Who Gets To Be a Feminist?

You Can't Own Feminism
What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Oct. 7 2010 2:03 PM

Who Gets To Be a Feminist?

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Kerry Howley.
Kerry Howley

Ideologues draw circles tightly round themselves; it is what they do, stand huddled with a fresh piece of chalk, tracing their feet, tracing the spaces between their toes. Witness the amount of time spent defining what is or is not "American." It is evidently un-American to raise taxes, to buy Chinese, or to willingly press "1" for English. There are patriotic foods and patriotic cars and patriotic pets, and if you choose not to fly a flag, well. You chose your choice. I have not yet encountered a feminist food, though attempts at persuasive definition abound here as well. At their worst, such attempts eschew extremism for the politics of the Democratic Women's Auxiliary. One is expected to support the ascendant view on health care policy and the precise configuration of benefits offered the unemployed. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act does not, to my ear, have the ring of revolution, but then the prevailing utopian fantasy of Northern Europe with better weather has always struck me as somewhat lacking in imaginative vision. A purity test that demands agreement with Section 3221, Subsection C, Paragraph 6, is a test that anyone uninspired by incrementalism will simply fail. It is a test that will leave feminism without a lineage, since feminism's heroes are actual women with idiosyncrasies and since they tend to be too interesting to be wholly consistent with even their previous selves. "There is no refuge upon earth for the enslaved sex," wrote Voltairine de Cleyre in 1890, "Right where we are, there we must dig our trenches, and win or die." But then, at various times in her life, de Cleyre also wanted to end marriage, dissolve the government, and destroy the money supply, views rarely found on the good-feminist checklist. Elaborate definitional demands don't create radicals so much as push them into the arms of others. If the feminists won't have de Cleyre, the anarchists surely will.

I have at times in my life been called "feminist," and not always kindly. There is a look people get, a tightening of the mouth and slight rise in the eyebrows—ah, yes, you people. It's the look of someone who thinks he knows precisely what he is dealing with. Why it would be in feminism's interest to prove him right, I have no idea.—Kerry Howley

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Kerry Howley is a senior editor at the literary magazine Defunct and an arts fellow at the University of Iowa's literary nonfiction program.

Katie Roiphe.
Katie Roiphe

I think the question of whether or not Sarah Palin should be "allowed" to be a feminist is a bit beside the point. What is interesting is the question behind the question: Who is it that does this "allowing"? What does it mean to be "not allowed"? I don't like Sarah Palin any more than the next registered Democrat, but I think the idea that she should somehow be cast out of feminism is revealing of the narrower vision of the movement and its uglier, more cliquish instincts. I am wary of the kind of feminism that views itself as an exclusive club, that provides at the door a checklist of beliefs and requires of all members a mind-numbing blandness and sameness. I admit I write this as someone who herself would not be allowed into the club for the occasional rogue view, but I am suspicious of a movement that wants to dictate a checklist of ideology, that wants to project into the world a party line of acceptable beliefs. Instead, to be vibrant and strong and relevant, feminism should include people with disparate and conflicting views; it should have room for Mary Wollstonecraft, and Emma Goldman, and Camille Paglia, and Christina Hoff Sommers. It should have room for those who are, for instance, pro- and anti-choice. Once we start itemizing: She is allowed, she is not allowed—admittedly a schoolyard instinct women seem to love and don't ever really outgrow—we have to ask who gets to choose? Who will make that list, and where will it end? Instead those feminists who are so incensed at this incursion on their territory should take a step back and look at the big picture. Remember how disturbing it was to left-leaning people when politicians were tarred with the phrase "card-carrying liberal," how distressing to the right minded that the word liberal itself should be such a slur, such a damning condemnation? Here we suddenly have the opposite problem. Everybody wants to be a feminist. Everybody is clamoring to be a feminist. The word is suddenly desirable, appealing to vast swaths of the country, a selling point. Isn't it a sign of the enormous success, of the amazing achievement of the revolution, that someone like Sarah Palin wants to call herself a feminist; shouldn't those feminists busy barring the gates, and battening down the hatches, be pleased that the word itself is so politically valuable, across the spectrum, that Sarah Palin wants to claim it, too? There, surely, is all the evidence we need of the transcendent historical power of feminism. Sarah Palin is a feminist!—Katie Roiphe

Katherine Mangu-Ward.
Katherine Mangu-Ward 

When people use the word "feminism" in casual conversation, they mean something like this: Ladies are pretty OK, you know? They're more or less as smart and competent as men. They deserve to own property and make contracts and vote and stuff. And they're sometimes good for things other than having babies.

If you were born into the American middle class after, say, 1950, you are almost certainly this kind of feminist. The term is so widely used as to seem nearly meaningless in certain social settings. It retains a specific function only because this view doesn't happen to be typical of attitudes about women held by most people for most of human history.

But when Sarah Palin calls herself a feminist and a variety pack of pundits and activists from around the nation freak out, they're not talking about this definition. They're talking about a more technical, politically charged use of the term. To call oneself a feminist in this context requires a certain set of opinions on abortion, social justice, sexual-harassment laws, equal pay, contraception, and a whole host of other contentious issues. Specifically, the opposite of the opinions Sarah Palin happens to hold.

