The wage gap and the problem of “choice” feminism

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, May 1, 2012 12:44 EDT
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I’m guessing most of you have seen the video of Alex Castellanos trying to win an argument on “Meet the Press” with Rachel Maddow by all but saying, “It’s so cute when you ladies have opinions like you were people. Now go make me a sandwich.” No, seriously, he said, “I love how passionate you are. I wish you were as right about what you’re saying as you are passionate about it. I really do.” But that hardly captures the “women are so cute when theyr’e mad!” tones he took in a bid to put her in her place before she did that thing she does, that unfortunate thing where she reminds you that you’re entitled to your opinions but not to your facts. 

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The whole thing is kind of mind-boggling. If Romney’s people want to kill this “war on women” narrative, they should probably stop acting like outrageous sexists every chance they get. You know, it might help. In addition, Castellanos tries to argue that if you could pay women 25% less, employers would only hire women and make huge profits, an argument that suggests he believes the only real cost of business is labor. (Considering how much effort conservatives put into fighting labor, you can see why this myth might arise, but in reality, the war on labor is less about actual cost-saving and more about an ideological commitment to keeping the little guy down.) But mainly I want to point out that this entire exchange, and the entire approach of Republicans to the wage gap issue, shows why there’s so much danger is women using I CHOOSE MY CHOICE to shut down any uncomfortable analysis regarding things like women’s exponentially higher rates of quitting work to stay home with children. Or even when they make seemingly just symbolic gestures towards the idea that a woman is more subservient to family demands than a man, such as changing your name upon marriage. 

The problem with presenting “choice” as some abstract concept unmoored to social pressures and therefore as beyond critical analysis as the preference of the color of red over blue is that conservatives are happy to exploit that to continue supporting a system where women are systemically underpaid. As this exchange shows, it gives them cover even to push their favorite argument for continuing inequality, which is that the people who aren’t doing as well simply aren’t as worthy. Rachel calls it the “math is  hard” argument, and Castellanos basically says, “Yep, that’s my argument.” To unpack that, what’s going on here is the argument from conservatives is that since women are mentally inferior, work outside the home is just harder for their wee female brains, and so they “choose” supposedly easier work that taxes their tender lady nervous systems less. Because of the “I choose my choice” rhetoric, they can bury this essentialist argument about inferior women in the language of “choice”, and it sounds nearly feminist-ish. Mostly, they want it to be clear there’s nothing to be done about it. They may even pretend to be stating this more in sorrow than joy, but at the end of the day, the strategy is clear: Bandy around the word “choice” to advance the argument that women are the natural inferiors of men, and that’s why they get paid less, something policy cannot address. 

There’s actually a lot of reasons for the wage gap, and it’s actually not strictly due to things that get defensively fenced in as “choice”, such as women feeling more pressure to scale back on career ambitions in order to care for family. But the problem is, with feminist help, we’ve somehow managed to get to a point where sexist pressures on women to take on more unpaid domestic labor than men are considered off-limits and certainly not available for analysis, lest you make anyone feel you’re questioning their “choice”. A lot of it is rooted in not-my-Nigelism, i.e. women’s concern that noticing their partner’s often-unintentional sexism will cause rifts in the relationship that will end it, and so they do things like make completely silly excuses for why it’s not sexist that he thinks marriage means changing your name or he didn’t offer enough help around the house after the kids were born to make your continued employment possible. It’s an understandable defensive manuever, but the problem here is that by not having to deal with minor discomfort at home, we’re perpetuating a dialogue that allows overt sexist discrimination and systemic abuses of women’s rights to continue. 

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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