The 'Choice' Generation

"You can bake your cake and eat it, too!" declares Julia Roberts, playing bohemian Wellesley art-history professor Katherine Watson in the period chick flick "Mona Lisa Smile." She eagerly proffers an armful of law-school applications, standing on the doorstep of the imposingly tony house where Joan (Julia Stiles), one of her best students, resides. But it's too late, Joan replies. She has eloped, and now that she has her M.R.S., she won't be getting that law degree after all. "This is my choice," she says earnestly.

Joan's character, like most of the others in the film, is written so flatly that it's impossible to tell whether we're expected to believe her. But the filmmakers clearly meant for women in the audience to breathe a sigh as we watched Roberts's signature grin crumble on hearing the news -- a sigh of pity for those poor, repressed Wellesley girls, and a sigh of relief that women today are free of such antiquated dilemmas as having to choose between work and family.

Fast-forward 50 years, however, and the media is full of stories of real-life Joans: intelligent, ambitious women, educated at the country's top schools, trading in their M.B.A.s and Ph.D.s for SUVs with car seats. Sylvia Ann Hewlett claimed to have revealed an epidemic of "creeping nonchoice" in her much-publicized 2002 book, "Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children," while Lisa Belkin last year tagged a related trend "The Opt-Out Revolution" in a New York Times Magazine cover story. While Hewlett profiles high-powered women who "chose" to put their careers first and postpone childbearing, only to find out their ovaries didn't get the memo, Belkin focuses on impeccably credentialed younger women preempting the challenges of balancing career and family by dropping out of the rat race soon after it begins.

Neither writer bothers to examine the ways in which decisions to work or stay home are rarely made solely as a function of free will, but rather are swayed by underlying socioeconomic forces. But both Hewlett's book and Belkin's article do illustrate something crucial -- namely, the deep, complex and uneasy relationship between the ideology of feminism and the word "choice."

The significance of "choice" in the feminist lexicon has fluctuated over time and with the various priorities of feminist movements, but for the past 30 years, it has been most strongly associated with abortion rights. Indeed, since the mid-'80s, "choice" has all but eclipsed "abortion" in the ongoing discourse about reproductive rights.

In "Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Shapes Adoption, Abortion, and Welfare in the United States," historian Rickie Solinger traces the evolution of "choice" in the context of reproductive rights back to Mother's Day, 1969, when the National Abortion Rights Action League (recently renamed NARAL Pro-Choice America) held its first national action, calling it "Children by Choice." These rallies gave NARAL an opportunity to market-test "choice" as the movement's new watchword. After Justice Harry Blackmun repeatedly referred to abortion as "this choice" in his majority opinion in Roe v. Wade, writes Solinger, "choice" was cemented as "the way liberal and mainstream feminists could talk about abortion without mentioning the 'A-word.'"

Wary of alienating moderate supporters by claiming that women had an absolute right to abortion, movement leaders adopted a more pragmatic rhetorical strategy. "Many people believed that 'choice' -- a term that evoked women shoppers selecting among options in the marketplace -- would be an easier sell," writes Solinger.

Substituting "choice" for "rights" as both a legal framework and a common language indeed proved successful in attracting some libertarians and conservatives to vote for the "pro-choice" position in numerous state-level abortion contests during the '80s. Because "choice" is, in essence, an empty word, people with vastly divergent political viewpoints can be united under its banner. In retrospect, this is both the word's greatest strength and its ultimate weakness. As various constituencies brought their own political prerogatives and definitions of "choice" to the negotiating table, parents, physicians, husbands, boyfriends, and religious leaders all came to be included as rightful participants in decision-making process, significantly weakening the idea that women have a right to make this decision on their own.

