Who Gets To Be a Feminist?

The Palin Provocation
What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Oct. 8 2010 7:28 AM

Who Gets To Be a Feminist?

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

Emily Bazelon.
Emily Bazelon

When the debate over whether to push Sarah Palin out of the feminist fold got going last summer, I didn't understand the fuss. In college nearly 20 years ago, as an intern for an alternative weekly, I went around for a day askig women whether they saw themselves as feminists. Waitresses, salespeople, athletes said no. I've been inclined to figure that if Palin makes them give the word a second look, then more power to her.

But now that Mama Grizzly season is in full swing, I'm feeling more protective. Watching women march under the feminist banner without honoring all the shoulders they're standing on—with the minor exception of Susan B. Anthony's supposedly pro-life stance—is mortifying. I still don't like the idea of drawing lines to declare who's in or out. It reminds me of eighth grade and seems, like so many things from that moment in time, counterproductive. But to extend the middle-school metaphor, I feel like part of a group of nerdy girls who remained forever loyal to a lonely outpost coffee shop, saving it from closing down, and even helping to redecorate. During all the lean years, the cool kids walked on by, mocking the décor. And now all of a sudden, here they are waltzing in the door, claiming the comfiest sofas and putting their feet up. I know I should welcome them. Hey, it's not my store, and the more business, the better. But I wonder how the menu will change, and whether I'll still feel at home.—Emily Bazelon

Advertisement

Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and an editor ofDoubleX.

Hanna Rosin.
Hanna Rosin

I have no institutional feminist lineage to uphold and nothing to protect. My mother was a ball-busting matriarch (and her mother and grandmother, too, come to think of it) but definitely not a self-proclaimed feminist. It never would have occurred to her that she had anything in common with ladies from Wesleyan who read poetry and let their hair go wild. From the vantage point of the working-class neighborhood in Queens where I grew up, feminism was something specific and exotic, like meals with no meat or expensive shampoos.

Last week I attended the Smart Girl Summit, a gathering by one of the groups that helped organize the first Tea Party rally. Some of the talk from the stage was the same nonsense I recall from the early '90s, when conservative women last stormed Washington, D.C.—lots of eye-rolling about something Naomi Wolf just said or about "gender Marxism" or about those ridiculous, victim-happy American college girls always going on about some kind of perceived rape. Some of it was the usual pro-life, a-real-woman-would-never-kill-her-baby kind of talk.

But then a lot of it was them just genuinely figuring a way out of the work/life, children-make-you-miserable puzzle that seems to plague us urbane women. "Liberal women have it hard because they think they have to go to an Ivy League and have a career and put off having babies," said Rachel Campos Duffy, wife of candidate Sean Duffy and a mother of six. "It was refreshing to see Palin say you could still nurture your family and be with your kids and have a career. This other way makes a lot more sense to me and makes women a lot less crazy." There, really, is what drives these women. They have always felt judged by a feminism that dictated certain lifestyle choices. Now they have taken those choices and, like Palin, turned them not into a liability but their chief qualification for office. They are doing this at a time when women, generally, in all economic strata, are pushing ahead. It is a reprise of an old, temperance-movement kind of feminism, but it's new to our time. It produces a genuinely novel breed, someone like Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, ultraconservative, running for re-election, pregnant, and with a special-needs baby at home, telling us from the stage that women "can have it all." If she'd been around in the '70s, my mother might very well have been a self-proclaimed feminist.—Hanna Rosin

Hanna Rosin is the co-editor at DoubleX and a contributing editor at the Atlantic. She is the author of the forthcoming book End of Men.

