In a nutshell

Part of the marathon The Name Game thread on Feministe, zuzu sums up, because some people are still playing the “but isn’t feminism all about choice? Support my choice!” card:

Also, let me co-sign with Sheelzebub, Rachel II and others who have pointed out that just because a feminist makes a choice, it doesn’t mean that it’s a feminist choice. You may feel you have great reasons for choosing the option which just happens to be what the patriarchy has greased the rails for you to do rather than taking the harder path of going against tradition. But having good reasons doesn’t mean that you’re not adding your own grease to those rails, or transform your choice into something feminist.

I mean, it doesn’t make you anti-feminist, either, but let’s not pretend it’s a decision made in a vacuum. You can acknowledge that you have limited options and are under tremendous pressure to do the patriarchally-approved thing, as are we all, and you can still make the decision that it’s not a battle you particularly care to fight. We all make our capitulations to the patriarchy to survive. Hell, you might even consider that getting married in the first place might be an even bigger capitulation than changing your name.

Just don’t act like it’s a neutral, meaningless decision.

Versions of this keep on cropping up on feminist blogs. It obviously needs to keep on being said.

  1. Feminists continually make choices that compromise their feminist principles, often for compelling personal reasons. Those compromises are not immune from critical analysis just because they are “my choice”.
  2. Anyone who acquiesces to traditional expectations cannot avoid contributing to the power those traditions subsequently exert upon others. “My choice” is not a magic wand that makes that reinforcement somehow transform into a “feminist choice”.
  3. Criticism is not compulsion, it’s a form of persuasion. Nobody is trying to force anybody to make a feminist choice just by offering criticism of non-feminist choices.

I’m thinking it’s worth its own FAQ on FF101. Anybody got some other relevant quotes to share?

Categories: gender & feminism, language

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16 replies

  1. Agree x 1000

  2. I totally agree (as I expressed in the ‘change your name?’ thread, I think?). I do, however, have a bit of a problem with moments of non-resistance being characterised as ‘capitulations’. I’m trying to work out why this is, and I’m not really responding to you, tigtog, than to some of the discussions that have been going on around abouts. I think it might be because there’s a definite ‘ought’ implied there; a ‘should’ that tends to play into the kinds of ‘who’s more feminist?’ games that make politics so unpalatable, and risk making women put something else first, rather than themselves. I’m obviously pretty ambivalent about the politics of this particular little bind: I’m not one for insisting that women set aside their own desires in order to do the politically correct thing (that which is best for ‘women’ as a whole, which is a problematic idea all on its own), but I’m also not one for pretending that those desires are, therefore, good and proper and feminist.
    I think my issue is with politics being reduced to individuals and their choices. I know that this is the popular way of conceiving of it just now (‘do you recycle? do you have 3 minute showers? do you march?’) but I think it misses the interactions of individuals and their context. The choices of others do matter, and matter significantly, in creating the landscape within which I make *my* choices. But it’s also about what kind of person *I* am, as the result not only of the choices of others, but of the conversations I have, of the friends and the enemies, and the generosity and the parsimony of others. I guess my point is that, in challenging the belief that individual choice made consciously is neutral or feminist simply because it is conscious, individual choice, let’s not fall for the idea that individuals are the site of politics (which may or may not be happening in zuzu’s fabulous comment above). It’s a limitation, and one which tends to promote that problematically normative ‘are you feminist enough’ guff that I think is *also* politically problematic (and often the grump directed at those who argue the ‘choices don’t happen in a vacuum’ position). I suppose that part of this is to say that if and when people make choices that appear to be ‘capitulations’, perhaps this is a moment to ask what conversations had not been had, that this person felt that a particular choice simply couldn’t be made. The critique is directed at patriarchy, not at individuals, in most of the places I’ve seen it and participated in the critique, but it’s important that that is clear, because I’ve seen others wailing about women making decisions that are, allegedly, against their own interests (presumptive much). Patriarchy totally greases rails. Let’s make sure we grease our own, too, rather than falling for the unappealing side of ‘choice-feminism’ in the idea that feminism is just about expecting individuals to desperately putting on brakes.