Solinger identifies the linguistic shift from abortion rights to "the individualistic, marketplace term 'choice'" as deeply problematic, on both a philosophical and a practical level. The word's primacy in the arena of reproductive rights has slowly made the phrase "It's my choice" synonymous with "It's a feminist thing to do" -- or, perhaps more precisely, "It is antifeminist to criticize my decision." The result has been a rapid depoliticizing of the term and an often misguided application of feminist ideology to consumer imperatives, invoked not only for the right to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy, but also for the "right" to buy all manner of products marketed to women, from cigarettes to antidepressants to diet frozen pizzas.

You can now slap a purple or pink label that says "for women" on a product and make choosing to buy it a feminist act.

The marriage of convenience between feminist rhetoric and the language of purchasing power has caused the word "choice" to lose meaning even in areas not related to abortion. When Sex and the City's Charlotte decided to quit her job, for instance, she summoned feminism in her defense. "The women's movement is supposed to be all about choice, and if I choose to quit my job, that is my choice," she tells a disgruntled Miranda, who's busy getting ready for work. After suggesting that Charlotte's "choice" to drop out of the workforce has been unduly influenced by her then-husband, Trey, Miranda hangs up on Charlotte, leaving her shouting, "I choose my choice, I choose my choice," over and over, as if to convince herself that she really does. Elsewhere in American culture, one of the newest, and arguably most controversial, intersections between "choice," consumer culture, and feminism is the latest repositioning of cosmetic surgery as self-improvement.

For many young feminists, "choice" has become the very definition of feminism itself -- illustrated by the standard-bearing right to choose abortion and supported by the ever-advertised notion that they have choice in everything else in life as well. The cult of choice consumerism wills us to believe that women can get everything we want out of life, as long as we make the right choices along the way -- from the cereal we eat in the morning to the moisturizer we use at night, and the universe of daily decisions, mundane and profound, that confront us in between. But when things fall apart, as they tend to do from time to time, women's individual choices are always to blame. "If only I had purchased that new personal digital assistant, it would somehow have given me the superhuman power to be in two places at once," we're meant to say, and vow to be more compliant consumers next time.

Now that the battle over reproductive rights is once again front-and-center of the political debate in an election year, the language of choice for women has reached a fever pitch. NARAL Pro-Choice America is now actively courting young women with a web-based "Generation Pro-Choice" campaign featuring the specter of an overturned Roe if Bush is elected for a second term. In his campaign platform on "women's issues," Kerry gets the "choice" rhetoric just right, repeatedly avowing to "protect the right to choose" without once referring to exactly what choice it is that he plans to uphold as President.

Kerry's voting record on reproductive rights has won him an unprecedented endorsement from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund; however, Kerry seems to be reaping the widespread support of prominent feminists and women's groups with only a bare minimum of effort on his part. Although he addressed last month's March for Women's Lives two days prior to the actual march, sending female family members in his stead on the day itself, by many accounts the march was as much a pro-Kerry rally as a pro-choice one.

When it comes to abortion itself, the commitment to preserve Roe does little to address the reality facing young women, whose choices are restricted, by parental consent laws, public funding bans, financial and geographic constraints and the growing scarcity of abortion providers outside of metropolitan areas. Also lost in this battle over a "woman's right to choose" are the issues such as the wage gap, healthcare, education and childcare - issues that have as much if not greater impact on real-life choices of women.

By paying lip service to "choice" in its narrowest definition -- i.e., preserving Roe -- John Kerry and other politicians donning the pro-choice mantle continue to neglect the full significance of choice in women's lives. A truly pro-choice candidate would pay attention to the underlying social and economic conditions that constrain or empower us to do much more than choose whether to bake our cake, eat it, or (ideally) both.

The perils of this uncritical language of choice are evident even in the movies. At the end of "Mona Lisa Smile," Katherine Watson chooses to leave Wellesley -- whether motivated by her pedagogical clashes with older female faculty, her reluctance to become part of the elite academic establishment, or having her heart bruised by the swarthy Italian professor who turns out to be from New Jersey. It plays like a pretty unhappy ending for someone who has spent the past two hours trying to convince her students that women truly can have it all.

Summer Wood is a frequent contributor to Bitch Magazine. This article was originally published in Bitch.

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