The Failure of “Choice Feminism”

Jessa Crispin's new book Why I Am Not a Feminist offers some ideas on how to weave a strong class politics into twenty-first century feminism.

Feminism is having a moment in American pop culture. Celebrities are clamoring to identify with a word that was more likely to be used as an insult in mainstream conversation just a decade or so ago, and products as wide-ranging as exercise routines and absorbent underwear are marketed to millennial women under the guise of “empowerment.”

Among many feminists, the growing cachet of feminism is touted as evidence that women’s rights are expanding in America and that more people are getting on board with a feminist program, with Hillary Clinton’s campaign as the first female presidential nominee by the Democratic Party often cited as evidence. On a recent Sunday afternoon walk through Brooklyn, I saw no fewer than three “The Future is Female” t-shirts, the thin, sans-serif letters peeking out from beneath denim jackets.

The implied message is that our future female rulers will be an improvement from the previous ones — more gentle, more benevolent — by virtue of their biology. (It should perhaps be noted that the original t-shirt was designed in tribute to a lesbian separatist slogan rediscovered in photo archives from the 1970s, and that a portion of its proceeds are donated to Planned Parenthood.)

But this growing strand of feminism — the one that wants to build the foundation of women’s rights on the idea that women are more virtuous humans than men, and that wants to buy t-shirts proclaiming it — is seen by many as a move in the wrong direction. Jessa Crispin’s new book Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto is a searing critique of contemporary feminism’s focus on individual choice and “self-empowerment” at the expense of systematic radical change and collective action.

Crispin takes aim at feminists who believe power can be located in the decision to watch one television show over another, to consume one product over another, or to use particular words instead of others. She calls this position “choice feminism,” and describes it as “the belief that no matter what a woman chooses, from her lifestyle to her family dynamic to her pop culture consumption, she is making a feminist choice, just from the act of choosing anything. The idea is that under the more rigidly patriarchal past, women’s choices were made for them. So simply by choosing anything at all, you are bucking the patriarchy and acting like a feminist.”

This idea causes us to imbue mundane actions that provide personal gain with outsized political value. Taking a bath? You are taking the time to care for yourself in a world that is hostile and exhausting for women, so this must be a feminist act. Pursuing a promotion at work? You know that women are still underrepresented in positions of power, so you are doing something to change the world for the better by improving your own station in life. Having a nontraditional wedding ceremony? You are making a statement about which patriarchal traditions you support and which ones you don’t, so you are contributing to incremental institutional change.

These mistaken beliefs lead to an inflated sense of accomplishment while distracting from the collective action needed to produce real change that would have a lasting effect for the majority of women.

Crispin argues that “the actual obstacles and inequalities that women face are mostly obstacles only for the poor — middle-class women and above can now buy their access to power and equality.” She takes the mainstream feminist movement to task for focusing primarily on inclusion and adopting the traditionally masculine values of patriarchal capitalist society that prioritize paid labor as a source of freedom and empowerment, rather than mind-numbing work that dominates our time and provides too little compensation, as it is for the majority of people.

Specifically, Crispin criticizes feminism for being “a fight to allow women to participate equally in the oppression of the powerless and the poor.” She cites the “tendency of contemporary feminism to see women in power as an inherent good,” using as an example the mainstream feminist support of Clinton as a presidential candidate, a politician who has spent her career dismantling social welfare programs and supporting violent and imperialist American efforts abroad.

While many of Crispin’s criticisms hit the mark, the book sometimes falls short because it fails to place the blame squarely on the systems of capitalism and patriarchy, frequently aiming its sharpest insults at feminists themselves and failing to acknowledge the ways that corporate retail and media have co-opted a movement in the hopes of profiting off of it — rather than the leaders of the movement itself intentionally selling out or making a conscious decision to compromise their ideals.

After rightly criticizing the feminist movement for historically prioritizing the interests of educated, white, middle-class women and focusing on reforming the system rather than rebuilding it, she concludes that “it’s feminism’s fault that [oppressive wage labor and the single-earner nuclear family] are the two options we have available to women,” and “the problem is that feminism has offered women so few alternatives to give their lives meaning and value.”

But that’s not quite right — it’s capitalism’s fault, and it’s capitalism that offers us so few alternatives, and blaming anyone or anything else just keeps us from recognizing the source of our oppression and effectively fighting against it.

