I'm currently working on a scholarly piece in which I challenge the way "choice" is used in a lot of feminist writing as our go-to word for reproductive decision making. I am passionately in favor of reproductive justice, but I don't call myself "pro-choice" anymore, in part because I find "choice" to be a sort of shopping term, suggesting ease and convenience, and in part because "choice" is very individualizing.
What did you choose? Just make a choice! Well, it didn't turn out well, but that was your choice. These are ways that we put decision making entirely in the lap of a single person, implying or stating that they are entirely responsible, and entirely to blame. And rarely (ever?) is a major decision so completely individual.
Tonight I went to an event about women and business that started with a video. In this video, an unnamed white guy (an economist, I think) said that the gender-based pay gap is a myth. Yes, yes, statistics show that white women make 77% of what white men make, but this, the economist said, isn't based on sexism. It's based on women's choices. They choose to major in things that don't pay as well--like education rather than engineering. Then they choose to have kids, and they choose to take time away from work. These choices are responsible for the pay gap, not gender. Hey, ladies: make better choices, and you'll make more money!
If I were showing this video in a class, I might ask the students to tell me some things that are problematic about this economist's presentation. Here's what my students might say:
- Why do you think that women major in education and men major in engineering? Could this be linked to the stereotypes that affect how math and science are taught and marketed in middle school and high school? Boys who score moderately well in math are encouraged to consider engineering. Girls have to score significantly higher to be encouraged to consider that field.
- And should we maybe find it a tiny bit problematic that education is one of our low paying careers?
- Women may be the ones actually pushing the babies out of their vaginas, but very often in families there's more than one adult. So we might just as accurately say that men choose to have kids. Why, then, do men's choices to become fathers not have the same effects on their careers?
- We should have a look at the "choices" mothers make. Would they like to take some time off work and return? Would they like to work but recognize that they don't make enough money to pay for preschool? Would they make different choices if different choices were available?
- The same set of questions should be asked about men: what might it mean if more choices were available for folks who are fathers?
- Finally, I think my students might point out that his information isn't accurate. A recent AAUW study showed that women who are majoring in the same thing as their male classmates make 81% of what their male classmates make a year after graduation. So "choice" doesn't really explain the pay gap.