More Feminist Than Thou: Moving Beyond Self-Defeating “Choose-My-Choice” Feminism


I am so tired of “I choose my choice” feminism. So, so tired of it. I just can’t have another fight about whether it’s possible to be a stay-at-home mom, shave your legs, wear makeup, date men, have rough sex, have submissive sex, change your name, watch porn, worship a Judeo-Christian God, shop at Wal-Mart, wear hijab, get breast implants, listen to hip-hop, go on a diet, eat meat, or wash the dishes and be a feminist at the same time.

Let’s stop choosing our choices and start choosing our battles.

Choosing is passive. Choosing is not enough. Choosing devolves into finger-pointing, into holier-than-thou posturing, into casting feminism as some kind of private mental exercise, rather than a powerful force for social change. No one person is making all the right feminist choices, but so many people are fighting good fights. 

Choose-your-choice feminism brought us, for example, the so-called Mommy Wars, which pits women against each other, instead of against anti-family work policies and the intersecting mechanics of economic oppression; it pits a very small group of “each others,” usually deeply privileged “each others” against those “each others” who blessedly have the option of choosing at all.

Choose-your-choice feminism implies that all women already have the full spectrum of choices available to them in the first place. Choose-your-choice feminism is for people who don’t play the long game, or who are so blinded by their own privilege that they no longer see the need to. Choose-your-choice feminism is for people who think the fight is over.

Do our choices add up to the people we are and the world we live in? Absolutely. But ought we be defined by personal decisions that help many of us simply get by, day-to-day, within a system designed to marginalize and oppress us, or ought we be defined by the actions we take to challenge whatever part of those systems of oppression and marginalization we think we’re best equipped to address?

I say this because I’m guilty of policing other women’s decisions myself, and it’s gotten me exactly nowhere; it helps no one and nothing as much as it helps my own ego. My particular vice? Judging women who take their husbands’ names after marriage. It gets me so riled up. It’s a literal reinforcement of patriarchy! It’s a cultural remnant of coverture, of a time when men actually owned their wives!

And yet, some of the fiercest feminists I know share their husbands’ names. I also know feminists with breast implants, and feminists who wear hijab, and feminists who buy Lil’ Wayne records—and I know they’re feminists because they educate teens about dating violence, volunteer for abortion fund hotlines, and lobby for domestic workers’ rights.

It’s of the utmost importance to make the best-informed, least socially harmful decisions we can, whenever we can. But instead of bringing women down when they don’t (or can’t) make the outright feminist decision—which is so often a moving target—let’s focus on celebrating when they choose to fight, to rebel, to challenge, to speak up.

Certainly the personal is political, as they say. But if we work to get to that “political” part by engaging in a dialogue, by changing the dialogue, by taking real-world action, I think we can quit policing every personal decision. I like “I choose my battles” because it gives us an opportunity to talk about actions and their implications and outcomes, rather than individual people and their beliefs. “I choose my battles” allows us to thoughtfully criticize and analyze results, rather than to blithely criticize individuals, putting women—and so often, only women—through the ringer.

So what if we choose our choices? What are we doing to make life more equitable for other people? Are we volunteering for prison outreach in our communities, forming a union at work, or teaching our kids about enthusiastic consent?

Let’s value activism and intentional change-making more than we value having the world’s most feminist pubic hair, whatever that means right this second. And hell, maybe your feminist pubic hair is being the change you want to see in the world, but it doesn’t have to be everyone’s.

Women cannot be everything all the time; we cannot expect constant perfection. If we expect perfection, and all that comes with it—compliance, poise, graciousness, infallibility—we’re no better than the patriarchy we decry. We have to give ourselves room to fuck up, to make shitty choices, to make easy choices, to make dissonant choices that allow us to fight the fights we care most deeply about. We have to be comfortable with contradictions.

