Choice feminism (see here, here, and here) includes the idea that women can occupy traditional roles (housewife, stay at home mom, etc...) and still be regarded as feminists, as long as it's their own choice to do so and they aren't being forced into such a role by their husbands or by the society around them.

But if women represent an oppressed category, isn't this notion contradictory? Nobody would have argued for "choice anti-slavery", where it would have been OK for African Americans to remain indentured servants to their owners, as long as it was their choice to do so.

If even after passing emancipation laws, some African Americans still chose to remain indentured servants, progressives would have questioned their judgement and tried to change their mind, and their owners would have been condemned for accepting such an arrangement.

So insofar as traditional female roles are oppressive to women, why is it still acceptable for women to take on these roles?

How do feminist philosophers justify choice feminism? Or is it an oxymoron?

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    As to the philosophical position, I'm not sure, but I've met quite a lot of feminists who indeed think that women who want to stay at home are brainwashed and oppressed.
    – Lukas
    Commented Apr 13, 2017 at 21:11
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    I've heard it said that "Women have choices, men have responsibilities."
    – user4894
    Commented Apr 13, 2017 at 21:47
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    I do not believe the analogy fits. Being a mother is also a traditional female role, but it is hardly reasonable for feminists to refrain from child birth. The same goes for working, say, in the textile industry, if that appeals to a woman. While being a slave is arguably inherently oppressive, being a housewife (i.e. focusing on rearing children, which is a lot of work) seems to have been only accidentally so, namely because other options were unfairly restricted. Once the restrictions are lifted it is just another option among many. Anything forced is bad, but not all of it bad per se.
    – Conifold
    Commented Apr 13, 2017 at 22:18
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    I don't have time to write an answer right now, but the general answer relates to the autonomy puzzle -- where autonomy is understood as the difference between being rationally free (=autonomous) and being brainwashed free. And then with that when we can paternally suggest that someone's free and apparently rational (meaning they understood what they are doing) choice is not free vs. when we must admit that we are the ones imposing an idea of what people must be on others.
    – virmaior
    Commented Apr 13, 2017 at 22:52
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    @Not_Here I've heard the term used mostly in non-academic media. I've added links to my post. Even if there's no unified theory, my perception is that it is a pretty common position among lay women who consider themselves feminists. Commented Apr 13, 2017 at 23:46

5 Answers 5


Your problem seems to come about through a misunderstanding of what is oppressive about the situation.

The oppression resides not in the task but the lack of choice. Then it is much like any other life choice.

Imagine all men are told you have to work in physical labour because your physique is suited to it. Some guys currently choose to work as builders and such...but for others it would be hell and they would much prefer being a programmer, shop assistant or an artist.

We're all different, physical labour isn't oppression but saying every man has to do it is.

That is where feminism stands, we want to be treated equally with options beyond sitting in the kitchen bringing up kids...but that doesn't mean no one would want to do it.

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    No, the oppression doesn't simply lay in the lack of choice. For most of history (and in many places even still today) men lacked the choice to be house husbands and stay at home dads, yet nobody ever seriously argued that men were an oppressed category because of that. Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 15:38
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    Actually they do. Normative gender roles are oppressive to all parties. They're just more oppressive to women, for obvious reasons.
    – Canyon
    Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 16:19
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    @AlexanderSKing you appear to be conflating oppressive constructs with the structurally oppressed. On the whole women have suffered more from the patriarchy than men - hence they are structurally oppressed. But any feminist will tell you that gender roles are terrible for men, too. "Boys don't cry" has driven many a boy to miserable places.
    – commando
    Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 16:46
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    @NeilMeyer are you in fact unsure of how women have it worse in most societies? That's a long enough answered that I can't really provide it here, but we can always move to chat.
    – Canyon
    Commented Apr 16, 2017 at 0:01
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    @AlexanderSKing Everyone was oppressed. You may ask me who is the oppressor. Social ideas that were brought by some individuals. For what reasons? I don't know.
    – rus9384
    Commented Jan 22, 2019 at 8:19

Let's say your definition of the phrase 'choice feminism' is accurate. I submit that your question falls if considered under certain realistic circumstances. For one, (I assume) you are comparing the mental status and choice of a slave long conditioned to his/her position of subjugation whilst possessing little to no recourse to an alternate lifestyle to the mental status and choice of a woman who has not been subjugated or physically kept subservient and also is aware of her potential, innate worth and alternate lifestyle choices. There is an argument of similarity in that, the woman and slave were born into situations where their minds are conditioned to prefer certain things but I think the degree to which the two are comparable is so remote that it is almost absolutely unusable. I assume you are talking about an educated woman in a modern, first-world setting.