  3. On the one hand, I find the “it’s my CHOICE so THERE” argument similarly frustrating — this is about systemic analysis. On the other, I continue to think that traditional feminism has somewhat limited thinking on a number of issues, including this (I *do* think it is a more feminist choice to take on my own identity and choose my own family rather than holding to the identity of my woman-headed but abusive biological family). This doesn’t mean that any and all name-changing on the part of a woman (to the name of a man) is therefore capital-f Feminist because a-woman-made-that-choice-so-THERE. However, assuming that if there is a woman who is changing her surname to that of a man, it must therefore be the least feminist of the choices available — that’s always what sticks for me in these debates.
    All that said: I do also know that there is a societal structure that means that this particular choice only adds yet one more to the roster, and when looking at a societal trend your individual reasoning isn’t going to show up. I know that it offers a privilege which is there whether or not you meant it that way. These are all things that need to be examined, and we can’t forego that examination because itsmychoicesothere.

  4. I agree, Amandaw. As much as structural analysis is really really really important, there are other stories that can and are told, and giving them the significance they deserve, rather than simply reducing their significance to ‘capitulation’, is actually kinda important as a counter to patriarchy: let’s not let patriarchy be the *only* thing that determines the significance of, say, a name-change. Even as we acknowledge the ways in which a decision like yours can, and is, and will be, understood in many ways and in many places and to some extent as a reinforcement of that patriarchal structure, feminism ought surely to be about challenging those structures both through making it possible to counter them (by not changing one’s name, for example) as well as through refusing to allow patriarchy to reduce certain decisions to the two options of capitulation or resistance based on what patriarchy decides is capitulation or resistance.
    I guess that’s part of what I mean about not reducing politics to individuals and ginormous structures, but paying attention to resistant communities, which are spaces, I think, where both the critique and the acknowledgement of the complexity of situations and decisions, like Amandaw’s story, which can’t signify in the structural sense, can be heard and can be significant for other women.

  5. I touched briefly on this issue a loooong time ago when I was ranting about Linda Hirshman’s fascism:

    The point… is that we must recognize a woman’s right to make her own choices, even if those choices are anti-feminist, bad for her, or just ones we don’t agree with. It is her right as a human being to live her life the way she sees fit.
    It is our job, however, as feminists to see where women’s choices are taken away from them and to broaden the path. For example; there are different-sex couples for whom the choice to take a partner’s last name is just that –a choice. But if they have sat down with their partner and truly discussed and considered all options, then they are privileged. In many societies (especially Western ones), women don’t really have a choice in the matter; they will take their husband’s name or be punished for it.
    Does that mean that I should blame my eldest sister for taking her husband’s name? Or berate my middle sister if she chooses the same? Of course not! Not everyone can be a one woman army, and it is wrong of us to attack those who have chosen the easier path. I put the blame where it belongs: the patriarchy and its sexist traditions.

  6. Just now on Twitter, @challyzatb, @meloukhia and @amndaw all helped clarify one of the problems with the structural analysis: it assumes to know, in advance, the entire significance of a choice. In fact, it says that the entire (feminist) significance is given by its capitulation or resistance to a particular dimension of patriarchy. It’s not to say that decisions about name changes aren’t inflected this way, but we miss much of the complexity of these decisions when we approach them this way; in fact, we erase those complexities. And when we allow the structures to define the entire significance, we are ceding really important ground.
    We’re also erasing the very diverse cultural histories that many women live and negotiate such decisions within. It can erase the diversity of intersections with this particular moment of patriarchy: it can erase the heteronormativity of the issue to begin with (‘huh,’ sez the lesbian, ‘such a hardship that you have to worry about such things!’), it can erase a colonialist, imperialist and racist history (‘I could do quite well without a surname actually, up until you white people forced me to adopt one so I could be made to participate in your fun family-unit-based economy and social structures), it can erase the moments in which one has been disowned, or a survivor of violence, the moments where the very nuclear family structure enforced by surnames has been the cause of great damage (see Amandaw’s story).
    The point of this is not to say that the structural analysis doesn’t matter – it really really really does, and we all need to be conscious of how our decisions intersect with it – but let’s not let that patriarchal, white, heteronormative etc structure decide the entire significance of a decision, because we erase all kinds of complexity, including major dimensions of intersectionality, when we do, and say that yes, in fact, patriarchy is the only thing that shapes the significance of this choice. That is, when we decide whether or not a decision is feminist solely on the grounds of whether or not it ‘capitulates’ or ‘resists’ that structure, we erase all kinds of intersectionality, especially around race, but also around sexuality and preferred family structures. We assume that a given woman is an abstract ‘Woman’—abstract, and thus white, straight, able-bodied, middle-classed and all the rest, erasing the complexity of her lived existence—and then assess the decision, instead of negotiating the tricksy and complicated and endlessly compromised reality that is making decisions in this world. It would be easy if the world were made up of easy decisions where there was one pure, good and politically *right* decision, but that fantasy is causing so much damage. People, communities, realities, are complex. So should be our critiques, and our politics.

