It’s time for another talk about the meaning of personal agency among oppressed people, because anti-feminists are still saying shit like:
- You’re denying women’s agency
- Take some personal responsibility for yourself
- You just have a victim mentality
Anti-feminists say these things because they believe that, since feminists point out the structure of women’s oppression and feel pretty alarmed and upset about it, we must therefore be people who just want to choose to be victims because we like being victims. Apparently, if we didn’t want to be victims then we’d simply decide not to be victims, because we have free choice and agency. I’ve seen this exact line of reasoning argued a ton of times from various people, and it’s bullshit. This is a misrepresentation of what feminism is about.
The best paragraph ever written about “I Choose My Choice” politics is this old gem by Twisty Faster:
“Largely because of the success of the funfeminist movement, which argues that women do too have agency, dammit! (as long as their choiciness stays perfectly aligned with male interests), to view women as victims has become passé and unpopular. Women aren’t victims anymore now that we can own property, vote, and have the right to pole-dance in our boyfriends’ apartments. Furthermore, the argument goes, if we traipse about the countryside exaggerating the sorry plight of women (when in fact the plight of women, though admittedly not quite as awesome as men’s, is at least not as sorry as it was), we’re just buying into that unattractive, unempowerfulized, hysterical “victim mentality.” We freely choose to wear 6-inch heels, and if we author this choice, we cannot therefore be victims of it. If we don’t think we are victims, we won’t be victims. You know; only sick people take pills; therefore, if I don’t take pills, I won’t be sick. What this argument fails to consider, regardless of a few funfeminists’ purported choice to choose choices, is that, hourly, billions of women worldwide suffer everything from discrimination to murder exclusively because of their sex. Women cannot choose the “I’m-not-a-victim” choice. Not even the funfeminists can choose it, not really, because when stuff like “you cannot rape me” or “my appearance is meaningless” or “the state cannot interfere with the contents of my own personal uterus” is not on the menu of choices, no real agency exists. But apparently, claiming that patriarchy victimizes women is just whiney.”
I’m going to write about what feminists and socialists actually mean by using Twisty Faster’s “menu of choices” example.
Let’s say that we all have free choice and agency. Can we choose to do absolutely anything? No! We are limited by a lot of things. For a very obvious example, we are limited by the laws of physics and gravity. I can’t just decide to jump off a cliff and fly; I would fall to my death, because no matter how much “agency” I have, humans cannot fly. We can only make choices according to what choices are actually possible. There are a certain number of things on our “menu of choices,” and we cannot choose anything that’s not available.
When feminists talk about women’s oppression, and when socialists talk about class-based oppression, we are NOT saying that oppressed groups of people have zero choice or agency. We are saying that oppressed groups of people have fewer options on our menu of choices than we should have, due to the power structures that limit what we can do. We are saying that the privileged people have used their power to limit choices that should reasonably be available to us, and that those privileged people benefit from our options being limited. This can be demonstrated with many real-life examples.
Men benefit from women’s limited role in society. Women are paid less than men, giving us less material power than men have, and women with children are often dependent on male providers, again putting them in a disempowered position. Men benefit by using their relative power to control us and get us to do unpaid labor in the home.
People with massive amounts of wealth benefit from the oppression of the working class because they have the ability to own the means of production, to pay workers insufficient wages and not provide us with health benefits, and to keep us in a powerless position. They profit financially from the work we are forced to do for them.
The power differences between privileged and oppressed groups cause tons of everyday problems for oppressed groups.
There are things that are not on women’s menu of choices that should be there. Women should have the option to earn the same amount of money as men, we should have the option to go about our lives every day without fear of rape, and we should be able to control our own fertility without being jailed for it, for some examples. Women cannot just “choose” not to be rape victims as long as we are surrounded by rapists who go unpunished for their crimes. We cannot just “choose” not to go to jail when the laws of our country criminalize us for having a miscarriage. This doesn’t mean we can’t choose anything. We can choose a lot of things! But there are some things we should be able to choose that we can’t, and this is a problem and it’s the reason for the feminist movement.
Workers living under capitalist rule cannot choose to opt out of working for wages, unless you count being homeless or in jail as other options. We cannot choose to produce what we think is valuable, instead we have to produce what capitalists want us to, even if we disagree with it. We cannot control the economic system we live under (until the communist revolution) nor can we control how our countries use our resources. This doesn’t mean that workers have no agency whatsoever. We can have somewhat of a choice over where we work for wages, and we can have some choice over what we do in our free time.
It is not possible for feminists to “deny women’s agency” nor is it possible for workers to deny the agency of other workers. It is capitalist patriarchy that removes items off our menu of choices. Feminists do not have the power to remove any items off of anybody’s list of choices, because we are not the ones who hold systemic power and influence over society. The whole “denying women’s agency” argument is a garbage argument that anti-feminists use to turn the conversation around and deflect from the real issue. The real issue is that power structures in society remove options from women, and when feminists state this, anti-feminists claim that women have all the free choice in the world and it’s actually feminists limiting women’s choices by telling other women they can’t do things. That’s not what’s happening at all.