Realistically, it is acceptable for women to take on these roles because these roles must be fulfilled, whether it be by a woman or a man living alone or in a family. Someone's gotta clean the house and when we tell a family outright that "when a woman does it, the woman is oppressed", I think we are helping nobody. Also, not many people say that a man is oppressed if he chooses a traditional male role and almost nobody demands a man justify his lifestyle choice, so why are we demanding this extra bit from women ? Isn't that a form of oppression ? I've read people arguing that mens' choices aren't questioned because they've traditionally had more of them and women have had less. That may well be true in some places of the world but that doesn't cut it for me in this instance unless we can show the possible choices of a woman to be demonstrably less than that of a man, don't include trends and general statistics of crowd choice. Asking a woman to justify her choice of lifestyle while having no evidence that she is under compulsion or coercion is antithetical to the concept of allowing women greater freedom.

I also disagree that nobody would have argued for "choice anti-slavery". In fact, it could be argued that it's cruel to forbid people who have been enslaved for a long time to work as indentured servants (maybe not work for the same person but that's beside the point) because sometimes, that's all they have to move on to greener pastures or a different country. As FreeElk pointed out, the lack or prohibition of choice is the greater oppression here, not the choice or task itself.

Secondly, by telling a woman who chooses traditional roles that she shouldn't choose them or that she is no feminist if she does, we are essentially claiming that we know her mind better than she does. We are telling her that someone other than herself understands her situation, thought-process, knowledge and judgement better than she does. While this can sometimes be true, it almost never works when pressuring a free woman to commit to a lifestyle she does not want. The autonomy puzzle is solved when we consider women to be as un-brainwashed as we are (a given concession in almost all cases, I say). I think it's a little condescending to consider women to know so little about themselves and their choices while giving ourselves free rein to pronounce their positions and choices as contradictory. From a purely philosophical standpoint, we are asking women to prove their self-awareness and sovereignty of choice.

if women represent an oppressed category, isn't this notion contradictory?

Yes, if most women can be shown to reject traditional roles to a very high percentage the moment they are presented with alternate choices and understand them, your statement would hold true. As it stands, not all women are as oppressed as the rest of them and there is nothing contradictory about choosing A or B out of the alphabet of their available choices whilst claiming they are feminists. Whether or not those choices are indeed available to them is another question.

Traditional female roles aren't any more oppressive to women than traditional male roles are to men. The oppression comes when you force someone to choose something they do not want or tell them that they cannot choose something, injecting unwanted hardship that cannot be avoided. Feminist philosophers do not have to justify "choice feminism" because some of the most widely accepted tenets of feminism include seeing women as sentient, mental equals, allowing them their choices and subsequently respecting said choice. I realise that there is an argument to be made for women who are genuinely "brainwashed" but you'd have to be some sort of psychological expert to make that call. I could be wrong but I think as a general rule, if a woman somewhere is free enough to openly call herself a feminist, then there's nothing wrong with her then choosing a traditional female role.

