A short history of "feminist" anti-feminists.

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June 8 2010 10:00 AM

A Short History of "Feminist" Anti-Feminists

The early sisters of Sarah Palin.

Sarah Palin. Click image to expand.
Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin made quite the splash recently with her comments to the anti-abortion group the Susan B. Anthony List about conservative women reclaiming feminism, asserting that anti-choicers were "returning the woman's movement back to its original roots." Because no central authority exists to control use of the word feminist, Palin's cooption of the term caused anxious questions: Is there such thing as conservative feminism? Can you be a feminist who opposes abortion rights? Does the word feminism mean anything at all? Does merely wearing a power suit and smart-girl glasses automatically make you a feminist?

Amanda Marcotte Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a Brooklyn-based writer and DoubleX contributor. She also writes regularly for the Daily Beast, AlterNet, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter.

The invocation of the word feminist at a meeting of anti-abortion women can be confusing, but it shouldn't be. There's no real reason to consider Sarah Palin a feminist. She's just the latest incarnation of a long and noble line of feminist anti-feminists: women who call themselves feminist but also object to the existence of the feminist movement and organize in opposition to it. Feminist anti-feminism has evolved in the shadow of feminism since the days when many women adamantly insisted they didn't want or need the right to vote. And as feminism has morphed rapidly since the early days of the second wave, so has anti-feminism changed arguments and strategies, going through three distinct phases.

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Phase I:Plain Ol' Anti-Feminism

Iconic Leader: Phyllis Schafly of the Eagle Forum

Other examples: Beverly LaHaye and the Concerned Women for America, Connaught C. Marshner of the Heritage Foundation, Judie Brown of the American Life League, Janice Shaw Crouse.

Basic argument: God/nature made women and men different so they could play different roles. Women are well-suited to stay at home, submit to their husbands, and dedicate themselves to the task of supporting a man. Anything other than this is an assault on the family. Those looking out for women's best interests want to encourage women to adopt sweetness and submission in order to better catch a chivalrous husband.

Classic quote: From Phyllis Schlafly: "It's very healthy for a young girl to be deterred from promiscuity by fear of contracting a painful, incurable disease, or cervical cancer, or sterility, or the likelihood of giving birth to a dead, blind, or brain-damaged baby (even 10 years later when she may be happily married)."

Motivation: They were alarmed by a rash of feminist victories in the '60s and '70s that secured the right to equal pay, access birth control and abortion, and no-fault divorce, coupled with a stampede of women into the workplace. Young feminists, who embraced a form of sexy that involved breathable underwear and hair that didn't take much time to do, were easy to resent. Anti-feminists were able to mobilize by appealing to women who felt left out of the feminist revolution and hinting to housewives that more women in the workplace meant more opportunities for your husband to cheat.

Major victories: Overturning the Equal Rights Amendment; creating the anti-abortion movement; stopping federally subsidized day-care; stalling further action on equal pay; sending the feminist movement into remission.

Why they eventually faded: Economic necessity drove more women to work, which meant that even women who might have been sympathetic to feminist anti-feminist arguments found themselves taking advantage of actual feminist advancements. Susan Faluldi injured the anti-feminist movement in her book Backlash, when she demonstrated that many of the leaders enjoyed both professional careers and husbands who shared domestic responsibilities, even as these leaders argued against these perks for other women.

 Phase II:"Independent Feminism" Anti-Feminism

Iconic Leader: Camille Paglia

Other examples: Christina Hoff-Summers, Wendy McElroy, Kathleen Parker, Heather MacDonald.

Basic argument: The important work of feminism is over, and whatever movement is left exists primarily to demonize men and the awe-inspiring male sexual spirit.

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