It's not all about choice: how I learned to stop worrying and love smashing patriarchy*

Monday, 11 November 2013

Last Saturday, many women bloggers spent the day at Mumsnet's Blogfest. I didn't attend - I was speaking at the Christian New Media Conference. It was a busy day for me and I didn't catch up with what had happened at Blogfest until Sunday morning. As it turned out, Blogfest hadn't gone so well for some people. Specifically, the panel discussion on feminism hadn't gone so well. There was shouting. There was Offence Taken. You should probably read more about it from Glosswitch and Sarah Ditum, two of the panelists, who know much more about exactly what happened than I do.

As I read tweets from Saturday afternoon and began to understand exactly why the panel discussion on feminism had upset so many people, I saw one statement repeated again and again: "Feminism is about choice." The inability to move beyond this definition, unfortunately, is exactly what makes discussions like the one at Blogfest on Saturday unproductive and frustrating. As Sarah wrote in her summing-up of the day:

"Feminism is not here to make you feel good about yourself. It does not want you to swim in a warm soup of self-regard. Feminism’s job is not to reassure you that you are a 'good woman'. Feminism is here to question what we mean by 'woman' and ask whose version of 'good' we’re adhering to. 

"The ultimate goal of feminism is not choice, however often people claim that it is: feminism shouldn’t need to laud you for making a decision while being a woman. Feminism is not your mum, here to take pride in everything you do and gently mop up your accidents."

Now this is not going to be a post about Blogfest. I wasn't there, and what I want to say goes beyond one panel at a conference, although it's from the furore around this panel that I've been compelled to write about it. It seems as though what we so often tend to get stuck on is seeing feminism as exactly these things and no more. Yet feminism is not some self-helpy concept designed to make you feel good about your life. It is supposed to challenge you. I think we need to talk about the way society and popular culture have contributed towards people requiring validation for every single choice they make. Why are many people so dependent on being praised for everything they do that they struggle to analyse issues objectively, or discuss anything without making it all about their personal experience and whether or not they feel it's being validated?

I've mentioned my frustration with this in other blog posts since becoming a parent. When you discuss parenting, or being a woman who is also a parent, people cannot help but take your explanation of the choices you've made in life as a challenge to  their own. Whether it's breastfeeding and bottlefeeding, weaning techniques, car seat manufacturers, sleep problems, returning to work, or childcare, expressing an opinion about why you chose to live the way you do will result in responses from people who feel invalidated or even attacked by the very fact that you are different to them. Instead of looking critically at things that may need addressing, we relate personal anecdotes again and again as if they are what define an issue. We take offence.

And this, I believe, is why people become defensive about their personal choices when they discuss issues related to womanhood and to motherhood. Women are so used to having their every choice analysed or criticised (in a way that men are not) that they can't help but do it at each other. We are actively encouraged to judge other women and form opposing camps. Our default mode is 'justification', even towards people who bear no ill will towards us but have simply chosen a different path in life. For so long, the decisions we make about how to live have been subject to debate about what impact they will have on society and whether or not they are the right thing for women to do. It seems as if this has contributed towards the sort of self-worth that sees a difference of lifestyle as an attack and makes every decision loaded with meaning about the state of womanhood in the 21st century.

When you discuss this with other women it becomes evident that they have all felt, at some point, felt attacked, belittled, or as if they're a bad person for making choices about how to live. It's not a 'society hates stay at home mothers' thing or a 'society hates bottlefeeding mothers' thing. It's a 'society makes women insecure about every aspect of their lives' thing and it has to stop. This rooting of our identities in 'my choice' and the 'celebration of choice', making it the be all and end all of womanhood achieves nothing, and will never contribute to a productive conversation about feminism. 'My choice' will never see the bigger picture. 'My choice' will never encompass women as a group. 'My choice' will only ever turn us inwards and then outwards again to judge one another.

It's 'my choice' that means we have campaigns purporting to reignite interest in feminism that actually constitute nothing more than vague 'be who you wanna be' statements about celebrating differences. It's 'my choice' that gives us articles and debates entitled 'Can you be a feminist and do x?' As Glosswitch wrote in her post about Blogfest, a question about whether you can be a feminist and a mummy blogger could have gone in a productive direction, but instead it prompted more defensiveness and justification of choices. Giving these 'debates' provocative titles is a tedious tactic that means women go in ready for battle, ready to be offended, ready to get annoyed at someone. When this happens, we need to shut it down before it propagates and find a better way.