  • w/r to the second to last paragraph "Yes, if most women can be shown to reject traditional roles to a very high percentage the moment they are presented with alternate choices and understand them..." - Your statistical reasoning doesn't hold: I was raised in a moderate Muslim community where women were officially emancipated but where the vast majority of them still accepted traditional roles because of either social pressure or their upbringing, and only a few rejected them. So your statistical criteria for determining whether it's oppression or not fails. Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 20:45
  • I think you are misunderstanding my point. I am simply suggesting a method to be used in a scenario where women have absolute freedom to choose and are unpressured. The women in your scenario are under societal pressure to choose otherwise. Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 21:00
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    "where women have absolute freedom to choose and are unpressured. " --- but that's kind of the point, even in the West they don't have absolute freedom. Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 21:19
  • I see your point but there are instances of very accomplished women in the West who have not been brought up as such, have a plentitude of options available to them and are not under societal pressure who then go on to choose traditional female roles. Would one wrong them in choosing as such whilst calling themselves feminist ? I don't think so, I think their choice is perfectly acceptable. I happily cede that it is a case-by-case thing that is nuanced. Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 21:23

I'm going to respond to the content presented more than the label "choice feminism" because a quick google will reveal that the answer to the topic question "How do feminist thinkers justify choice feminism?" is most often "they don't." The idea that any choice a woman makes is independent and inherently liberatory is seen as pretty dubious by a lot of people who call themselves feminists.

If you conflate the type of labour and the type of social relations, this is easy to be confused about. I don't think that feminists are generally arguing that women should have the option to choose to be a mother in a father-led family in the exact same context as had been prevalent in the 1950s. Should a woman let her husband make a lot of decisions, I believe that this is supposed to come from the fact that she trusts him to do so, but critically she also holds the right to withdraw this trust, and her husband does not have the right to enforce his will on her. Effectively, the view is that the social relations are oppressive because they insert a lot of coercion and imbalance in power into marital relationships. (You could argue that this sort of coercion and power imbalance is what marital relationships have historically been in a lot of places, but that doesn't exclude their reinvention as a possibility, does it.) So rather than think about it as "being a housewife is oppressive OR NOT", I would suggest that you look at the role in two parts: 1. The work that is being done. 2. The social relations that govern that work. Feminists, generally speaking, argue that the work done by stay at home mothers is critically important to our society and is undervalued. It's often unpaid or underpaid compared to similar work despite the comparison to similar types of labour. It's suggested that this is because women are socialised to do this work for free from a very young age; they are made to feel that it's an obligation to their family, and so even women who are working outside the home most of the time feel responsible for it, and pour their out of work hours into housework instead of leisure. (I think that this is particularly true of the professional woman of my mother's generation, who were raised in the 1960s and 70s.) But basically human society needs new humans and shelter and food to continue existing (just as it needs many of the various other kinds of labour.) And it's not unskilled labour either - a lot of self-funded training generally goes into becoming a parent. When men do this work and therefore their labour is also undervalued, this is also considered oppressive. Men who cross the gender divide in labour have often been seen as a disappointment to their fathers; they're undermining the system of patriarchy by failing to act by its system of values.

On the other hand, feminists also argue that the conditions under which this work has been done are oppressive. Many people have different ideas about how and why it is oppressive. One of the big parts of this is patriarchal control over the family; often people are kept in their gender roles by violence or implied violence (be it psychological or physical, economic or social) from the father figure who is at the head of the family, and upon whom the others are economically and socially dependent. This is not to say that every dad is a violent man, but rather that if you disobey your father or husband , it has historically been the case (and often still is) that violent things will likely happen to you such as homelessness, the severing of significant social ties, etc. Less so these days, thank god. Or more accurately, thank you feminists.

HOWEVER, I would strongly caution against viewing feminists as a homogeneous group of people who can be addressed as a whole, especially talking about details. Like most very large groups of people, there's a lot of disagreement, and difference in justifying things within feminism as a whole, and you would do better by asking questions about the work of a specific feminist author, or at least a specific subset of feminists. Like, you can't ask how all analytical philosophers or all post-structuralists justify some thing, so why would you be able to do so in the case of feminist thinkers.

  • I would only add two things to this answer. First, all three of the links @Alexander-S-King provided were to criticisms of choice feminism. In my experience the term "choice feminism" is pretty much only used as an epithet — no one identifies themselves as a "choice feminist." Second, the closest thing to choice feminism that you might find among professional philosophers would be certain varieties of libertarian feminism. Christina Hoff Sommers' views are a good example; libertarian feminism is not a popular combination.
    – Dan Hicks
    Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 1:18

If even after passing emancipation laws, some African Americans still chose to remain indentured servants, progressives would have questioned their judgement and tried to change their mind, and their owners would have been condemned for accepting such an arrangement.