Christine Rosen.
Christine Rosen

Recently, Sarah Palin endorsed Christine O'Donnell in Delaware's Republican Senate primary. "Strong conservative women will take our country back!" O'Donnell wrote on her Facebook page. Palin routinely calls herself a feminist, prompting consternation in establishment-feminist circles. Are Palin and conservative women like them entitled to call themselves feminist? To poach a slogan from our last election yes, we can! If feminism is a commitment to empowerment and equal opportunity for women, then there is nothing in Palin's statements that suggest an opposition to it. On the contrary, she frequently encourages women who haven't been involved in politics to take action, both at the local and the national level. The feminist establishment seems to think that calling yourself a feminist is like proclaiming yourself a vegetarian—certain rules apply, rules that "Mama Grizzly" Palin evidently broke early and often. In fact, Palin's brand of feminism has historical antecedents. The matriarchs of first-wave American feminism, such as Frances Willard, often appealed to hearth, home, and children as the basis for their right to be heard in the public sphere. Today's equity feminists (among whom I count myself), draw on the tenets of classical liberalism to argue for women's equality and include women along all points on the political spectrum, although precious few survive in the feminist establishment. Equity feminists recognize that women can and do disagree about abortion, tax policy, the separation of church and state, and social-welfare programs—just as men do. And they would stand arm-in-arm with any card-carrying member of NOW to defend women's right to participate freely in American political and civic life. Why, then, does the self-styled feminist establishment get to decide who is and isn't a feminist? And why does Palin's embrace of the term upset them so much? If the personal is political, then Palin is living the feminist dream: She has a supportive husband who has managed to avoid the emasculating pitfalls of many male political spouses; she wields considerable political power despite no longer holding political office the media read her Twitter feed like tea leaves, trying to divine her plans for 2012. She has had a career while raising a family. It isn't merely her politics; other conservative female politicians such as Elizabeth Dole have espoused similar views. Two things seem to stick in their craw: her style, which is an unconventional kind of steely feminine boldness Betty Friedan meets Betty Draper—that renders old-school feminists apoplectic. And it is her obvious appeal to middle- and working-class women who are living through a punishing economic recession. Palin's message connects to women because she speaks without the condescension that creeps into so much feminist rhetoric. Her calls for a "commonsense conservative" approach to government are free of suggestions that the women she is speaking to might be victims of false consciousness. A woman who supports small government might not be someone you agree with, but she is not a traitor to her sex. Americans have often underestimated the political power of conservative women. (Remember Phyllis Schlafly?) But feminists shouldn't underestimate the appeal of a feminist message that emphasizes equity and opportunity, not gender grievances. After decades of the feminist establishment owning the term, perhaps the pendulum is swinging in the other direction. The feminism of women like Palin isn't the feminism of the past. But it might be the feminism of the future.—Christine Rosen

Christine Rosen is senior editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society.

Rebecca Traister.
Rebecca Traister

Anyone who wants to call her or himself a feminist "gets to" be one. In turn, feminists "get to" tell the self-described feminists who actually work in opposition to the furthered empowerment of women that they are full of shit.

That's how feminism works, how it has always worked. The notion that the women's movement, at any time in its history, has been some strictly patrolled, membership-based club is a fiction most often propagated by unabashed antifeminists. Any movement that aims to represent women of different colors, sexualities, ethnicities, nationalities, classes, priorities and ideologies has no enforceable boundaries. What it does have, and what it is built on, is the exchange of ideas between women of varying voices about how best to get closer to gender parity. This occasionally harmonious, often cacophonous mash-up is what forces feminism to constantly reimagine, redefine, and reposition itself. An unwieldy proposition, yes, but it's also the mechanism by which such a capacious movement stays vital, vibrant, and relevant.

Those of us who are appalled that Palin and her cohort are calling themselves feminists need to see their allowable incursion as an opportunity to sharpen our thinking and, in turn, strengthen the movement in which we believe. It is only if we don't use this opportunity to our advantage that Palin will be able to weaken or alter feminism's nature. She is forcing us to do some irritating self-reckoning but also forcing us to sink in our teeth more deeply than we have done, perhaps in some time.