I don’t mean to say that every choice a woman makes is feminist or even good or right, simply because a woman makes it. I don’t mean to say that women shouldn’t be held accountable for their decisions and cheered on regardless of the harm their choices might do to others in the aggregate. To be sure, there is harm done by, say, the multitude of individuals buying diamond engagement rings, or our willingness to turn a blind eye to sweatshops because we really want that great new knock-off skirt.

What I’m advocating for is a move toward positive reinforcement before knee-jerk criticism. I think that creates a better system of accountability, one that focuses on reforming or eliminating overarching systems of oppression, rather than telling women they’re stupid for not defying every possible iteration thereof.

Certainly feminism, at least to me, is a lifestyle. It is absolutely something that comes out of my personal choices, but it’s also something I try to build out of my own activism and my way of living publicly. My feminism is defined and crafted by my whole personhood, not limited by my shoes or my lipstick or my job.

The beauty of an inclusive, intersectional, progressive feminism that champions positive reinforcement is that it allows a wider spectrum of people to participate in social change. Choose a battle that will allow your sisters and brothers in the fight for gender equality to have more and better choices, and someone else will do the same for you in another arena. We have to use our collective efforts to lift each other up, rather than become mired in criticism.

If you’ve chosen a battle, you’re probably doing it right. And if you’ve only chosen your choices, it’s time to step up and choose a fight.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/LeahOviedoCEO Leah Oviedo

    Great article. I like your questions in the 6th paragraph. I am guilty. I have my own ideas of what constitutes a feminist that contradict other ideas. Over the past year I have taught myself to have my opinions, but to NOT force my idea so that others are wrong. Sometimes I slip up, and then I have to apologize for it. Thanks for writing this. Andrea.

    And I feel the same way about the last name change. I was so thrilled when my friend Jen kept her last name when she married.

  • http://mkhajdin.jux.com/ M. K. Hajdin

    I find that it helps to criticize antifeminist ideas rather than focus on individual people.

    As far as last names are concerned, I’ve never understood why one’s father’s name is supposedly more feminist than one’s husband’s.

    • http://twitter.com/MsNovember MsNovember

      Because at least it’s been your name since birth, the one that you have built your public and private, and often professional, academic, and community persona on. I wouldn’t change my name for those reasons and I honestly don’t understand the inclination, but the fact that 92% of American women do change their name tells me that if I start judging women on their feminist credentials based on that decision means I’d have a lot fewer allies. There’s lots of women who change their name and are still feminist, but we also have to get away from the idea that any decision a feminist makes is automatically a feminist decision.

      • sceptinurse

        But not always. I was forced to use my stepfathers name so his Children wouldn’t be “confused”. He was extremely abusive to me. I couldn’t wait to change my name, at least I could associate it with something positive. As far as using my real last name it was from a man I saw only occasionally until I was 5 and as far as I knew never made any attempt to see me after that. (I suppose it would have been difficult from Greece.)

        • http://twitter.com/joepdx Joe

          Something similar happened to me with my mother and step-father, though there weren’t other children involved when they got married and it was my mother’s decision “so we’d be a normal family”. I had my mother’s last name, too, as my biological father left before I was born and they were never married.

        • nettwench14

          A sibling of mine did the same thing, and I would NEVER judge her for that.

      • nettwench14

        I didn’t take my (ex) husband’s name when i got married in 1979. But I wasn’t planning on having children, either, which is another reason families want to go by the same name. I certainly wouldn’t judge another woman for it. Look at Hilary Clinton, for pete’s sake! I consider her to be a very great example of a powerful, feminist woman. What SHE decides her name is going to be makes no difference to me. It’s her actions on behalf of all women that I pay attention to.

  • dontcallmebaby

    When it came to last names, my husband and I made a deal: I’ll take yours, if you take mine. We combined our last names with a hyphen.

  • http://twitter.com/marstrina MarinaS

    I don’t really understand who the OP is addressing here, primarily – choice feminists, or the feminists who police their choices? She may be addressing both, but it’s not clear, and some of the things she says don’t make sense next to each other.

