In light of the past couple of weeks, it seems that writers who bemoaned the lack of self-avowed feminists should have been more careful what they wished for. Although the debate over whether Sarah Palin is a feminist stretches back to the contentious 2008 presidential campaign, a new firestorm of controversy has erupted in the wake of Palin’s declaration that conservative women (specifically, those who oppose abortion rights) are responsible for an “emerging…feminist identity.” Earlier in the month, the issue was invoked on a more modest scale by Colleen Carroll Campbell, who pointed to growing numbers of women who “reject the false dichotomy of abortion-centric feminism that says respect for human dignity is a zero-sum game in which a woman can win only if her unborn child loses.” And the growing pack of Palin’s “Mama Grizzlies,” the women of the GOP who are “tough enough to say what they think,” are creating a media splash in advance of the midterm elections in November. Feminism seems to be the new place to be – even the Tea Partiers are getting in on the action.
The reaction from progressive feminists was swift and incisive. In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Jessica Valenti rejected the notion that Palin could successfully align herself with the feminist movement, writing,
“[Palin's "feminism" is] 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….Given that so-called conservative feminists don’t support women’s rights, how can they paint their movement as pro-woman? Why are they not being laughed out of the room?”
At Salon, Rebecca Traister acknowledged that “Feminism is not — despite the best efforts of opponents to paint it as such — a selective club,” and went on to conclude that the word will go to whoever wants it most. Her hope, she writes, is that the people who prevail will be those “who don’t want to see “women’s liberation” divorced from notions of equal opportunity and instead reframed as Ayn Rand-ian survival of the richest or most privileged.”
The third round of the debate was begun this weekend by Amy Siskind in a column for the Huffington Post, in which she bluntly declared that “[the feminist] construct is divisive, proactively exclusionary and openly hostile towards women of different ideologies. Achieving gender equality is impossible in a framework where some of women are viewed as less equal.” Instead of a “feminist” movement, Siskind said, a “pro-woman” movement should, and would prevail.
I have been watching the frenzy from afar because it seemed, well, divisive, and a little pointless. I am a progressive feminist who is consistently appalled by pretty much everything that Palin does, right down to her tweets, and remain skeptical of Palin’s claims that first-wave feminists would consider themselves pro-life, if only because it’s impossible to apply such anachronistic labels to historical figures. But while I sympathize with Valenti’s reaction, I disagree with her attempts to demarcate the boundaries of feminism. Like Traister, I think it’s impossible to make feminism a closed club – indeed, such an idea runs directly counter to feminism’s moral center. And I have always been irritated by the notion that feminists must adhere to some sort of dogma, when the movement’s short history is speckled with figures who I admire and respect, but with whom I fundamentally disagree (Mary Daly is the first to spring to mind).
But Siskind’s column piqued my interest more than the others, not just because of her calls for a new name, but because of the anger that she seems to harbor toward the feminist establishment (sans Sarah, the Grizzlies and the rest). Siskind writes:
“The feminists who are now gripping onto the f-word so tightly that their knuckles turn white, do not support women. And not just women of different ideologies like Sarah Palin. Many of these same feminists did not support pro-choice, Democrat, Women’s Rights Are Human Rights Hillary Clinton in her effort to become our country’s first woman president….As I consider “feminism” and “pro-women,” here’s my visceral reaction: Feminism feels like a trip back to junior high school full of mean girls — ganging up and cliques that exclude. I barely made it out alive the first time and I’m not eager to go back.”
Threads of PUMA pride notwithstanding (I have zero desire to resurrect the Clinton/Obama feminism debate of two years ago and am definitely not going to go there – if you have any doubt that feminists can support Obama, watch Melissa Harris-Lacewell’s conversation with Gloria Steinem about the two candidates), I do have some sympathy for Siskind’s “mean girls” complaint. There’s a lot of unnecessary tetching and quibbling within the feminist community, and I would like to see more support for varied ideas and real mentorship within the feminist movement, rather than arguments over which generation is doing a better job of supporting abortion rights.
But Siskind is off-base when she suggests that a new “pro-women” movement, led by a pack of “Mama Grizzlies,” is in order, and that’s because although I fully support the right of all female politicians to espouse any policy, however ridiculous, that doesn’t mean that as a feminist, I have an obligation to vote for them, or overlook the fact that their policies would reverse the trend toward gender equality supported by the current administration. In addition, I think the focus on abortion has gotten out of control, and I personally would like to see more conversation between pro-choicers and pro-lifers about ways to reduce the number of abortions (something that I see few pro-lifers doing, a fundamental hypocrisy that has always bothered me).
In the meantime, I wonder why we care so much about whether Sarah Palin considers herself a feminist. And the response reveals disturbing anxieties among progressive feminists about their own ability to bring “real feminism” into people’s lives, regardless of who’s using the word. At the end of the day, we can’t stop Palin from calling herself a feminist – what we can do is prove that progressive feminism will make actual steps toward gender equality, instead of moving us backward. After all, actions speak louder than labels, and Palin’s track record on women’s rights is appalling.
So where does this leave me? With Kate Harding, who at the end of her excellent piece for Jezebel, writes, “If they’re stealing our language to broaden their appeal, then we must have done something right along the way.” If nothing else, I’m happy that feminism is getting so much air time, and I can only hope that more progressives will take on the work of bridge-building that seems so desperately needed. But for now, feminism seems to be the new black, and that’s something to appreciate, albeit cautiously.
Photo from Flickr.