Who Stole Feminism?
by Jessica Valenti
Sarah Palin opposes abortion and comprehensive sex education. While mayor of Wasilla she made sexual assault victims pay for their own rape kits. She also calls herself a feminist. Delaware GOP Senate nominee Christine O'Donnell has said that allowing women to attend military academies "cripples the readiness of our defense" and that wives should "graciously submit" to their husbands—but her website touts her "commitment to the women's movement." Pundits who once mocked women's rights activists as ugly bra burners are abuzz over the "new conservative feminism," and the Tea Party is lauding itself as a women's movement.
The right once disparaged feminism as man-hating and baby-killing, but now "feminist" is the must-have label for women on the right. Whether or not this rebranding strategy actually succeeds in overcoming the GOP's antiwomen reputation is unclear (see Betsy Reed, "Sex and the GOP"). After all, Republicans have long supported overturning Roe v. Wade, voted against family and maternity leave, and fought groundbreaking legislation like the Lilly Ledbettter Fair Pay Act. When it comes to wooing women's votes for the GOP, there's a lot of damage control to do.
Feminists are understandably horrified—the movement we've fought so hard for is suddenly being appropriated by the very people who are trying to dismantle it. But this co-opting hasn't happened in a vacuum; the mainstream feminist movement's instability and stalled ideology have made stealing it that much easier. The failure of feminists to prop up the next generation of activists, and the focus on gender as the sole requisite for feminism, has led to a crisis of our own making.
Conservative women have been trying to steal feminism for more than a decade—organizations like the Independent Women's Forum and Feminists for Life have long fought for antiwomen policies while identifying themselves as the "real" feminists. But their "prowoman" messaging didn't garner national attention until actual feminists paved the way for them in the 2008 presidential election. During the Democratic primary, feminist icons and leaders of mainstream women's organizations insisted that the only acceptable vote was for Hillary Clinton; female Barack Obama supporters were derided as traitors or chided for their naïveté. I even heard from women working in feminist organizations who kept mum on their vote for fear of losing their jobs. Perhaps most representative of the internal strife was a New York Times op-ed (and the fallout that followed) by Gloria Steinem in which the icon wrote, "Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life."
Soon after, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, responded in a Democracy Now! segment, "Part of what, again, has been sort of an anxiety for African-American women feminists like myself is that we're often asked to join up with white women's feminism, but only on their own terms, as long as we sort of remain silent about the ways in which our gender, our class, our sexual identity doesn't intersect, as long as we can be quiet about those things and join onto a single agenda."
The argument was not a new one—women of color and younger feminists have often taken white second-wave feminists to task for focusing on gender inequities over a more intersectional approach that also takes race, class and sexuality into account. But this intrafeminist skirmish over identity politics took on a life of its own in the aftermath of the bitter primary struggle. By pushing a vote for Clinton on the basis of her gender alone, establishment feminists not only rehashed internal grievances—they opened the door for conservatives to demand support for Palin for the very same reason. Unwittingly, the feminist argument for Clinton gave credence to the GOP's hope that the mere presence of a female on the ticket would deliver women's votes.
Is it any wonder, then, that everyone from Palin's supporters to the mainstream media was eager to paint the vice presidential candidate as a feminist? If all it took was being a woman, well, then Palin was it! The Wall Street Journal called it "Sarah Palin Feminism." The New York Post called her "a feminist dream," while the Los Angeles Times ran a piece headlined "Sarah Palin's 'New Feminism' Is Hailed."
In much the same way Obama-supporting feminists were criticized, women who didn't back Palin were swiftly denounced as hypocrites by those on the right. Rick Santorum called Palin the "Clarence Thomas for feminists," blasting women who didn't support her. Janice Shaw Crouse of Concerned Women for America said, "Even feminists—who supposedly promote women's equality and the so-called 'women's rights' agenda—are questioning a female candidate's ability to get the job done." The criticism of women who failed to back Palin even indulged in sexism. Dennis Miller said that women who weren't behind Palin were simply jealous of the candidate's sex life, and Time magazine reporter Belinda Luscombe wrote that some women had a "hatred" for Palin simply because she was "too pretty." (My favorite, however, was Kevin Burke's argument in National Review that women who didn't support Palin were suffering from "post-abortion symptoms.") Palin even managed to divide some feminists. Elaine Lafferty—a former editor of Ms. magazine who had endorsed Clinton but then signed on as a consultant to the McCain campaign—condemned feminist leaders for "sink[ing] this low" and called feminism an "exclusionary club" for not welcoming Palin with open arms.
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