, weak-willed woman who needs a man to take care of her. Far from it, she is a strong-minded, independent person who simply loves children and, more importantly, loves taking care of children. I’ve also had some amazing profs who have introduced me to some interesting theories about how this idea that a woman must work outside the home to be valued has hurt the movement in many ways.

    But, what can we do? On one level, to be aware of how the patriarchy thrives on the unpaid (and unrecognized) domestic labour of women (and recently some men). To not degrade these women, either to their faces or in our own circles – that’s one of the most cited reasons I’ve come across for people who have a negative impression of feminists. We need to understand that their labour is valuable, and needed, and that if we want women to be seen as truly equal then we need to put their spheres on the same level as those as the male spheres. That will, in turn, draw more men to the area and so they will be expected to start pulling their own weight in the domestic arena.

    Everyone has their own interests, and their own pet projects. Because I’m not interested in having anything that resembles a traditional family, I’m also not very interested in doing any heavy-duty activism; I’ll leave that to people more involved and knowledgeable than I. For me, what’s important about this issue is showing how we need to fight on multiple battlegrounds if we want to truly affect change. It is good to fight for women’s rights to have an equal chance in the professional world, but equality can’t be reached as long as we fight only on men’s terms.

    We need to bring the battle home in more ways than one; reframe the debate from a male-normative view to that of a gender neutral one. It’s not enough to give little girls toy cars if we don’t give little boys dolls. It’s not enough to tell a girl it’s ok to be openly strong if we tell boys that they’re “pussies” or “sissies” if they show weakness or vulnerability/emotion. Devaluing the “female” institutions as “lesser” keeps women always in the subservient role, even those who have “earned” the right to engage in traditionally male activities.

  8. Sour Duck says:

    Wow – what a great reply! Thank you – the whole thing is pretty darn good.

    I’ll look into Marxist feminism again. I tend to get caught up in that “either/or” thing. And, of course, I’ve absorbed the influences of our culture that devalues the role of motherhood. It begins, then, with making a conscious effort to resist normative ways of thinking about motherhood and choosing to stay at home.

    I could comment on all of it but here are two paras that struck me…

    “On one level, to be aware of how the patriarchy thrives on the unpaid (and unrecognized) domestic labour of women (and recently some men). To not degrade these women, either to their faces or in our own circles…”

    Yes!

    “We need to bring the battle home in more ways than one; reframe the debate from a male-normative view to that of a gender neutral one. It’s not enough to give little girls toy cars if we don’t give little boys dolls…”

    Yes!!

    I don’t want to ask any more questions lest it keep you from writing more blog entries. :)

    Thanks again for taking the time to explain more and for writing such a thoughtful reply. – SD

  9. tekanji says:

    I’m glad that you found my reply thoughtful ^^ I know how hard it is to try to avoid getting caught up in the “either/or” mindset, especially about this issue.

    I hope I’ll be able to get another blog entry up soon; it’s a bit crazy on my end because I just moved and I’m waiting for the dust to settle. ^^;

    Thanks as well for all of your comments! I love being able to have debates/discussions with people, not only to be able to examine other view points but also to have a chance to further examine my own.

  10. kara says:

    great piece and discussion! i’ve been thinking about choices a lot lately, as i have a 18 month old that i have decided to stay home with. ask me how many people have said to me over the last several months, “wow, kara, that’s not very feminist of you!” (?!) i’m always blown away by that. as if am i any less a feminist than i was before. gimmee a break. my choice was to be with my baby. i think i make a nice example for my son. :)

    in all seriousness, one friend did tell me that there needed to be more women like me raising boys – i hope i don’t fall short. and i think she was right. but i digress. the thing that keeps eating at me, is this: in making this choice, i realize the lack of choice that all mothers simply don’t have, “working” or not (but that’s a whole ‘nother conversation in and of itself).

    it’s rough, on many levels. we live fairly simply, but with one of us in a money earning scenario, we barely make it. i’m isolated – this culture gives great lip service to children and elders and falls horribly short. friends have disappeared. and none of these choices seem to address the lack of choice that making one choice leaves us with. the system still rages on, with the pretense that all of these choices are available, should we just try a little harder – but that is simply exhausting. my partner is falling over tired most of the time, he is truly an amazing person.

    i look at my other choice – to re-enter the work force and work for some corporation that doesn’t care whether i exist or not as long as i meet their standards – and still earn far less than my male counterparts. not to mention, what dirty business i’d be supporting by my labor. and then i would miss my bebe desperately. choices, huh? hrmpf.

    your commentary on how we are inundated with gender roles from birth also resonates deeply with me. i wrote a lengthy paper a few years ago for school exploring these gender roles via clothing, advertising, and children’s television programming. it was mind-boggling. but i didn’t sink in until i perused the clothing selections for babies after i got pregnant. boy=blue, girl=pink. and then there’s a hidious shade of yellow for those who choose not to go with the status quo. all made in sweatshops, i’m certain. no choice.

    i wish i could find it now, but there was a social-psychologist that made a conscious effort to raise her children sans the typical gender role affliction with great success and published her findings… i think about this daily.

    p/s – bebe has a doll that he adores. he “reads” to her, hugs her, kisses her, waves her little hands, changes her “diaper,” tuckes her in for her “nap”…

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  12. J says:

    This is a great article! Thank you for your insights–and especially the part where you point out that “we aren’t the Borg and there is no hive collective. Not all feminists want the same things, think the same way, or hold all ‘feminist’ ideals.” I think a lot of people forget that. So, thank you!

    As a physician, though, I did want to point out one thing to strengthen your argument–most of the so-called “intersexed” babies that are born are not born with both male and female organs. Despite some of the myths floating around out there, most are genetically either XX or XY and have a genetic hormonal imbalance that has disrupted the development of the genitals. As such, a genetically female child might have an enlarged clitoris, which can appear to be a phallus; and fused labia, which can appear to be a scrotum. Or a genetically male child might have micropenis, which can appear to be a clitoris; and undescended testes. Operations to correct these conditions are not merely cosmetic: a genetic female with ambiguous genitalia and a fused labia might have difficulty with urination, and certainly with insertion of anything into the vagina later in life (even a tampon). Likewise, a genetic male with ambiguous genitalia and undescended testes has an increased risk of testicular cancer (the higher temperatures of the body as opposed to the scrotum predispose testicular cells to mutation). The operations aren’t performed just to make a baby one gender or the other–they’re performed to try and keep the baby as healthy as possible.

    Sorry–I just had to throw in my two cents. It’s wearying that doctors are so often vilified and reviled when, in truth, most of us are doing our best to do what’s right for our patients and their health.

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