This spring, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a study on the Great Replacement Theory and other hard-right ideas. While the study was enlightening for many reasons, a particular finding demands a bit more of our attention. Respondents were divided by political party, gender and age group and asked if they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “feminism has done more harm than good.” Overwhelmingly, most of the men and women on the right, across both age categories, agreed with the statement. On the left, nearly a quarter of women under 50 agreed and a near-majority of Democratic men under the age of 50 agreed.
We’re talking about feminism. The movement that gave women the right to open bank accounts, earn the right to vote and claim guardianship over the children they gave birth to. If our society believes that this movement or socio-political framework has done more harm than good, then where did feminists go wrong? Is this a movement in crisis, and if so, how bad of a crisis is it?
I came of age at a time when feminism was in style. Not just popular, but sellable. At 13, I vividly remember the buzz “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg made when it hit the shelves and took the corporate world by storm. Headlines like, “You can wear heels/lipstick/insert feminine clothing here and still be a feminist!” dominated magazine articles. At that time, every tabloid kept track of who claimed to be a feminist and who shied away from the label altogether. It was also an era where feminism had ambassadors: Emma Watson at the U.N., Beyonce in the music industry and Cara Delevingne at runway shows. Who could forget how quickly it became the unofficial branding of the Hillary Clinton campaign?
Feminism seemed to be everywhere, and yet in its undercurrent, some women already felt like they were on the wrong side. In our rush to get support for women climbing the ladder to CEO or #girlboss status, stay-at-home mothers and working-class women felt unsupported. Cisgender women weren’t willing to talk to or about trans women. Pro-life organizations weren’t welcomed as co-organizers at Women’s Marches. The women who didn’t “believe all women” felt ostracized for saying they needed more information. And if you weren’t with Hillary, well, you simply just weren’t a feminist. Feminism quickly became about choices, but only if you chose correctly.
By the late 2010s into the 2020s, feminism course-corrected into something more palatable: choice feminism. This brand of feminism means just what it sounds like — as long as you as an individual are making the choice, then it’s feminist. On the surface, how does this not sound liberating? Choice feminism is more tolerant and welcomes the traditional institutions of family, stay-at-home motherhood and marriage, while being slightly more aware of women who might live at the margins and intersections of society. Choice feminism allows us to suspend judgement and criticism of other women and the choices they make in the name of diversity.
Here, the issue emerges as to why feminism feels like more of a cringey label than a tool for collective liberation. Choice feminism only works under the assumption that every woman has the same number of choices, and that every woman will be received safely and positively for the choices she makes. Choice feminism also assumes that our relationship with institutions such as government, marriage, public health, education and the workplace exist solely on the individual level. But these assumptions could not be further from the truth.
First, the assumption that every woman has the same number of choices. This can be easily disproved by looking at data on economic household conditions or health care access, but let’s look at a more concrete example. This summer, the nation experienced a baby formula shortage caused by the combined factors of the global supply chain crisis and a product recall. What was appalling was the number of pundits and social media chambers that told women to “just breastfeed.” Given that breastfeeding has intense physical, medical, time and financial constraints, many women across the country couldn’t “just breastfeed.” Following the shortage an intense online debate about motherhood and choices erupted that left many feeling scrutinized.
The second assumption is that every woman will be received positively for the choices she makes.Pulchronomics, the combined study of beauty and economics, refutes this idea. Back in 2015, a study by IZA World of Labor found that employees deemed physically attractive earned 15% more than employees who were considered less physically attractive. In other words, our society pays you more the more you choose to invest in meeting a set beauty standard. If your outward appearance can have an impact on getting an interview call back, or how intelligent you might be perceived, then it becomes harder for women to simply not choose to fit themselves into those same standards of beauty. For some women, it is a lot more complicated than “to choose or not to choose.”
Lastly is the assumption that our relationship with institutions only impacts our lives. A quick glance at history tells us that this is not true. White women gained the right to vote in 1920, securing their own protections and values at the ballot box, leaving women of Color disenfranchised until they gained the right to vote nearly five decades later. Our individual acts may be autonomous, but to say our choices have no impact on larger society is privileged. The personal will always be political. Feminism is not about separating yourself from others under the guise of choice, but about taking important steps to encourage the liberation and the economic, political and social freedoms of every woman around you.
A more intersectional and imaginative approach to feminism is necessary. This means that although we might feel the need to be tolerant of all choices, it is within our rights to question and oppose the decisions of women who are more interested in upholding patriarchal forms of power and control than dismantling the very system she benefits from. This means that we are not reducing feminism to a set of choices, but rather radically transforming and rebuilding the institutions that limit our choices in the first place.
In other words, you might be free to make any choice you want… but that won’t always mean that your choice is a step toward women’s empowerment.
Elina Morrison is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com