Women = Books Archive

Individualism and Choice: On Looking in the Mirror

By Lori D. Ginzberg for WOMEN = BOOKS

Posted on May 10, 2010

 

For two decades, I have taught history and women's studies at a large public university. My students are predominantly white and middle-class, and devout believers in the promise of individual choice. I have been a spectacular failure at convincing these students that their ideas about individualism and choice—which they casually assume accurately reflect reality—are also, always, historical concepts, deeply infused with what they want not to see in the mirror: their privilege, their authority, and their entitlement.

For them, as for many Americans (and, yes, for most American feminists), rights and responsibilities inhere in individuals, in choices made, identities experienced, one person at a time. They often resist the assertion that group or community interests might trump or limit "individual" rights. As they see it, advancing social justice is a matter of personal identity, priorities, and choice.

One obvious example of this: the worship of "consumer choice" among Americans, who embrace cheap T-shirts while demonstrating against globalization.

To my students, talk of group rights, or group wrongs, is practically un-American; it detracts from the purest feminism, one based on an individual women's unhindered movement through the world. It is an important measure of feminism's success that many Americans don't recognize these ideas as having ever been radical; women's individual choices are at the heart of American feminists' notions of rights.

But let me mention only one of many problems with this view. If my women students see their futures entirely in terms of freely made choices—to "have a successful career" or to "stay home with my children" or to "keep the baby" or to "marry my girlfriend"—then, implicitly, "other people" have chosen the reverse: to be poor, to be unsuccessful, to be without healthcare, to be trapped in abusive relationships, and so on.

"Successful" people's notion of "freedom" and "choice" is itself largely reserved for those of us who benefit most. Consider the "founding fathers," whose declaration of individual rights and equality was so deeply embedded in their membership in a group of white, propertied, Protestant men. Consider the current debate over healthcare and the perceived threat that reform might limit the choices some people believe they have earned.

For feminist theorists, activists, and teachers, it is essential that we address these tensions. We must embrace the radical possibilities of the demand for individual rights and then chip away at the notion that it is only as individuals that we move in, and change, the world.

 

Lori Ginzberg is a professor of history and women’s studies at Penn State University. She is the author of several books, the most recent of which is Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2009).