Crispin also assumes some sort of central brain trust that powers a “feminist movement” and holds the reins, retaining the ability to direct the priorities of the movement on one path or another, rather than the much more frustrating reality: that feminism is a slithering mess of sometimes conflicting strands that are often unaware of one another and always powered by individuals whose choices and strategies are shaped and constrained by the very systems they’re fighting against.

Although the presumed intent of the book is to draw in young women who may feel frustrated with current feminist trends, or to inspire a conversation within the feminist movement that would ultimately result in its reorientation to the left, Crispin risks alienating her intended audience by engaging in the same tactics of shame and criticism that she disparages “social media feminists” for taking part in.

At the beginning of the book, she seems to blame women for all manner of behavior, from removing their body hair to consuming misogynist messaging in music and film and marrying abusive men — without acknowledging that not all women have the same amount of power to opt out of these decisions in a capitalist patriarchal society, and that our decisions are shaped by those relative positions of power.

Perhaps just as dangerously, Crispin employs arguments that risk being used in service of the right-wing goals. Her arguments against empowerment rhetoric and surface-level identity politics are often employed by those who are far less interested in justice as a universally sought goal, and some might mistake her criticisms of mainstream feminism as supporting their positions.

For example of what that looks like in practice, we can look to a recent article published by the American Conservative called “Womanhood Redefined” by Natasha Vargas-Cooper. She doesn’t cite Crispin, but in the vein of Crispin’s argument, Vargas-Cooper criticized the mainstream feminist movement for being preoccupied with individualist empowerment at the expense of collective gain. But she used that line of critique to make a reactionary attack on trans people.

Vargas-Cooper, who self-identifies in the article as “a union organizer who embraces traditional leftist causes like fighting poverty and income inequality and demanding universal access to medical care and child care,” does a disservice to her own political interests by employing anti-trans rhetoric, continually referring to trans women as “men who decide to become women,” and asking questions that seem almost designed to appeal to conservative fears of shouldering the financial burden of disempowered communities, such as, “Who is to pay for these procedures and this journey of self-actualization?”

It is not wrong to interrogate the goals and strategies of other progressive movements, or to question the implications of trans identity for our beliefs about gender essentialism or how to build a strong feminist movement divorced from biology — or even to criticize the elevation of Caitlin Jenner, a millionaire with the ability to avoid most kinds of suffering and discomfort, to the level of people’s champion. But it’s not necessary to attack other oppressed groups in order to engage in this dialogue, as though the achievement of self-determination by trans people somehow detracts from the ability of cis women to understand the ways that their bodies figure into gender discrimination.

Although Crispin and Vargas-Cooper share many of the same frustrations with contemporary feminism (such as emphasis on language over action, or the trappings of power over collective material gain), their conclusions are very different. Vargas-Cooper wrongly concludes that “To achieve the realistic goals of feminism and trans assimilation, the two groups do not need to correspond or get along. In many ways, they’re better off without each other.”

The oppression of women and the oppression of queer and trans people are linked — gender essentialism, the act of defining a group of people by their biology and dictating how they can behave accordingly, lies at the root of both. The fact that trans Americans are four times more likely to live in poverty than the average American means that they are also stakeholders in the “traditional leftist causes” that Vargas-Cooper claims to embrace.

Crispin, on the other hand, argues that any sort of meaningful change requires us to understand the ways that patriarchy and capitalism work together to pit us against each other — and it is these entire systems that need to be torn down and built anew.

She points out the ways that, for example, the mainstream feminist movement has often looked to the criminal justice system to provide solutions to the problems of misogyny, by pushing for harsher mandatory minimum sentencing in punishment for sexual assault — even though we know that the criminal justice system is inherently unjust, disproportionately punishing poor people and people of color, and we should instead be pushing for its abolition.

Achieving structural change on this scale requires coalitions, and it requires an understanding of the fact that the same structures that benefit from maintaining gendered hierarchy benefit from white supremacy. Crispin’s book is a necessary contribution to the effort to push contemporary social justice movements further to the left and to weave an understanding of class politics into modern identity-based movements in order to build a radical politics of solidarity. Just as our suffering is intertwined, so too is our salvation.