  7. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, everyone. Good points coming from lots of directions.

  8. I haven’t read the thread of doom and Feministe isn’t loading for me right now so please forgive if I say something blatantly covered in the thread over there.
    I really like what tekanji said (“It is our job, however, as feminists to see where women’s choices are taken away from them and to broaden the path. “) and what WP said (whole post). Because I can’t stand the characterization of a given choice, devoid of context, as “resistance’ or “capitulation.” Look, there are all sorts of feminist or non-capitulatory reasons to change your name to your husband’s. For example:
    1) Your previous name was your father’s anyway and you really don’t see one more patriarchal than the other.
    1a) Your father was abusive and your husband isn’t.
    2) A break from a past steeped in patriarchy
    2a) You want to break from your bigoted family
    2b) You don’t want your abuser to be able to find you.
    Generalizing to all choices conventionally designated as “non-resistance,” even in the case of people whom that designation might be accurate, it hits some people with unfair harshness. Take wearing conventional makeup, for example–not even for work, but a woman who wears it every damn time she leaves the house. Anti-feminist? How about if she’s trans and it helps her pass? It’s really cruel to treat some choices as naturally or mainly anti-feminist, because it fails to take into account that the same choice serves different purposes for different people.

  9. Feministe is down for maintenance right now so I am really not getting the whole context here. But.
    I entirely agree with you that a feminist making a choice doesn’t mean that choice is neccessarily a feminist one. OTOH, I also have a hard time condemning women for their choices or characterising them as “capitulation” or whichever.
    I actually find it often ties in with ableism – that some of the choices I am expected to make as a feminist are very difficult or impossible for me because I am disabled. E.g. calling out sexist language – I have fought with myself about this for ages, but what it boils down to is that I have a multitude of issues related to face-to-face real-time vocal communication that make *any* kind of calling-people-out very, very difficult. (For example, generally my auditory processing + formulating a response to something unexpected takes so long that by the time I could call the person out the conversation has moved on already.) There are a lot of times I need to balance the choices I should make with the choices I can make and a lot of people don’t accept this. As a result I’m quite wary of potential shaming of women’s choices.

  10. This is such a great discussion. 🙂
    I think one that’s really important here, in keeping with what WP says above, is that impossible to make a “pure” feminist choice — as though feminist choices are some sort of Platonic ideal. I don’t think that it’s possible to make an entirely unproblematic choice, especially when you take an intersectional view of feminism.
    And, of course, that’s why we need to be so very aware of the impact that our choices can have — not because we’re striving towards some sort of “pure” feminism that eliminates problematic options, but because making choices responsibly requires us to acknowledge that the choices we make are always a combination of resistance and complicity in relation to numerous intersecting dominant paradigms.

  11. When it comes to questions of holding someone accountable for the wider implications of their choices, I tend to employ a little formula that says the greater the agency, the greater the responsibility. Both operate on a sliding scale, not as absolutes, of course. Kaz, you’ve opened up exactly that issue above. Extending your example, if you’re standing next to a woman who has able-body privilege, but is otherwise like you, I would expect the greater onus to be on her to call out the sexism you hear. This also means that if a man is standing there with you, even greater onus is placed on him to do the same (the opposite of the “sexism is women’s problem” attitude which seems more common).
    While we all have to pick our battles, and I understand that we can’t do everything, those of us who have privileges of race, or class, or education need to suck it up and accept that we have a responsibility to use those privileges consciously and conscionably. (ooh, I enjoyed typing that last phrase.)

