By now you’ve heard that Sarah Palin’s making noise about a “new, conservative feminist movement,” a tent big enough to include“Tea Party feminism”, “pro-life feminism” and “real feminism” as embodied by the likes of Liz Cheney and Michelle Malkin.
All this would hardly merit more than a quick Inigo Montoya impression, if not for the fact that people won’t quit trying to make the idea of Sarah Palin Feminism happen. And if the fringe right has taught us anything over the last few years, it’s that the more the media takes your horseshit seriously, the more people start to forget that you’re completely disingenuous and/or out of your friggin’ mind.
So fine, let’s take an old, liberal feminist look at this concept before it gets too much more traction. Five looks, in fact.
Look 1: You’ve got to be fucking kidding me
In a series that begins with “anti-choice feminism,” “Tea Party feminism,” and “Sarah Palin feminism,” what comes next? “Phyllis Schlafly feminism?” “Patriarchal feminism?” “He-Man Woman Hater Feminism?” I mean, how long until theWashington Post publishes a “feminist” argument for repealing the 19th Amendment (there’s no truly pro-woman party anyway, don’t you know?), or widening the pay gap (so more men can be sole breadwinners again and more women can freely choose to stay home) or, I don’t know, reclaiming the word “chattel”?
As it is, these “conservative feminists” are erecting so many straw feminists to define themselves against, all of America should be protected from crows who are insecure about their masculinity for generations to come. To hear these women tell it, those of us who were using the word before it was cool (see Look 5) are not only anti-men, anti-motherhood, and obsessed with abortion, we are now also anti-woman. “In fact,” writes Lori Ziganto at Hot Air, “they are diametrically opposed to feminism, by it’s very definition, because their entire agenda is actually harmful to women.” (Did you know there was one handy link to the entire feminist agenda? I did not!) “This is why I now call them Femogynists and I’m taking the term feminist back.”
So, supporters of the old-fashioned, liberal feminist agenda should now be called… pro-woman in two languages? OK, I’ll take it. We might want to hang onto “femogynists,” even, just in case people like Ziganto do manage to “take back” a word they never wanted anything to do with before. And as a preemptive strike, perhaps we on the left should coin a neologism to describe self-identified feminists who oppose a Femogynist Agenda that promotes women’s right to bodily autonomy; that supports comprehensive, truthful sex education and access to affordable, reliable contraception; that seeks full equality for women of color, poor women, gay women, transwomen, disabled women, immigrant women, childfree women and atheist women (not to mention hairy women, angry women, women who just can’t find a man and women who favor comfortable walking shoes) just as much as white, conservative, Christian mothers; and that expects a government that’s ostensibly of the people, for the people and by the people to, you know, act like it. There really should be a word for people who find such an agenda abhorrent — something like “misfeminist,” maybe?
No, wait, I’ve got it! “Misogynist.” That makes much more sense. Make sure you credit me when you use that one.
Look 2: Who gets to define feminism, anyway?
“Now, there are a lot of ways in which this [conservative feminist] logic is contorted, not least of all the suggestion that supporting the right to choose represents a no-confidence vote for the idea of mothers leading fulfilling professional and personal lives,” writes Meghan Daum in the L.A. Times. “But putting that aside, I feel a duty (a feminist duty, in fact) to say this about Palin’s declaration: If she has the guts to call herself a feminist, then she’s entitled to be accepted as one.”
Daum’s got a point, sort of. There is no governing body that awards official feminist credentials or the right to use the term. And since the word “feminist” was invented, there have been people claiming it for themselves who disagree with each other, often vehemently and on numerous points. It’s an anti-feminist myth, in fact, that feminists are in lockstep on every issue and anyone who self-identifies as such somehow condones every word ever written by Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Andrea Dworkin, Mary Daly, Valerie Solanas, Margaret Sanger, Germaine Greer and Jessica Valenti, all at the same time. Of course, if that were true, then feminists would need an even higher tolerance for logical inconsistency than Biblical literalists. (OOH, DO YOU SEE? DO YOU SEE HOW THEY HATE CHRISTIANS?) In reality, most of us just agree to disagree, and/or have better things to do than spend a lot of time monitoring who’s using the word on any given day. And as Daum points out, given the number of liberal women who believe in gender equality but eschew the word “feminist,” there’s an argument to be made for applauding anyone who’s willing to “drop the F-bomb.”