  • http://twitter.com/whichcrafty Lynnsey

    I think that criticizing people who have made a thoughtfully considered choice that works for them because you don’t agree with it is precisely the opposite of what I want feminism to be. I’ve found myself leaving certain circles because I was tired of being told how I was doing Feminism (TM) wrong. My efforts in advocating for reproductive rights were somehow less important than whether or not I wear a wedding ring.

    I realize that some women feel very connected to their name, but I never did so I changed my name after I examined what that choice meant, much like my I weighed my choice to stay home with my children (which I recognize I’m fortunate to have) and my decision to wear a bra (because I’m rather chesty and I find it more comfortable, generally) and on and on. It’s not as much our choices that define us as feminists, but whether we arrived at those choices through informed and examined thought.

    • libkid08

      The bra thing is so old. Quit with the bra thing.

      • http://twitter.com/whichcrafty Lynnsey

        I would have thought so, too. However, some of my detractors seemed to have missed that memo. Perhaps you should inform them.

        • libkid08

          Are you talking…women?! Oh lord. The earth keeps spinning…getting yourself stuck in a metaphor from the 60s only to basically never understand the full meaning of it, is sad.

          • http://twitter.com/whichcrafty Lynnsey

            Yeah, women and more than once in conversations about wearing things. Because, apparently for some people, the most important aspect of one’s feminism is whether you’re wearing a bra…or wedding ring (or jewelry in general), makeup, high heels, a headscarf, low-cut dresses, short skirts, yoga pants (not joking), or hair product.

            Honestly, all things people I’ve dealt with were criticizing as anti-feminist while ignoring the larger picture of feminist actions. There have been times where I felt like I was conversing with a bad movie caricature of radical feminism. It’s why I avoid certain forums to this day.

    • Jon

      Exactly. But further, why explain yourself? No one in any movement should be pulling some McCarthyist investigation on anyone else. Let fellow yargblargs be yargblargs and dispense with the ag hominem (ahem, person) attacks.

      Al Gore’s got a big house.

  • libkid08

    Ultimately, I have never thought to judge women for their decisions to raise kids, work, not work, husband, whatever…it doesn’t come to mind until they speak. Haha when I find they are in desperate search of the patriarchal pat on the head …I sigh. But think about it. I know first hand how tough it is to go up against men. They are tough. Know what they want. Demand. Deserve. So it’s easier to stay In the ladies’ pool and keep the conversation about bad ladies. I always go for the guys. I don’t mind the fight. Quit shoving each other around, girls. Women are all you have. No matter how lovely your “man” is….the feminists of last generation made him. They made the environment. Think about It.

    • nettwench14

      Amen. i’m with you! Women are not my enemy.

  • http://twitter.com/thedharmadiva Kasey

    I appreciate the idea that we need to stop policing each other and start working together to get a better world for women. Feminism too often has been a good ol’ white girls club. We all may do it a little differently, but we stand much better odds of achieving important successes if we stand together. I’d really like equal pay. I’d like better childcare options. I’d like to feel physically safe and to have the law respect my body the way it does a man’s. Whether you stand with me in high heels or Birkenstocks, whether you wear make-up or refuse to shave, whether you work outside the home or in doesn’t matter in the larger picture. What matters is that we are able to bridge our gaps and be counted together.

    As for the name thing, I took my husband’s name. The way I see it, I am changing one man’s name (my father’s) for another (my husband’s). Historically, my father would have owned me until I was married. So, am I less a feminist because I didn’t adopt or create a completely brand new name devoid of any historical remnant of ownership? It REALLY bothers me that it’s seen as feminist to keep your original owner’s name. That’s what is being argued for. This is where I appreciate “choice feminism”. Pick whatever name you want for whatever reason you want because it doesn’t hold any of us back for you to do so. It’s time to let this one go.