“Choice slavery abolitionism” … well, there are obviously tons of arguments against it, but it simply isn't inherently inconsistent. Why shouldn't you be able to voluntarily sell yourself into slavery? It's just a very radical brand of libertarian thought.

Somebody can still support the right to self-enslavement but be against involuntary enslavement and against any legal maneuvers that could make somebody be born a slave (that is, any contract which would stipulate that the children of the self-enslaved individual would also be property of the slave-owner, would be null and void – because you can't make contracts in which you place other people under an obligation).

Since “choice slavery abolitionism” isn't inherently inconsistent, why should be choice feminism? So your analogy lacks force because the comparandum doesn't have the properties you assume. The arguments against choice feminism have to be based on independent grounds (and they are probably much, much less convincing than the arguments against “choice slavery abolitionism”). At most you've shown that choice feminism is not a progressive position – duh!

So insofar as traditional female roles are oppressive to women, why is it still acceptable for women to take on these roles?

How do feminist philosophers justify choice feminism? Or is it an oxymoron?

It may be unnecessary or rather it has achieved all of its goals. Feminism rarely concerns itself with legal rights anymore – because in Western democracies there are no civil rights that women lack and men have. But it's not an oxymoron. It maybe could become an oxymoron if you define feminism as a “fighting against social norms that oppress women” – but in this case your slavery-analogy isn't very illuminating. Abolitionism was overwhelmingly about legal rights, not about oppressive social norms.

  • This sort of 'choice slavery abolitionism' did really exist. Most folks involved approved of the practice of sharecropping after abolition. Most freed slaves chose lives very much like they were used to, just on a different legal basis more similar to the white poor -- rotating 'feudal' debt rather than being owned. This was still oppressive, but only in ways that some white folks were already oppressed. But one could also argue that forcing them to make a larger change against their will would have been be more oppressive.
    – user9166
    Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 17:10

NOW paid for legal suits to drop the draft. They continue this kind of work. It was/is gender oppression. And they once saw the end of this obviously gender-based oppression of men as a class as lying near enough to the core of feminism that they invested in it openly.

There is a long thread in feminism that does not see women as the only ones oppressed by patriarchy. If women are not the oppressed class, then no particular aspect of only the position of women can be a part of the central problem. Period. So there is no productive role, when approached appropriately and freely, that is in itself intrinsically oppressive. Some extend this to rather ludicrous extremes. But they are not entirely wrong.

To imagine that being a housewife is intrinsically oppressive would require that being a soldier is too. Nobody wants a world where only women can be military leaders, or where only men can be released from economic obligations and focus on their homes. Just as we cannot mandate that every soldier have children, we cannot mandate that every mother have a job.

This notion that everyone needs to move to a middle ground where they combine family and work in a given way is not feminism, per se. It is a single solution, and not a very well considered one. It pushes into the economic sphere forms of labor that should not be subjected to the judgment necessary for economic quality: childrearing, care of the dying, religious duty, etc. One could claim that the incidental cruelty of modern agriculture proves this is true to some degree even of gardening and farming. This trend optimizes the ability of corporate, economic influence to extend more deeply and into our lives and to reshape our interpersonal connections and affectional lives more to its own liking.

This state where everyone is financially embedded all the time for the vast majority of their lifetimes is not new, and it is not being newly introduced to women. Women at the rising edge of the lowest social class have always worked for money (or worked for others without involving money, as in tenant farming) on parallel tracks with their men, and sometimes right alongside them, in ways the higher classes could not understand.

From a different view of patriarchy, that from pacifism, next to artificial war insinuating the elements of martial law into our culture, this is just the model that gives economics the most power over our lives. So it is being pressed upon us as the logical solution to patriarchy by an excessively powerful economic system. All previous productive roles are still viable and useful, and we need for those called to them to work to maintain them.

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