What Sarah Palin Says About Feminism

First of all, calm down: Sarah Palin didn't say anything about herself and feminism (yet). But the phenomenon of Sarah Palin does say some things about feminism to a lot of people (including me).

Although Palin later recanted after calling herself a feminist and conservative women cheered, I — like other feminists — thought that was sort of an amazing thing. As Kathy Spillar told me in our interview, "The fact that Sarah Palin felt it necessary to identify as a feminist, after so many years of feminism being disparaged by conservatives, that was a win for us." Cath Elliot, writing for The Guardian sees it similarly:

Ask any young woman who spits out "feminism" like it's a dirty word if she genuinely believes herself, to be inferior to men, and therefore less deserving of rights than those gifted with a male appendage at birth, and the chances are she'll scoff and tell you not to be so ridiculous. We may not have overthrown the patriarchy just yet, or managed to sell feminism as a badge to be worn with pride, but at the very least we've managed to imbue in the majority of women the sense that we're as entitled to the same freedoms and opportunities as the rest of the human race. So whether they call themselves feminists or not, women aren't about to go quietly back into the kitchens anytime soon; and as for accepting the second-class citizenship status our grandmothers and great-grandmothers had to endure, those days are long gone.

When even the new archetype of female conservatives self-identifies as a feminist, is it long before feminism isn't a dirty word?

Amanda Hess at the Washington City Paper
thinks it's not, and that it's a bad thing that it won't be.

Palin killed “feminist” not by altering the meaning of the word—its meaning has never remained consistent in a century of use—but by eliminating its taboo. Whatever “feminist” meant, it was a strong, scary term, one often prefaced with “man-hating” and followed by “bitch” and/or “Nazi.” Its power as insult was matched only by its usefulness as a community-shaping litmus test. If you would self-identify as a feminist, with all its negative connotations, you proved your commitment to the women’s movement; if not, you were part of the problem. In some respects, feminism was justified by its vile reputation: If the very name of the movement scared people, it meant that it was still relevant.

Many things besides Palin's usurpation of the term have been cause for thought and discussion among feminists this year about what being a feminist means, and what feminism is and will be. Is it to be a movement for women? Can men be a visible part? Does it require that one be pro-choice? Anti-religion in the public sphere? Is it about electing women regardless of her position on issues?

Laura Harrison McBride at the Washington Examiner has a hilarious answer to that last question, which can be shortened to "No!" but really shouldn't be.

There are many forms of feminism, but I doubt that any of them include toadying to men, or, for that matter, toadying to women. I suspect a feminist shouldn’t toady at all, being certain of her own value as a woman/person.

(Go read the rest of it, by the way, it's completely awesome)

More magazine asked three prominent female conservatives to talk about how Sarah Palin's supposed feminism has changed the conservative movement and, I think, there's a lot there from which liberal feminists can take some heart — not the least of which is that, as Cath and Kathy said, there's no longer a mainstream debate within the political conservative movement about the equal role of women in the public sphere. Lisa Schiffren writes:

At one rally, voter Tammy Hawkins waited four hours with her daughter and niece to hear Palin speak. She told a news reporter, "We wanted the girls to see a fine, upstanding Christian woman with five kids and a good career. We just wanted them to see you can succeed."

If you are a pro-woman woman — even one who is secular, urban, and liberal — those words should make you rejoice. Knowing that conservative, evangelical Christian women want their daughters to see such a role model tells us that feminism, in its best sense, has won its central battle. And it tells us something about the future: Starting now, women have been liberated from having just one model for success.

It's not a bad thing for little girls to see role models, or for even extremely Christian women to want their daughters to be like Sarah Palin, if Sarah Palin stands for a more palatable iteration (to them) of a self-identified feminist woman who is taking advantage of the choices that feminism brought to her.

Cathy Young sees it in even more stark terms:

And yet the Palin moment will likely have a positive legacy. Her candidacy may have forever remade social conservatism in a more feminist image. The right has long been ambivalent about working mothers; conservatives from former Senator Rick Santorum to talk radio doyenne Dr. Laura Schlessinger have chided mothers who find careers more "gratifying" (Santorum's words) than fulltime motherhood. In 2008, that kind of mother became a conservative hero. The few voices on the right that rose in criticism of her choices — including Schlessinger's — were quickly drowned out, and most conservatives denounced as sexist any doubts that Palin could simultaneously mother her brood, love her husband, and govern, even at the highest levels. In fact, the stigma on working motherhood should be forever gone from the conservative roster of family values. You can't frown on moms with careers when your hero is a mom who was back on the job three days after giving birth.

If Palin's rise to superstardom in the conservative movement shuts up people feminists, by all rights, ought to hate much worse, this is definitely a good thing. Young adds:

If women and men can agree on gender equity, even while disagreeing on foreign policy, taxes, or gun control, we can do more to promote equal treatment.

While Young misses things like reproductive choice, the Ledbetter Act and increased spending on childcare in her formulation as things that conservatives and liberals will continue to disagree about, I can't deny that ridding the GOP's supposedly big tent of the voices that don't agree that we should all be equal is a nice start.

Unlike some supposed feminists, I don't think that debate is unhealthy or that there is a litmus test that begins or ends with abortion or supporting female politicians to the exclusion of feminist male politicians. Role models are good, and Sarah Palin, like it or not, is a role model for a lot of little girls being raised in conservative Christian households. One day, those girls will be women voters — conservative and likely otherwise — and if they don't dismiss female politicians out of hand as unqualified nut-cracking lesbian-ish harpies who should have stayed home and given more blow jobs to keep their husbands from straying, all because of Sarah Palin, that's a net positive.

Beware The Anti-Feminists [The Guardian]
The Feminist Mystique: How Election 2008 Killed a Notorious Word [Washington City Paper]
Feminist Ethics: Is It Ethical—And Feminist—To Idolize All Women, Even Unqualified Ones? [Washington Examiner]
Is Sarah Palin A Plus For Women? [More]

Earlier: Ms. Magazine's Eleanor Smeal, Kathy Spillar Explain The Obama Cover