    • nettwench14

      A name is just a label you go by. it’s completely superficial. Most people won’t even know whether it came from your father, your stepfather, your ex-husband, or you picked it at random out of a telephone book – who cares? My name was changed when i was adopted by a stepfather. I decided one name change in life was enough, and in college i decided to stick with it regardless of marital status.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Robert-Allen/562896146 Robert Allen

      Also, anyone who keeps their maiden name will likely be forgotten in 3 generations by their descendants, because no one will be able to find their tombstone. I’m not arguing for the particular merits of the current system, its just that there should be SOME accepted tradition in order to assist future historians and descendants who might actually express a curiousity about their heritage or family. Open to new ideas .. but the one that was attempted in the 1980s was a complete fail: the accumulation of hyphens (the 4th generation would have accumulated 16 hyphens and names, then 32, then 64, etc). That also would not have helped geneaologist.

      • cjvg

        That is a false argument.
        Northern Europeans and many latin countries do have women keep their last name, after marriage the husbands name just gets added to their own name.
        We are still perfectly able to find our forefathers and mothers thank you very much.
        In fact many experts will tell you this system is much more fool proof then erasing the woman’s last name.

  • papayalily

    Does anyone actually identify as a “choice feminist”, chanting “I chose my choice!”? I only ever see it being argued against. Which is interesting, given that the author’s points (valuing activism and intentional change-making more than having the world’s most feminist pubic hair, not criticizing women for not being superhumans) is the exact same point those who are probably called “choice feminists” by others have been making for years…

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  • http://www.facebook.com/karendee.henninger Karen Hen Ninger

    I absolutely feel disgust when I hear the ‘We’ are pregnant. Isn’t it enough the work doesn’t get counted. Now the work our bodies do, gets shifted to include Men doing nothing. Glad to see this issue addressed and I do like the solution presented as moving to non-criticism. However, I think this article is just a start. More discussion is necessary…..and I think what needs to be looked at is how we END the discussions and replace our time with FREEDOM to live without some dominant standard. It’s the domination and social pressure to have ONE right way to live. To me, it reminds me of when the Catholics lost their dominance to Protestants. Lutherans turned around and did the same thing to Anabaptists that Catholics were doing. The divisions of LGBT show this, for example. No matter how many variations of beliefs came from the Catholic fall from dominance, there was violence and harm between those people bickering about their differences. It took a non-violence stance to end it. Wm Penn and Quaker’s stance of no violence. And these discussions are just not harmless debates. The criticisms and eventual stereotyping lead to ‘groups’ organized to push THEIR preference into law or even just social pressure. Do end dominance to gain it for one self is a big problem, yet some of those steps to topple the dominance of men were necessary, but the change must continue. It’s splitting hairs to end dominance of white males and then create an environment that doesn’t have dominance when you need some dominance to end another’s. It’s in our entire belief system that must change in certain areas. Dominance is built into our belief system. It’s built into our medical science institutions and political institutions that took over the religious dominance – that still is attempting to regain it’s lost power; it is mostly in our health system as we claim our dominance to be healthy rather than moral. Everytime we have a ‘system’ and decisions are made that are not set up for endless creativity and possibility but one size fits all, we create it. So it’s much more than reinforcing positives. It’s understanding creative potentialities, processes and creating a world that facilitates that. It’s the opposite of industrialization and manufacturing model that is a design to produce copies of one model. That model runs our educational systems and teaching methods. It’s about changing the system. See more of my writings for provoking new thoughts and a creative world at karendee57.wordpress.com

  • Ruckett

    Thank you for writing this, because I honestly think it needed to be said. In my own life I am struggling to figure out exactly how I feel about the idea of identification of the ‘self’ periode. I know that’s not everyones bag, but when I think about it, it all comes down to different forms of oppression and fuck that. I’m not going to tell anyone how they should be doing anything, I can only make suggestions as to what I’ve found useful in my own life for trying to deconstruct and understand the various levels of oppression that I think we should all at least be aware of before we pick our battles. – No point in making an omelette if you don’t have any eggs.