To reduce gender equality to whether you like making jam, or wearing heels, or men holding open doors for you, or staying at home with your baby, or removing your body hair, or preferring skirts over trousers is missing the point. These are your choices. They are not feminist choices, just because you believe men and women are equal and that you feel you have made them of your own free will. Neither are they anti-feminist choices. They're just choices. We need to move past needing a pat on the back for every hobby we take up and decision we make, because quite frankly, they have nothing to do with achieving equality. What does have everything to do with feminism however, is acknowledging that choices do not take place in a vacuum. We are influenced by a host of factors at every turn, and denying it is to stick our heads in the sand.

If we make one choice, it must be the choice to step away from this way of doing things, this defensiveness as default. If we could talk about our lives without setting ourselves up against each other over personal preferences, what a difference that would make. My own personal journey of self-worth has led me to the point where I don't see the lifestyles of other women as an attack on my own lifestyle. I don't even see their choices as having anything to do with my own, because quite simply, they don't. It's difficult - because everything about us tells us we should have an enormous sense of insecurity about everything we do as women. I really believe that if we can reject this and refuse to be threatened by diversity of opinion, by those who question the factors that influence our choices, then things might change.

*about what other women might think of my life


Suzie said...

It may sound pathetic but to not need a pat on the back is extremely difficult for lots of people, including me. It takes a lot of batting down my natural response and emotions in order to not take offence. It's really hard. When we come across things that we personally feel strongly about that other people either disagree strongly with or are indifferent to, it's hard to take the high road, think of the big picture and the greater good. But we must try our best, I suppose, if we want to achieve gender equality. Putting our differences aside may hurt our pride but it's necessary. United we stand, divided we fall and all that. There's a fine line between this and self-censorship though. It's tough.

Amy said...

It's rare (and a privilege) to be brought up with unconditional love. If you are, it's likely that you'll be more secure and have less need for approval and validation from other people. The rest of us long for others to agree with us because to us, someone not agreeing with us is equal to them not liking us and we have an endless need for people to like us. It's not something that I like about myself, nor is it my fault, but it's really hard to change things that have been ingrained into us in childhood. So yes, I may be one of the people whom you describe in this post, but just be aware that there's always a reason behind *why* people react the way they do (take offense/need validation).

Hannah Mudge said...

Suzie, I don't think it sounds pathetic at all. As I said in the post, we've been conditioned to need it because of the way we're criticised constantly and made to feel as if our choices reflect on womanhood as a whole. It is hard to take the high road sometimes, but I think that often, we need to asses what we're contributing by weighing in with our personal experience of something when that's not actually what the discussion needs to be about, if you see what I mean. I've often started typing a comment on something and thought 'No, this isn't productive. I do think there are discussions on emotive things that need to take place, and that these shouldn't have to involve putting our differences aside, but we should always try to understand each other and learn rather than let the discussion become each participant justifying their lives.

Amy - I really do know this. I started typing another paragraph about this because I knew people would pick up on the bits I wrote about self-worth but I often go off on too many tangents so I deleted it. Really, I have never had all my ducks in a row when it comes to self esteem. Mine was absolutely terrible for years. I just wonder how we can help people to move on from this, particularly with regard to discussion about lifestyle choices?

Unknown said...

Fascinating, thanks. This has clarified a couple of quite bewildering interactions I've had, one when I told a close friend I didn't want to fly anymore for environmental reasons and she furiously started explaining why she had to fly because she had family in Hong Kong, and another where I really offended someone I respect in an online feminist forum by (as I thought) explaining my religious beliefs, but which they interpreted as my trying to convert them. Since then I must admit I've been very wary of sharing any opinions online but particularly of mentioning religion. I thought the problem was the lack of tone on the internet, but it does make sense that we're so used to seeing our choices invalidated and criticised that we start to see everything through that lens.

Cathy said...

This is an excellent post Hannah, very thought-provoking and rational.

One of the main problems, as I see it, is that all of us as mothers are pretty obsessed with how others achieve a semblance of work/life balance. And by 'work' I don't just mean a paid employment, I mean caring for our children or other family members too. We rarely if ever feel we have it 100% cracked and we all feel stressed, guilty, overwhelmed to some extent, even if it's just fractional and momentary. So we share our experiences. Often what we are looking for is inspiration and ideas, but what we hear is justification. 'I do X BECAUSE' *lengthy explanation*. And with justification, comes judgement, whether actual or perceived. Does she think I'm X because I don't do Y, type thing. Just this week I discussed childcare with a friend who couldn't point out fast enough that despite having an au pair she was not wealthy. That judgement, whether real or perceived, affected her to the point that she was justifying her choices before anybody could have the chance to question them. Justification/defensive, it's a fine line.

As far as I can tell you have hit the nail on the head with your conclusion. It's down to us to have the confidence in our choices, without seeking reinforcement and endless patting on the back. Yes, it's difficult, we all have our own issues, but as parents it's really up to us to put these aside as far as possible and concentrate on how we can improve things for our children. I do not want my daughters to still be engaging in debates about whether or not mummy bloggers can be feminists. I hope we will have moved past that by the time they are of an age whereby they can understand and debate such concepts.

