The promise of money for women voters served as a distraction from the policy changes to the SWC. The Conservatives led the public to believe that they could strengthen gender policy on the Hill by actually withdrawing funds from the SWC’s budget. The SWC’s increasing redundancy on the Hill was, according to the official rhetoric of the Conservatives, in service of women’s rights. Yet the promised tax cuts also served a crucial ideological function: they reinforced the view that gender inequality is alleviated through the affordance of choice to women. As long as women are allowed to select and purchase health care or child care services or so on, their supposed equality in society is ensured. What this brand of ‘equality’ meant in the long term for the SWC did not seem to be of great concern to the federal government.
The rhetoric of choice and its associated political movement, post-feminism, has been co-opted by Canadian politicians to dismantle the “gender policy machinery” fought for and set up over the years by advocacy and equality seeking groups. That said, the same brand of choice politics has arguably been employed by these same associations to protect and advance the rights of women. The reproductive justice movement has, for instance, smartly used the language of choice to advocate for legal access to abortion. The popular slogan of the movement – pro-choice –associates the choice of having an abortion with a woman’s right to manage and regulate her body. Weary of the ongoing intervention of pro-life organizations, pro-choice advocates insist that women are more than capable of making decisions about their bodies. Choice politics is arguably a resourceful strategy of resistance, particularly against discriminatory policies that seek to deny the rights of a group.
Not only an effective rhetorical tool on the picket line, ‘choice’ has swiftly become a popular catchword in mass culture. Take for example the rampant proliferation of discourses about female sexuality in media sources that are celebratory of a woman’s capacity to selectively choose her partner(s) and define her sexual identity. Female empowerment in these various cultural forms is increasingly represented through sexual autonomy.
The ability to craft an identity through the purchasing power of choice leaves women with endless possibilities. To be able to freely choose the food you will eat, the clothes you will wear, the career you will pursue, and the person you will have sex with, is empowering. Women today do not identify with a monolithic conception of ‘womanhood.’ Employment and participation in the economy has afforded women new opportunities for self exploration. The proliferation of choice has helped put to bed any essentialist categories of ‘woman.’
Yet the difficulty of choice politics is that it remains complicit with, rather than critical of what scholars have described as the subject under neoliberalism, the “entrepreneurial actor,” who is “rational, calculating and self-regulating.” Whether strategically deployed to advance women’s rights or defund the Status Women Canada agency, choice politics presupposes the freely choosing individual of neoliberal discourse. This does not mean that pro-choice advocates share the same views on women as the Conservative party. But it does suggest that both heavily rely on a particular narrative of self-hood that has become increasingly dominant within late-capitalism.
There is undoubtedly such thing as a ‘good choice.’ Being able to choose a career or among political representatives are privileges that persons throughout history and across the globe have staked their lives on. But choice politics, in its overemphasis of personal autonomy, exploits the risk of executing these choices by obfuscating the material conditions under which they were made. An “uncontextualized understanding of the ‘ideal’ of choice” risks displacing the burden of social inequality onto the individual. When we are obliged to bear full responsibility for our lives, whatever social disadvantages we may encounter are seen to reside in our inability to correctly choose. Choice politics may promise equality to all persons, yet it will consistently fail because it cannot alter the flawed social relations under capitalism, it can only conceal them.
While women’s position in Canadian society has considerably progressed since 1971, the year Status of Women Canada was established, the popular notion that gender equality has been effectively resolved has only served to strengthen the conflation of female achievement with the individualism of neoliberalism. The narrative of postfeminism, which affords women the same equality as men, has pressured women to “present all their actions as freely chosen.” As a result, women today are “required to work on and transform the self, to regulate every aspect of their conduct to a greater extent than men.” Success in the workplace, for instance, has largely been dependent upon the concealment of women’s reproductive labour. To obtain the same rights as their male peers, women have had to overcome the barriers presented by domestic work, such as child rearing. Pressured to present their labour time as infinitely flexible, women are obliged to work twice as hard to advance their careers and complete their unwaged reproductive labour. The current of individualism within postfeminism has not only de-politicized female success, it has facilitated the exploitation of ‘feminine’ labour.
Considering the ways in which post-feminism has been immersed and co-opted by late capitalist culture, it has become exceptionally challenging to envisage strategies of resistance against patriarchal oppression that do not make use of the discourse of choice. Feminist collectives and activism do still exist, but have largely been succeeded by projects of individualized and privatized self-definition exemplified in consumption choices. These projects put forward the view that women may achieve self-determination by being able to freely choose. Yet a feminist politics that valorizes individualized agency not only risks misidentifying the material sources of gender inequality, it excludes the occasion for weakness, disorganization or uncertainty. The difficulty of mobilizing feminist movements today is that women are reluctant to acknowledge that gender inequality exists, in apprehension of undermining their hard won sense of agency. The ideal of choice has reinforced the view that female success of any kind is the result of personal struggle, culminating in a dissociation of self from gendered contexts. To confess to feelings of unhappiness, frustration, or disappointment would mean confronting the limitations of our choices.
Our task is to reimagine a new mode of feminist politics that cleaves the carefully constructed myth of self-determination. Together let’s try to develop a form of critical inquiry that resists equating gender inequality with victimhood. “Gender inequality does not cancel out but exists in tension with female success.” This is not another project of self transformation or improvement. This is a collective project of resistance that will succeed and fail as one. ♦