While she may be a self-identified feminist, Palin's work and thinking is profoundly antifeminist and anti-woman because the policy and the candidates she supports would not help women (besides herself and her hand-picked cohort of Grizzlies) to gain power. Her work and ideology does nothing but impede the kind of health care and labor reform, pay equity and reproductive rights, that would allow more American women to get closer to the social, professional, economic, and political equality we seek. And her opposition to reproductive freedom means the privileging of fetal over female life. I have the utmost respect for women and men who personally object to abortion, but anyone who attempts to restrict other women from controlling their reproduction restricts their ability to participate equally in our democracy.

Rather than simply sputtering incredulously at a conservative embrace of feminist language and symbolism (though sputtering is, admittedly, a tempting option), this unexpected perversion of feminist ideology offers us an opportunity to question those women who nonsensically tout their pro-woman credentials: Which women, we must ask, do they intend to help gain more power? Through what political means? Does their reliance on maternity in their definition of strong femininity mean that they do not think childless women could make good leaders? It's not a matter of simply saying "You're not really feminists"; it is also about acknowledging the ways in which feminist progress helped these female candidates get where they are and questioning why they don't throw themselves behind the kinds of policy that would allow other women to do the same.

Who is and isn't a feminist is about inclusion in nothing but a conversation. The most productive response we can make to Palin and her ilk's contribution to the exchange is to keep up our side as loudly and passionately as possible. —Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister is the author of Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women and a senior writer at Salon.com.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Thanks to Mad Men, I don't have to describe the world I was born into, in which women didn't work or, if they did, generally at certain circumscribed jobs. In which their finances were controlled, legally, by their husbands. In which pregnancy was a cause for dismissal from any job they did manage to get, etc. Thanks to feminism, that world is a fascinating, and appalling, anachronism.

It's such an anachronism that it's a cliché for young women making their way in a world full of opportunities to say, "I'm not a feminist, but [add some feminist principle here]."

I dislike orthodoxies, so I don't think feminism means being a doctrinaire liberal. But I do think if someone thinks women should not work outside the home, control their finances, or control their bodies, then that person is not a feminist.

So what about abortion? I'm an ardent supporter of the right to abortion. I agree with those who have pointed out the hypocrisy of Palin acknowledging that she wrestled with the possibility of having an abortion when she found out she was carrying a child with Down syndrome, a possibility she would deny to others. However, I know some feminist women—Democrats and Republicans—who feel abortion is not just about controlling one's body but taking a life. While I disagree with their desire to impose these views on all of us, it seems counterproductive for pro-choice women to declare themselves the arbiter of who gets to be a feminist and deny that label to pro-life women who would embrace it.

But the question Is Sarah Palin a feminist? surely transcends abortion. There is the sense on the part of some self-defined feminists that being a Republican means you can't be a feminist. But Palin is not telling women to go back into their homes and shut up. Quite the opposite—she is seeking to get more Mama Grizzlies running for office and engaged in the political process. Beyond abortion, the argument against Palin being "allowed" to call herself a feminist seems to rest on the fact that she drives liberal feminists crazy.

I can't stand the fact that Palin is so unserious a person. She has no interest in, nor perhaps is she capable of, really grappling with and having command of policy issues. However, she is a self-made woman who had five children, was elected governor, and is now a hugely successful political speaker. Her own life is a feminist dream! It will marginalize the continuing feminist enterprise to say that only women who hold an "acceptable" range of political views can call themselves feminist.Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is Slate's Dear Prudence and Human Guinea Pig.

Stephanie Coontz.
Stephanie Coontz

There are self-described second-wave feminists, third-wave feminists, liberal feminists, lipstick feminists, socialist feminists, and radical feminists. So, some argue, why not let conservative feminists into the tent?

At its most fundamental level, feminism means supporting equal rights for women in every sphere of life—social, political, economic, and sexual. I can easily imagine libertarian and conservative feminists pushing for the right of women to compete on equal terms with men within the existing social and economic hierarchy. I can even accept that people can oppose abortion if they believe it is akin to murder and still be feminists, since murder is, after all, a "choice" we all agree should be denied to women and men alike.

