Mar 31, 2013

Personal Choice and Feminism

How do you see feminism? Is it the struggle against inequality, the right to control your body or the right to personal choice? Is it all of these?

I think I agree with Helen Razer that feminism is, in a nutshell, "the struggle against masculinsed violence and feminised poverty". 

I'm all for personal choice, but I don't really agree with those who say feminism is "all about choice".

I could choose to be a surrendered wife, and that would make me a proponent of personal choice, but it would not make me a feminist.

Earlier this month Jessica Rowe wrote a column that opened with "I use Botox and I'm a feminist." I like Jessica Rowe, I have no problem with her Botox use, and I am totally on board with the fact that those who work in the limelight face harsher pressure than the rest of us to look good. Good on her for her honesty - it's great when women in the public eye are honest about these things (not that they have to tell us, but it would be nice if they didn't lie about it). I believe Jessica Rowe when she says she's a feminist. But defending Botox by saying "my brand of feminism is all about personal choice" doesn't gel with me. Defend it as a personal choice, a freedom, a right - even a necessity for continuing a career in the spotlight. That's all excellent. But feminism, it is not.

Life is hard. Life is demanding and pretty relentless and most of us cannot be Germaine Greer all our lives and all the time. Even Germaine Greer doesn't manage it.  We are, most of us, feminists at heart, but we all have our embarrassing secrets, our contradictions and our exceptions - things we believe or want or do even though we know they're not, you know, feminist.

What about choosing to give up paid work, to be home for your children full-time?

That's a harder one. There are those who say you can't be a feminist and not work; there are others who say giving up paid work (and the control and autonomy that it makes possible) is not wrong but is misguided and self-harming; there are others who say it is pro-children and pro-family, and most people agree with that but argue over what degree it is pro-woman.

For most women who give up paid work (whether for awhile or forever), it is a compromise, like most things in life.  For all but a tiny few women it's not about "avoiding work" or wanting to be "looked after". It's because it's the easiest or most rational choice in an insane juggling act, or a decision made trying to do the best thing for their children. 

Women advocate for children. It's what they do, all day, every day.  Every mother I know advocates for her children, in every moment and every day, whether she is with them or not, whether she is dealing with a problem or leaving them free to play, whether she is talking about them with her partner, or to a doctor, their school, her boss, or her blog.

I am irritated when I read the phrase "women and children" in news articles on war casualties and disasters. "Women and children" - no. Try "innocent civilians, including children". Or just "children".  WOMEN are no more special, valuable, innocent or precious than men. WOMEN can and do fight wars, make bombs, make heroic or horrible decisions and take lives. WOMEN are not children.

And yet... At the same time I feel a contradictory pride in the phrase "women and children" even while it irritates me. Women partner with children. Women look after children. Women advocate for and protect children. A woman partners herself with her children in her decision to take her husband's last name, in her decision to marry, in her decision to give up paid work. A woman championing her children and making them her focus during her race in this masculine, competitive world, is pro-woman and pro-children, and couldn't that be called feminist?

But what of the woman who wants to be something else? Who chafes at the restrictions of "the pram in the hall" and while she loves her children, feels desperate and hobbled because of them? Is not her struggle a feminist struggle, the ongoing fight against the culture which uses biology to perpetuate "feminized poverty"?

The answer to both has to be yes - and then doesn't this get us back, full-circle, to the argument I reject, that "feminism is all about personal choice"?

Image via

I don't know, but my head is hurting, and I have thought about these things for years now and my thinking is no less muddled. I detest the idea that there is a "right" way to be feminist, and I hate the idea that women are put off by feminism because of esoteric academic tussles and fights over "personal choice". Honestly, no one needs a tertiary degree to understand feminism, and the bits you need a degree for are just words. You might not be able to discuss the ideas, but you would if they were worded differently, because you've living them or you've seen them on the news and you've already thought about them.

So there you are and there I am - as muddled and contradictory a feminist as a former radical making fun of a female prime minister for her choice of clothing. 

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