    “Feminsm itself has become a commodified form of power known as post-feminism and commodity feminism (Goldman, et al, 1991, Stanley, 2004). Critical scholarship forges the phrase “striptease culture” to mark the 1980s emergence of a “less regulated, more commercialized sexual culture,” in which mainstream media contribute by incorporating sex in their texts, while explicitly denying that they are pornographic – Victoria Secret is a prime example. (McNair, 2002, p. 12; Juffer, 1996) Not only are women objectified as they have been, but through sexual subjectification, they must also now understand their own objectification as pleasurable and self-chosen.” From Objectification to Self-Subjectification:
    Victoria’s Secret as a Do-It-Yourself Guide – Lexie Kite

    What we perceive to be significant and how we interpret objects and events and set them within systems of meaning are dependant on discursive structures. Gender for example is a property, not of persons themselves but of the behaviours to which members of a society ascribe meaning. Some actions/behaviours -intentional or not- have been normalized and codified in our everyday spaces/lives (doesn’t mean its right), but that having a pre-existing idea of x is going to have an expectation of x and that one should be aware of one’s actions having consequences (intentional or not).

    Gender is on the table and it’s not coming off, but how we choose to interact with it (or to not) is up to us. “Giving up on the unified subject of Cartesian rationalism – ‘I think therefore I am’ – is first to admit that it has always been a fiction and to forever contest the sites upon which meanings and identities are produced. The subject hasn’t been killed, contrary to popular belief, rather, the subject has never been alive, has never been real in any real sense. If we desire to speak and hear women’s lived realities, the material trace effects of discursive practices, then we must listen to them, see them, in their messiness, contradictions, textured complexities, and most significantly we must appreciate the many things we will never know about women’s diversely lived realities. The desire for commensurability among women, perfect translatability on the basis of so-called shared experiences, commits many of the same violences enacted upon women through hegemonic discourses of gender, and feminists must continuously question whom their Other is that makes possible their desired subject Self.” (In)Securing Subjectivity Hesitant Engagements between Feminists and Poststructuralists. – Cristina Masters

  • Ruckett

    Also, tho all of us here might not agree with everything the other says, I think we can all agree that we’re all really pissed off and sometimes we’re so pissed off (speaking from my own experiences) we can’t properly communicate why we’re so angry.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=750959349 facebook-750959349

    What I want to know is, when are men going to start changing their last names for us? Never.

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  • http://stripey-badger.blogspot.com/ Rowan

    I think there are valid questions to be asked when we examine the choices of other women:

    1. Did she have all the knowledge reasonably available that pertained to that choice?

    2. Did she have all the resources required to make that choice freely, unconstrained by oppression and institutionalized sexism?

    3. Did she have the ability to make the choice she wanted to make, based on her own reasons and priorities?

    However, that’s kind of where I stop asking questions on the social and political levels. I could ask “Did she carefully consider her choice?” but you know, that’s not my business. If other women, hell even if men want to make reactionary or unconsidered choices based on the whims of a moment, if they want to take what I see as a path of least resistance or a path more traveled, then it’s only my place to make sure they had all the tools available to them to make that choice — not even that they USED the tools, just that they had unrestricted access to them. If a woman chooses to take her husband’s name, my only business is whether or not she had the reasonable option to keep her name without a penalty or a stigma. If a woman wants to wear heels or wear flats, date men or date women, wear makeup or bras or collars or yoga pants, my concern on a political scale is that she be able to make those choices on her terms, whatever they may be.

    Because, well, when it comes to political activism, just getting everyone equal access to tools, resources, and information is a big enough job without managing how they use those. When I win the fight for equal access, then maybe I’ll have time to critique how people use it.

    On a *personal* scale I will question the choices of those I care about, but that’s a different matter. That’s less “your choices are an affront to women’s equality” and more “I know you loved the show, but are you really sure a storage unit full of ‘Saved By The Bell’ merchandise is a sound retirement investment strategy?”

  • nettwench14

    Feminism to me is for every woman to make whatever choices in life SHE wants to make. It’s not up to me to judge someone else’s choices – isn’t that what we are fighting – people who try to impose choices on us?

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=7963221 Julie Gillis

    Love this.

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