However, since only women are subject to unintended or unwanted pregnancies, a feminist anti-abortion position would have to be accompanied by a commitment to provide women with the means to prevent conception and to offer women who do get pregnant comprehensive health care, subsidized maternity leaves, affordable, high-quality child care, nursing breaks, and paid sick days for child care when they return to work. I've yet to hear any support for these demands from Palin or the group to which she belongs—"Feminists for Life"—whose slogan is "refuse to choose."

Palin's most recent attempt to claim the mantle of feminism came in a speech to the Susan B. Anthony List, an organization devoted to electing religious anti-abortion females to public office. Anthony, a tireless leader of the fight for women's suffrage, did oppose abortion. But she also argued that the movement's most pressing task was to address the root causes that then drove so many women to resort to it: financial dependence, sexual exploitation, and husbands who forced their wives to have sex. How many of the religious social conservatives supported by this list would agree with Anthony that a woman ought not to "eat the bread of dependence" from the hand of her husband, or that a Christian should have "neither more nor less rights in our Association than an atheist"?

As I remember it, the vision of the women's liberation movement of the late 1960s was not simply to give women the right to enter places formerly reserved for men but to give men the incentive to share in the caring activities and altruistic professions formerly assigned to women. Yet as sociologist Paula England noted earlier this year, the main gains of feminism have so far been made only in arenas that are consistent with laissez-faire individualism.

Women have entered professions formerly dominated by men. But we have made far less progress toward the nonindividualistic goals of the women's movement, such as the idea that traditionally "female occupations" like caregiving should be made equally attractive to men, or that society has a collective responsibility for the well-being of children. Until we do that, we cannot answer a more challenging question than whether social conservatives "get" to be feminists: What does feminism offer working women and men who don't have the economic, educational, and family advantages of those individuals who have been able to construct rewarding careers in a society fundamentally unfriendly to family life and community solidarities?—Stephanie Coontz

Stephanie Coontz teaches history and family studies at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and is director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families. Her new book, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Woman at the Dawn of the 1960s, will be published in January 2011.

Samantha Mukhopadhyay.
Samhita Mukhopadhyay

Sarah Palin is not the first person to question the boundaries of feminism. The definition of feminism, what it means to be a "woman," and even the parameters of the women's movement have been contested since Sojourner Truth asked at the Women's Convention in 1851, "Ain't I a woman?" And an intergenerational fight within the movement continues today. Despite this push and pull, feminism does have at its core a shared set of values and we can't be afraid to claim them.

Conservative women, such as Sarah Palin, have a paradoxical relationship to the core values of feminism. "Mama grizzlies" have failed to support policy that makes the lives of women and other disenfranchised populations better. Mama Grizzly politics embody far-right conservative values that translate in policy to abstinence-only education programs, cuts in funding for testing rape kits, or amendments that protect the "personhood" of the fetus. They result in policy that hurts women's lives.

Feminism is not just about making choices. It is about fighting for people to have access to those choices, including reproductive health, jobs, health care, immigration status, clean water, food, etc. We don't live in a perfect world; we live in a world where women's lives are being harmed daily. We are tasked with protecting the parameters of a movement that can address and push for the changes we need. We can't be afraid to do so.Samhita Mukhopadhyay

Samhita Mukhopadhyay is the executive editor of Feministing.com and author of the forthcoming book Outdated: Why Dating Is Ruining Your Love Life.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

  News & Politics
Over There
Sept. 23 2014 12:16 PM Another Intervention?    Anti-ISIS airstrikes aren’t about keeping Americans safe.  
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 23 2014 10:03 AM Watch Steve Jobs Tell Michael Dell, "We're Coming After You"
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 23 2014 11:33 AM High-Concept Stuff Designed to Remind People That They Don’t Need Stuff  
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 11:13 AM Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 11:48 AM Punky Brewster, the Feminist Punk Icon That Wasn’t
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 10:51 AM Is Apple Picking a Fight With the U.S. Government? Not exactly.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 23 2014 11:00 AM Google Exec: Climate Change Deniers Are “Just Literally Lying”
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.