The whole “personal responsibility” and “victim mentality” arguments are very similar garbage arguments. To argue that women are responsible for our own destinies and we just have to choose the right choices for ourselves is a straw argument designed to take attention away from structural oppression. Feminists are not saying that women should lie around helplessly just crying. Of course we should do whatever is in our power to improve our lives. Duh! That’s why there is a feminist movement, because women are using our free choice and agency to make our lives better. We’re already taking personal responsibility for ourselves, thank you very much! To argue that feminists just have a “victim mentality” when in fact, we have been victimized is basically invalidating what actually happened to us. Anyone who has been victimized has the right to name the crime and the perpetrator. That doesn’t make us whiney or hysterical, it actually empowers us. Naming the crime and the perpetrator is the first step to demanding justice. When the feminist movement named patriarchal power structures as problems, it set to work getting women the right to vote, to work outside the home, to divorce, and to control our fertility, so that we could dismantle the power structures that were oppressing us. Radical feminists today are working on criminalizing pimps and johns and stopping the transgender community from taking away women’s rights. These are the current items on the agenda to continue to liberate women. Naming the problem and being outraged over it does not make us professional victims for fuck sake. We are brave, hardworking women and we’re not taking this shit lying down.
I’m going to provide some examples from my own life in regards to the intersection of agency and oppression. I am a white woman in a rich country who could be described as “lower middle class.” I graduated from university but I am in a lot of debt and will probably never own my own house. I am a worker living under capitalist rule and therefore am obligated to work for wages. I consider this oppression because I have no choice, and having to work for wages severely limits my personal freedom. However as a university-educated citizen of a rich country I have it better than most of the world’s workers. I have a clean, safe environment to work in, I have reasonable hours per week to work, I have a decent salary and health benefits. On a global scale, this is very lucky. (And by the way, thanks to the labor movement!) Many of the world’s workers are forced to work long hours in unsafe environments for very little pay, and the fruits of their labor comes to rich countries where I am one of the people to benefit from it. I can see where I am oppressed and where I am privileged, and I don’t spend all my time being angry about oppression, I also spend some of my time being grateful for the areas in life where I am lucky.
I’m in a country where women can vote, own property, drive, work outside the home, control our fertility, wear whatever we want, and choose who we marry. In these ways, we are lucky. However, there is still a flourishing sex trade, women and underage girls are being bought and sold for rape; sexual assault, sexual harassment and rape are still happening because men are still getting away with it, and there is still a pay gap. I use what “free choice” and “agency” that I do have to do whatever I can to help women, which sometimes means donating money to survivors of prostitution who are campaigning for abolition, sometimes it means bringing radical feminists together to support each other and learn from each other, and it also means blogging so that I can get the word out there to whoever is reading. I don’t have much power but I do what I can.
I have had bad things happen to me in life, and I always overcome them in any way I can. When I’m being treated like shit at a job I get a new job, and when I’m depressed I go to therapy. I don’t spend all my time thinking about women’s oppression because that would indeed be depressing. I have hobbies that make me happy and I spend plenty of time hanging out at home enjoying time with my partner. When someone claims I have a “victim mentality” or that I’m making myself sick by focusing on the negative all the time, they are entirely full of shit. I do have depression and anxiety, but thanks to my free choice and agency and my consistent habit of taking responsibility for myself, I have arrived at a place in my life where I can live without antidepressants and manage my mental health with non-medical means. I know how to balance social-justice activism with self-care so that I don’t burn out.
There is a new-age idea floating around that you can “choose how you react to things” and that you essentially create your own reality by thinking the right way (i.e., if you think positively, you’re reality will be positive.) This sounds good on the surface but it’s totally unrealistic for people who have material disadvantages in life. A worker forced to work in a sweatshop due to having no other options can’t just “think positively” and suddenly have better working conditions. A woman being trafficked by pimps can’t just “think positively” and all of a sudden her pimp will set her free. A child being abused by an adult can’t just “think positively” and that will end the abuse. A black man in America can’t just “think positively” and expect not to be shot by racist whites. A gay person in a country that criminalizes homosexuality can’t just “think positively” and expect to stay safe. In fact, to imply that any of these people’s misery is a result of their own faulty behavior or thinking is victim blaming. It’s removing responsibility from the actual perpetrator and placing it on the victim. It’s highly offensive and disgusting to blame victims for what perpetrators do to them.
There is only one situation in which “thinking positively” is a reasonable way to improve your situation, and that is a situation in which you have no material disadvantages in life and your only misery is in repeated thoughts that are truly more negative than your real situation warrants. Then, yes, think more positively. But “thinking positively” does not change anything in material reality and it doesn’t overturn systems of oppression.
I think the real reason so many people have taken to believing that we create our reality with our thoughts is because it allows them to feel they have some control in a world that is completely out of control. It’s a drug-free sedative, where you use your own beliefs to calm yourself down and tell yourself that everything is okay. But material reality continues to exist, regardless of what we think about it. For oppressed people, oppression doesn’t go away no matter how we decide to frame it.
Radical feminists are strong enough to face the reality of male violence against women, without using any defense mechanisms to pretend it’s not really there. We are strong enough to use what free choice and agency we have to fight back in any way we can. We are not identifying with victimhood; rather, we are refusing to be victimized any longer. In all my years as a radical feminist I’ve never witnessed any feminist just claiming victimhood for no reason or wallowing unnecessarily in misery. I’ve definitely witnessed a lot of men claiming victimhood where there truly is none, for example, when they claim to be oppressed by cupcakes and other such nonsense. There are a few female “special snowflakes” who claim victimhood for silly reasons too, but they can’t be described as feminists. I do not think it’s okay for anyone to claim victimhood just for the sake of being seen as a victim, and I’ve called people out on this before. That’s not what feminism is at all—that’s just special snowflakery and it’s not radical politics.