‘Choice Feminism’: Equal Opportunity and Gender Specialization

Picture this: Dad heads out to work in the morning. Mom stays home to care for the kids and maybe works part-time while they are in school. While Mom is home, she cooks, cleans, and runs the domestic sphere of the family while Dad earns the money needed to pay the bills. And everyone is happy.

Gasp! That sounds like the 1950s! Except it’s not. It’s 2017. And in this scenario, “Everyone is happy.”

“Feminism” is a word that has been loaded with undertones and assumptions for decades. And while critics may have a legitimate bone to pick with some of the social, cultural, and political issues that were born out of the 1960s feminist movement, don’t assume that the “f” word automatically refers to the man-hating, bra-burning ideology.

In fact, if we stopped to look at how millennial women — and men — now increasingly prefer traditional, female stay-at-home roles and male bread-winning roles, we might consider the principles of a certain kind of feminism that explains this recent shift.

It’s called “choice feminism,” and it is a term that has been adopted to describe the belief that women are free to choose the lifestyle they want, whether at home or in the workplace, without judgment. That work may be as the homemaker or as the breadwinner, or as a worker whose responsibilities are part-time in both of those environments.

The key is that women get to make the decision whether they stay in or work out of the home. And it’s a natural fit for the newest generation of parents.

In a recent analysis, researchers Samuel Sturgeon and W. Bradford Wilcox explore why the enthusiasm for choice feminism has increased among the millennial set. Citing a new report by sociologists Joanna Pepin and David Cotter, they write:

The increasing popularity of intensive mothering in the 1990s, frustrations over the stresses associated with balancing work and family, and a media and pop culture backlash to feminism in the 1990s — think of the ‘you can’t have it all’ meme from the era — made 1970s-style feminism, with its insistence on moms combining full-time work and family life, less appealing to a growing minority of young adults.

Translation: millennials, who as children in the 1990s watched the backlash by women trying to be on 100 percent of the time at work and 100 percent of the time at home, think the early feminist rat race is an exhausting and undesirable way to live.

Rather than embrace a ’70s-style feminism where everything is supposed to be split 50-50 in the home, a growing share of young adults embrace an ethic closer to matching two-parent families as they really are in 21st century America: That is, millennials may take a more favorable view of gender specialization in the family because it remains quite common in their own experience and, in an era of choice feminism, less problematic.

Just as this helps explain, at least in part, why preferences in gender roles have morphed since baby boomers and Generation Xers were young, Sturgeon and Wilcox also propose what choice feminism now provides to women: equality and gender specialization.

Choice feminism allowed women to invest heavily in their children, juggle work and family responsibilities, and maintain a sense of feminist self-respect. It stands to reason that, in the spirit of this choice feminism, many young adults support an ethic of equal opportunity for women in the public sphere even as they embrace an ethic of gender specialization in the private sphere.”

The authors also note that cultural and racial shifts in demographics may have contributed to changing beliefs in the division of labor. Today, 22 percent of young adults in the U.S. are Hispanic compared to only 7 percent in 1980.

That matters, because young Hispanics (especially young Hispanic men, who prefer traditional family arrangements at higher percentages than Hispanic women) are more likely to embrace a traditional division of family and work responsibilities than other young adults.”

But since they argue that demographics are only a portion of explaining today’s millennial views, perhaps those who gasp at traditional family structures should consider the power of a woman’s choice at home and in the workforce.

Simultaneously, conservatives shouldn’t hyperventilate at the notion of supporting feminism – at least the kind that enables women to reach their full potential at work and/or at home because their pursuit of both wasn’t foisted on them. These women have made their choices, and are pursuing their happiness.