Once upon a time, Sarah Palin was just a pit bull in lipstick. But speaking on May 14 to a PAC that finances anti-abortion female congressional candidates, Palin not only called herself “feminist” but praised the “emerging, conservative feminist identity” and the “pro-woman sisterhood.” (Never one to miss an opportunity to inject ferocious animals into the conversation, Palin praised “mama grizzlies,” too.)
Now, it’s not difficult to understand how the estrogen contact high, which surely comes from speaking to a group that finances female congressional candidates, could give one a sense of kinship to the sisterhood. But considering how feminists are generally not considered the type of people who would require women to pay for their own rape exams, you wouldn’t be alone in wondering what the heck was going on when Palin dropped the “f-bomb.”There are, of course, many schools of thought on “Sarah Palin feminism,” but two of the big ones can be summed up by Jessica Valenti, founder of the blog Feministing, and Meghan Daum, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
But first, a little history: the words “women’s rights” generally bring to mind people working together to make sure men and women are paid equally for doing the same work, to legalize abortion and contraception so women can control their reproduction, to allow lesbians to marry each other, or help female victims of rape, incest and domestic violence. But other groups claim they are truly the ones with an interest in women’s rights. Groups like the conservative Independent Women’s Forum, for example, or the more of-the-moment “Tea Party” activists, often claim that feminists like me are actually belittling women by casting them as victims.
Evoking these “so-called conservative feminists,” Valenti minced no words asking why Palin and her ilk aren’t “laughed out of the room” when they apply the same label to themselves as, say, Gloria Steinem, bell hooks, Sojourner Truth or Kathleen Hanna:
” … of course, Palin isn’t a feminist — not in the slightest. What she calls ‘the emerging conservative feminist identity’ isn’t the product of a political movement or a fight for social justice. It isn’t a structural analysis of patriarchal norms, power dynamics or systemic inequities. It’s an empty rallying call to women who are disdainful of or apathetic to women’s rights, who want to make abortion and emergency contraception illegal, who would cut funding to the Violence Against Women Act and who fight same-sex marriage rights.”
Valenti accuses Palin of “fake feminism,” co-opting the term “feminist” to obscure what the term has traditionally meant. But why would Palin do this instead of avoiding the “f-word” altogether? “If you believe women have made it, you’re not going to fight very hard on their behalf,” Valenti explained. And considering Palin belongs to a political party that is anti-abortion, which does not support same-sex marriage, which advocated abstinence-only sex education, etc. etc., it stands to reason that her and her party’s ambitions would benefit from discouraging women [and men] from working on women’s behalf. Palin, writes Valenti, is “deliberately misrepresenting real feminism to distract from the fact that she supports policies that limit women’s rights.” That’s why Palin and other “so-called conservative feminists” should be excluded from calling themselves feminists: “If anyone — even someone who actively fights against women’s rights — can call herself a feminist, the word and the movement lose all meaning.”
L.A. Times columnist Meghan Daum also calls herself a feminist, but holds an entirely different point-of-view. Daum points out that even people who fit the more traditional definition of a “feminist” don’t agree with each other on every single women-related issue. Rather, what’s important is their agreement on a set of values. To Daum, these values include being able to “see your gender as neither an obstacle to success nor an excuse for failure” and “If [Palin] has the guts to call herself a feminist, then she’s entitled to be accepted as one,” Daum wrote.
But Daum’s argument has another branch to it, which is that feminism and the term “feminist” suffer from such bad PR that people don’t the term applied to themselves. So often we hear “I’m a feminist, but I don’t hate men” or “I’m not a feminist, but I think Hillary Clinton was treated in a sexist way by the media when she ran for president.” And that’s if people use the word “feminist” in conversation at all! If Sarah Palin will actually call herself a feminist, then why can’t high-profile women like Clinton, or Michelle Obama, or Laura Bush (a closet gay marriage and abortion rights supporter who wants more women on the Supreme Court) be more vocal about it? After all, the more we claim alliance to those values, the more likely it would seem that those values are valued. As Daum wrote:
“Is there a place in politics for “conservative feminists”? According to my definition of feminism, it would be hypocritical to say no. More hypocritical, though, is to not drop that F-bomb at every reasonable opportunity.”
These are two well-reasoned but oh-so-different points of view. So, what do you think, Frisky readers? Is Sarah Palin allowed to call herself a feminist or not?