So, can’t I just agree to disagree with Sarah Palin – or at least to ignore her use of the term and continue to go about my business? Well, evidently not, or I wouldn’t be writing this. The problem is, words mean things. I could start calling myself a red meat conservative, or campaign for those of us who are against the death penalty to “reclaim” the term “pro-life,” but at some point, the relationship between your beliefs and your choice of words either passes the sniff test or it doesn’t. And someone who actively seeks to restrict women’s freedom calling herself a feminist is, not to put too fine a point on it, a liar. There’s a difference between a big tent and no boundaries whatsoever; if Palin’s “entitled to be accepted” as a feminist just because she says she’s one, then the word iscompletely meaningless — as opposed to merely vague and controversial. And I might just start calling myself a “right-winger” because I’m right-handed, or a “fundamentalist” because I believe everyone deserves a solid primary education, or a “birther” because I once hosted a baby shower.
Look 3: Depending on whom you ask, a bunch of privileged white women looking out for their own is perfectly consistent with the history of feminism
Of course, my take on Look 2 is contingent upon the fact that I’m still basically fond of the word “feminism” and willing to align myself with a movement that’s been exclusive and problematic from the get-go. And that has a lot to do with my being white, financially comfortable and straight – traits shared not only by most of the dominant voices in the traditional feminist movement, but the “new conservative” one. As Renee Martin wrote in the Guardian last month, feminism has a well-documented history of excluding women who don’t share them, and plenty of progressives have long since given up on the term and the movement as the domain of a few privileged women who are at least complicit in the oppression of others, if not consciously working for it.
So why is the idea of “Sarah Palin, feminist,” any worse than the umpteen bona fide prominent feminists who have promoted racism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, ableism and the ongoing dominance of only a certain type of women’s voices over the years? Arguably, it’s not. Arguably, it’s the logical endpoint of a movement long shaped by women who are but one –ism away from the top of the heap in the first place, and perhaps more interested in taking that one step up than in ending oppression all the way down. If the feminist movement primarily serves women who are already tantalizingly close to full kyriarchal approval, we probably shouldn’t be surprised when a group of women who are even closer – basically just like the old feminists, except they don’t expect the government to help anyone and aren’t fussed about bodily autonomy! – decide they’re yet more qualified to run it.
And if you find that thought as horrifying as I do, a good, long look in the mirror is probably in order.
Look 4: There’s something to be said for visibility, maybe?
Generally speaking, feminists are in favor of seeing more women in positions of power. And as Hanna Rosin writes in Slate, certain members of the Tea Party are currently angling to make that happen, like some Bizarro World Emily’s List. The problem is, they support the kind of female candidates who make us old-fashioned feminists root for men. Or yellow dogs. Or benevolent alien leaders.
But if I can argue – and I have — that Taylor Swift’s career can be counted as a win for women, even while her lyrics reinforce sexist bullshit, I should probably be able to muster an argument that getting more women, any women, into the game is a good thing. And that the natural consequence of increasing women’s access to power is increasing the access of women whose politics turn my stomach. Like, if I want to see the day when female candidates are just considered plain old candidates, and there are so many of them the novelty has disappeared entirely, I need to to suck it up and take the Palin with the good.
I should be able to construct that argument, probably. I’d just really rather not.
Look 5: If everybody’s clamoring to use the word “feminist” these days, then feminists must have done something right, right?
Speaking of Bizarro World, one curious thing about this “new conservative feminism” is that all these women suddenly want to be known as feminists. Like it’s a good thing! A desirable thing! A fashionable thing! When did this happen?
You know that saying about social justice movements that’s usually (but almost certainly falsely) attributed to Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”? Well, the person who is almost certainly not Gandhi left out a step that comes between the fighting and the winning: “Then they co-opt your rhetoric.” We’re already used to hearing conservatives talk about choice and equal opportunity and fiscal responsibility and privacy and all sorts of other shit they think sounds good, even though they don’t actually vote for any of it. And they think it sounds good because they recognize that reasonable people tend to be in favor of such things, and you still – if only just – need some reasonable people on your side to win elections.
Well, damn if that’s not what they’re doing with feminism now – which suggests they’ve finally noticed that women’s equality is something reasonable people believe in. They still won’t actually work for it or vote for it or put forth candidates who sincerely believe in it, natch. But feminism is apparently enough of a mainstream value that right-wing whackjobs want to appropriate it to sound like they’re actually interested in the good of the people! How do you like that?
Tea Party activist Betty Jean Kling told Rosin, “Each woman has her reasons for joining [the party], but I would like to believe that deep down she has a degree of pride in knowing that when she is voting out the incumbents she may be voting in a new woman with new ideas who will be really amenable to women’s rights.” Now, I’d prefer, of course, for members of a party that isn’t completely antithetical to my values to talk about female candidates and new ideas and women’s rights like that. I’d prefer to see candidates who are actually amenable to women’s rights, including the right to control our own bodies, the right to marry whomever we love, the right to health care and child care and politicians who care about the people they represent. But if they’re stealing our language to broaden their appeal, then we must have done something right along the way. That makes me one proud femogynist.