  12. I have to humbly say that you are all way more thoughtful and eloquent in this than me, and I enjoy reading what people say tremendously.
    In my first marriage, I wasn’t given a choice, not one I could survive – take my husband’s name, or be subjected to endless harassment from his family (I was 19, and not very feminist), so I took his name (I didn’t fight). In my second marriage (still together after 15 years), I took my husband’s name because I thought it was beautiful – the idea that it would have been more feminist to keep my name was constantly in my mind, but I never cared for my “maiden” (I hate that phrase!) name, and I didn’t want to keep my first husband’s name, and they were all men’s last names, so I chose the one I liked.
    (The idea that I could make up my own name did not occur to me until much, much later. I still hold that option available, just because.)
    None of those choices, however, obviate the fact that to take my husband’s name is the custom of a society that believes I am owned by the man I marry (my husband would disagree, but he’s not in charge). Choices aren’t made in a vacuum, but it helps to be made aware of all the consequences, personal and societal, of following the patriarchal naming practices, so that when someone one knows decides to do something different, they can receive the support they need and deserve.
    In that vein, a male friend of mine is considering taking his wife’s name; I think this is an awesome idea. Some of our acquaintances are making the usual patriarchally-approved noises of derision, and knowing the history and consequences of naming, I can challenge their thinking more easily. So thank you for writing about it, since it gives me more words to speak with – words I might not have found on my own.

  13. Twisty made the same point – I won’t judge you for doing what you have to do to survive in this society, because the pressures on women are just so great, but don’t tie yourself in logical knots trying to present that choice as “feminist”, either – but I’m having trouble finding the post. It was quite a long time ago.

  14. It strikes me that people are also generally and genuinely confronted by the idea that their choices are indeed constrained by circumstances that they do not generally even consider, because they are just the background noise of the way our society works (particularly with all the free market and glibertarian rhetoric flying around).
    This is true for everybody, not just feminists – does anybody you know have a life unconstrained by expectations, lack of opportunities, lack of spare time? do you know anybody who has never once compromised an ideal principle because of other overriding circumstances? – I suspect that many people who have never thought about the boundaries placed on their choices on a daily basis are perhaps confronted by the concept for the very first time through feminism, and thus blame feminism for upsetting their worldview instead of allowing the concept to raise their consciousness.

  15. I wear makeup sometimes — I think feminism is quite clear on the problems with that. But it’s complicated — because sometimes I wear it in the service of better passing as abled; it has been a consistent pattern that people ask me if I’m not well one day when I don’t wear it.
    That doesn’t make it feminist. Or disability-positive. In fact, my need to do that is rather the result of misogyny and ableism.
    But that’s what really bothers me in these discussions, often — it is not the woman who wears the mascara who is being misogynist. It’s all those people who expect it of her and treat her differently based on how she presents herself.
    I dunno. The frame just always bothers me. It feels so constrained, so wrongly focused. And as Chally said, it “focus[es] on a very narrow section of cultural significance” — it’s always about a woman changing her name upon legal marriage to a man, about wearing high heels and lipstick, about shaving one’s legs, about pursuing a career above all else, about not staying home with one’s children as though that is the default choice, etc. — and it universalizes these things in a way that makes me uncomfortable. Oh, those things are worth discussing, but the feminist ideology on them was formed in a context so small and biased that it would be surprising if the conventional feminist wisdom on the matter really holds up when we examine it within that broader frame that acknowledges the reality of all kinds of people, not only those few privileged enough to have been a part of that first context.

  16. Amandaw, first of all, thank you for giving us your story on your own blog. Apart from its relevance to this topic, sometimes it’s just wonderfully restorative to hear a story with a happy ending. Regarding your concerns about the way these discussions end up focussed on the woman, instead of the pressures on her: I think this happens in part because we are trying so hard to find ways to work for change that the question “what things do I have control over?” gets centralised. I can’t control other people’s misogynist reactions, but I can control whether I embrace or avoid offering them material that challenges them. Of course, that in itself is predicated on situations where someone has the privilege of choosing whether to pass or not. Will these discussions be improved if we keep reminding ourselves that no one should be expected to challenge more than they can while keeping themselves well and safe?

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