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

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