21st century feminism

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Choice. A Dirty Word?

So, I bought Company magazine (May) and the article’s not bad. “What is Feminism in 2010?” it asks and any answer that includes mention of Catherine Redfern, the Fawcett Society, Kat Banyard, Spare Rib magazine, Jessica Valenti… (etc. you get the picture) can’t be too wide of the mark. It’s a great intro for anyone totally unfamiliar with modern feminism and it might even entice them to find out a bit more and form their own opinions. Not to mention the fact that I’m thrilled feminism is being talked about in a glossy mag. But, (there had to be a but…) in places it falls short (picture of a burning bra anyone?). It could have been so much more (it hardly sells the movement). And then there’s the issue of “choice”.

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! 


  1. I completely agree with the academic thing, it's quite difficult to come down to a decision about personal values when you're striving to be fair and equal to all arguments!

    Choice is touted around by everyone these days, but, like you say, sometimes there are things you have to compromise for the sake of something else.

    Your experience with the independent college is amazing! But it does strike at the crux of the problem - it costs MORE to do these things. Particularly in education, the NHS or pretty much any public sector employment - they are forced to spend less and the service you received is a cost most will not even consider. I suppose it's really only in jobs that require a specific skill level or qualification where they will push the boat out like that.

  2. You're right Liz, it does come down to costs. This experience was in the UK, but I've had some time in Norway with work and there's a similar attitude there. Academics I've worked with there don't blink twice about me having a preschooler around, there are more women in senior positions and from what I've seen young women with children are happily accessing university education without it being an issue. And the big difference is... they're rich. The government's loaded with oil money and has channelled it into public services (unlike us who sold it off to private investors, but that's another post!).

    With our current economic climate and the prospects of services being cut in the next parliament, I don't hold a great deal of hope that my feminist eutopia will be realised any time soon! But I do think that even though these kind of choices cost more, ultimately the benefit outweighs the price and in the end would redress.

    So, with that college, I think that they are encouraging a whole group of young women and mothers to access education and more students brings in more revenue.

    It would be great if that kind of attitude filtered down from specific skill level jobs to general public attitude. But i guess it clashes with capitalism!