Today on Blue Milk there is a post called How ‘personal choice’ drove feminism and now stalls it. The post is centred around an excellent excerpt from the New York Times article by Stephanie Coontz on Why Gender Equality Stalled. It starts with an example of the decision-making process that goes into our choices. In this case, it is an example of how a woman came to "choose" being a stay at home mom. In my case, I could use an example of how I "chose" to have my baby in a hospital instead of at home or in a birth centre or how I "chose" to go back to work when my baby was 3 months old.
The quote (which you should read in full), ends with this:
When you can’t change what’s bothering you, one typical response is to convince yourself that it doesn’t actually bother you. So couples often create a family myth about why they made these choices, why it has turned out for the best, and why they are still equal in their hearts even if they are not sharing the kind of life they first envisioned.
Under present conditions, the intense consciousness raising about the “rightness” of personal choices that worked so well in the early days of the women’s movement will end up escalating the divisive finger-pointing that stands in the way of political reform.
This is EXACTLY what I see every day as a feminist and advocate of social change. We all make choices in imperfect conditions. Lack of knowledge, lack of support, limited options, limited resources, lack of privilege, preconceived notions, pressure to compromise, not wanting to be difficult, exhaustion. These are all things that contribute to the choices that we make. The existence of imperfect conditions doesn't make our choices universally wrong or universally right. It makes them possibly (or possibly not, depending) the best option in that particular situation.
But so many of us need them to be right. The suggestion that if conditions changed, people would have more options or be able to make different choices is so often perceived as an insult. As a result, people often talk about supporting the choices of others while putting caveats on that support.
- I support your choice, as long as you understand why it is wrong.
- If you make that choice, you should have to sacrifice just like I did.
- Do what you want, but remember that your choice is unrealistic and you'll never succeed. You'll see.
- If we put any resources towards making it easier for people to make that choice, it means the other choice (my choice) is wrong.
- Privilege? What privilege?
- I don't want my hard earned tax dollars to subsidize someone else's choices.
- That choice wasn't available to me and I turned out fine (my kids turned out fine, my marriage is just fine, my career is just fine), so stop your whining (and your judgment).
We won't make any progress by staunchly defending the imperfect circumstances in which we made our good (or bad) choices. We won't make any progress by assuming that other people will fail if they make choices that are different from ours. We won't make any progress by assuming others can easily make the same choices we did. We will make progress by listening to other people, understanding their struggles, conducting and reading research, and supporting initiatives that will make it easier for everyone to make freer choices.
One example I often give is subsidized day care. We chose not to put our children in day care, despite the fact that subsidized day care exists where we live and has been wildly successful in increasing maternal workforce participation while also paying for itself through increased tax revenues. I am a staunch supporter of subsidized day care because I believe in choice and I've seen the evidence on the positive effects of this program (which just happened to not be the right choice for our family). In other jurisdictions, I see people fighting against subsidized day care because (a) young children should be at home with their parents and (b) other people should have to save and pay full price for day care just like they did. All that does is create a war between people who can't afford day care but would like to use it, people who choose not to use it, and people who can afford to pay for it.
We need a lot more support of free choice and a lot less defensiveness over our own choices. Shame is a barrier to social change, in feminism and in many other spaces. I will never forget that my choices were made within a set of circumstances that in some ways are entirely imperfect and in other ways are so much more than what other women have access to.
Intsead of rejoicing in and defending our chains, let's work together to break free from them.