Palin has obviously chosen to refudiate the second definition while remaining fiercely attached to the word itself. That fervent attachment alone sets her apart from most people who call themselves feminists. Because use of the term has become so commonplace, most women don't feel terribly strongly about it one way or the other. An informal poll of the women on my Google chat list suggests that the people who had the strongest feelings about this debate were conservatives or libertarians, ladies who felt that someone else disapproved of their use of the term to describe themselves. They suggested that they had to "fight" to be considered feminists, which made them want to use the word more, even though they had qualms about the political connotations. Those who didn't consider themselves feminists were aware that they were reacting against an overwhelming mainstream consensus that reasonable people must be feminists and chose to eschew the label because the word's political attributes overwhelmed its more casual usage in their minds.

Why do so many people on the left and right want to describe themselves as feminists, even when the term comes with so much baggage? Perhaps because feminists are on the side of right in history. Enshrining equal rights for women in the law and according them social and professional respect was a crucial step toward becoming a truly civilized society. The precise boundaries of those rights and that respect remain up for debate, but people—even right-wingers—want to identify with feminists the way current residents of Northern Virginia want to identify with the Union in the Civil War. Feminists, even at their bra-burning, hairy-pitted worst, are still the good guys (or gals). And we all see ourselves as good guys. Even Sarah Palin.—Katherine Mangu-Ward

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason magazine.

Dahlia Lithwick.
Dahlia Lithwick

I am not prepared to announce a categorical rule for who gets to be called a feminist. It sounds too much like the rules about who gets to be called a good mother or a real woman, and such rules always obscure more than they clarify. I am also not prepared to rope out whole categories of women who happen to oppose abortion as bad feminists.

That said, I can't agree that simply temporizing about female power makes you a feminist. The project is and has always been about empowering women not only through cheerleading but with laws and policies that benefit all women. At minimum, it's hard to imagine a feminist who advocates that women should be subordinate to men, should earn less than men, should be respected less than men. That probably takes Phyllis Schlafly out of my big tent. I would think that by the same token, feminists would want better education and health care for their families, but reasonable people can differ as to whether government is best-suited to provide those things.

Feminism to me means equality for all women and regard for women's choices. It means respecting the feminists who came before you and working your butt off for the ones who will follow. Some of the great feminists I know are men. It has less to do with gender or politics than with the sense that none of us can do this alone.—Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick is a senior editor at Slate and contributing editor to Newsweek.

Christina Hoff Sommer.
Christina Hoff Sommers

The guardians of feminist purity are not amused by the idea of right-wing girl power. Rebecca Traister and Anna Holmes, for example, recently specified that members of the sisterhood may not oppose "reproductive rights" or "labor policies that would empower American women." They should be more open-minded.

Millions of women, for reasons of conscience, cannot bring themselves to support abortion on demand. According to a 2009 Gallup Poll, 49 percent of women are pro-life. Even if you are pro-choice (as I am), it is both unsisterly and impractical to organize a "women's" movement that excludes—and often demonizes—half of the American adult female population. After all, there are many other pressing issues: embattled women's groups in oppressive societies like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Congo are fighting barbaric practices such as child marriage, honor killing, stoning, and genital mutilation. If the women's movement would drop the purity test on abortion it would find millions of Catholic and evangelical women eager to join the next great wave of feminism: the emancipation of women in the developing world.

What about the empowering labor policies? Reasonable people disagree on which practices fit the bill. Traister and Holmes and their like-minded sisters are firm believers in "bureaugamy"—a term coined by the anthropologist Lionel Tiger to describe a society in which women are married to the state. The state provides child care, medical care, and an array of welfare services, and it mandates paid maternity leave, comparable worth, and gender quotas from the sports fields to the science labs, to the boardrooms and in the awarding of contracts. Conservative feminists are unconvinced that Uncle Sam is Mr. Right. They are suspicious of elaborate big-government "pro-woman" policies in advanced bureaugamies such as Norway and Sweden and think American women are faring as well or better in the workplace. For example, the World Economic Forum Corporate Gender Gap Report 2010 reports that a far higher percentage of American women hold managerial and executive positions than of Nordic women.

Conservative feminism is pro-woman but male-friendly. If boys are languishing academically, if blue-collar men lose most of the jobs in the recession, or if innocent young men are falsely accused of heinous crimes—as several members of the Duke University Lacrosse team were in 2006, with campus feminists at the head of the mob—conservative feminists will speak out on men's behalf. The feminists now in power in our universities and in Washington see the world differently—as a zero-sum struggle between men and women, in which their job is to fight for women. But that is not the attitude of most women, whether conservative or liberal in political outlook. Men are their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons; when they are in trouble, so are the women who care about them and, in many cases, depend on them.

If conservative women wish to describe themselves as feminists, and if they offer a new model of women's empowerment that large numbers of American women find inspiring, even determined feminist bouncers like Traister and Holmes won't be able to keep them from the party.—Christina Hoff Sommers

Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Her books include Who Stole Feminism? and The War Against Boys. For more on conservative feminism, see her 2009 article " Feminism, Freedom and History."

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