Obviously the world and his wife (her wife!) has weighed in with their thoughts about That Mumsnet Debate. Only one blogger has touched upon a point I consider hugely relevant and that's Fritha at Tigerlilly Quinn. Her post here: and I absolutely 100% agree with her point that what we need to change is the perception that caring is lesser than career. Caring is historically 'women's work' and therefore undervalued - but not because it is anything other than essential work. It's undervalued because women did it and the contribution of women has not, to date, been valued as it should. THAT to me is the crux of the issue here, not whether it's feminist to have a career or be a stay at home mum or paint your toenails or say 'fuck' a lot or whatever. Perhaps when we as a society truly value the work that women do - WHATEVER that work is - we as individuals can have the confidence in our choices we so desperately seem to lack.

Anonymous said...

I really like this post, and much of the stuff about the constant judgement and comparison rings very true. It is possible to avoid this, but it involves trust in a relationship, my nct class all hang out together and we have all taken different approaches, and have very different toddlers now, but I feel we can share our experience without being judged. I feel incredibly lucky to have this. I think one of the reasons we have done this is we have all been quite warts and all, explaining how really f-ing hard it was to bf, or how frustrated we feel about toddlers chucking food around etc, and because none of us is trying to paint a rosy picture I think we all feel comfortable sharing the good and the bad. Relating it to the mummy blog question, I love reading mummy and daddy blogs, but in some there is a strain of the 1950s perfect housewife about them that I think contributes to a feeling of failure in those of us with messy houses (or rented flat in my case) who sometimes feel like screaming. These blogs are by no means the only culprit, but I am guessing that is why the panel q was asked.

To discuss the choice point, I don't know what 'choice feminism' is officially, I am not really educated in the way of feminist theory, but it is precisely your point about choices not being made in a vacuum that means choice us the goal of feminism for me. Unless we change the attitude we have of caring as being less than career, and money as a key measure of success then a parent's choice to stay in the home will be seen by many as 'lesser' and this is one of many factors that affects our freedom to make genuine choices. Yes you can be a homemaker, but you will be judged for it. So while I don't condone anyone attacking anyone, I suspose I can understand why stay at home mums might be over defensive as they have probably had to justify themselves over and over already.

I hope we can reach a point where we can have productive discussions about what choices women (and men) make and how this can help or hinder equality, but I think it will be extraordinarily difficult.

Thanks for a thought provoking piece.

Hannah Mudge said...

Thank you for more excellent comments!

Cathy you are right about work-life balance. It is so tough, and although I did say that I try not to get into the insecurity lark when it comes to motherhood, even I have wobbles. It usually helps when I discuss it with wise women who have been there or are going through the same, but who DON'T jump straight into playing the justification game. We really must challenge the way caring is devalued. Some traditionalists are very vocal about how it's 'best' for a woman to stay at home with children, opt out of a 'career' etc, yet they are often the people who can be pretty sexist and devalue women in other ways. I will always fight for people to see the value in 'women's work'.

jenimartian, I'm lucky to have had the same experience with my NCT group. We don't play the justification game but we have been very honest with each other about our struggles. I really hope for productive discussions about this stuff too, but I do think it means people having to challenge their thinking and sometimes put aside their instinct to go off on one! :)

Anonymous said...

Hang on. So, it's not about validating all choice but you conclude by saying that you respect the different choices women have made. So are some choices more or less feminist than others? Are all choices 'feminist' if they're done by a woman who claims to be a feminist? If the 'goal' of feminism isn't choice, then what is it? If choice is the freedom to fully participate, or not, in society and to make one's own decisions without those decisions being coloured by pressures that only affect women, then surely choice is at the very heart of feminism. Most women still don't have choices. Isn't that the point?

Hannah Mudge said...

"Hang on. So, it's not about validating all choice but you conclude by saying that you respect the different choices women have made."

Yes, you can respect someone's choice without wanting to endlessly discuss their justifications as to why they made it.

"So are some choices more or less feminist than others?"


"Are all choices 'feminist' if they're done by a woman who claims to be a feminist?"


"If the 'goal' of feminism isn't choice, then what is it?"

Gender equality and the end of patriarchy. Choices to be made without the influence of patriarchy.

"If choice is the freedom to fully participate, or not, in society and to make one's own decisions without those decisions being coloured by pressures that only affect women, then surely choice is at the very heart of feminism."

It is a *part* of feminism IMO, but not the be all and end all.

"Most women still don't have choices. Isn't that the point?"

Yes, because it's those choices that almost never get discussed by the same people who want to talk endlessly about the "choice" to wear makeup or make jam.

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