Feminism and Mental House Cleaning

Monday, June 14, 2010
Every time Sarah Palin describes herself as a "feminist," I cringe. I mean, it literally makes my skin crawl that such a stupid, cynical, opportunistic shitbag has tried to co-opt a term that I have applied to myself for many years. The fact that people would consider that illiterate bonehead a leader just boggles my mind, and if I have to hear her exclaim "Mama grizzlies are feminists and so am I!" one more time, I'm going to take out my own eye with a spork.

And yet, the results of the primaries last week have given me pause. Republican women all over the country won their primaries, and the blogosphere is abuzz with feminists of every stripe laying claim to the label of "feminist" and crowing (or lamenting) about the new diversity in self-identifying as such. Being a liberal, I tend to conflate the values of feminism with the values of liberalism, and this results in a sort of proprietary mindset relating to the idea of being a feminist. The usual canards are in play - if you don't support abortion rights, you're not a feminist, etc., ad naseum.

I think it's time for a mental house cleaning regarding feminism and what it means to be a woman in this country, at least for me.

At its heart, feminism is about equality, opportunity and choice. If I do the same work and perform at the same level as a man, then I should receive equal pay. Period. If there's a job opening for which I'm qualified, both mentally and physically, I should receive the same chance to compete for that job as a man, and gender should not be a contributing factor in who gets the job. I should not be constrained by how my society views my gender (or gender roles) in terms of making choices for my life.

I don't think the first two aspects of feminism are subject to debate. If you don't believe women are entitled to equality and opportunity, then I don't think you can call yourself a feminist. The debate comes around the aspect of choice. Is the fact that your "choice" is diametrically opposed to what I would chose make you less of a feminist? If a woman "chooses" to stay home with her children rather than working outside the home, does that "choice" make her less of a feminist? Isn't the essence of "choice" making decisions of your own, without outside influence, whether than influence is the patriarchy or the matriarchy?

I personally believe that my reproductive freedom is the cornerstone of my ability to be a fully contributing member of society on the terms I choose. And, yes, that does include my right to a safe, legal abortion if I choose that course of action. But what I'm coming to realize is that people of good conscience can disagree about what constitutes an appropriate choice and still consider themselves feminists. I don't think my political views could be more different than Carly Fiorina's. But I don't think she's not a feminist. I just think she's wrong. That's a very different conversation.

So what differentiates someone like Ms. Fiorina from that chock-full-o-nuts Sarah Palin? I think it's a question of sincerity and authenticity. Like her or hate her, I think Ms. Fiorina is an accomplished woman, as is Meg Whitman. They both worked their asses off to springboard their careers to the highest levels. I respect that about them, even if I'd never vote for them.

Palin, on the other hand, did not do the work. Her launch into the public eye had everything to do with opportunism and using those around her (especially her children - there's a real "feminist" move) to feed her sense of entitlement and nothing to do with her abilities and skills (or more to the point, the lack thereof). If the essence of feminism is making your own choices and accepting the responsibility for your own accomplishments and failures, then Carly and Meg are feminists. Sarah is not.

11 comments:

Nathan said...

I'm answering this, more or less, off the tip of my tongue and without a great deal of thought, but...

I think the question of whether or not Palin qualifies as a feminist is largely irrelevant. It seems to me that she's one of many harbingers (both good and bad) of a post feminist era. Other harbingers would include the politicians you mention, increasing opportunity for women in the military, increasing instances of women in positions of authority and serving as corporate executives. (Yes, I know there are myriad examples of continued inequality, but bear with me, please.)

Anyway, you say that feminism is about equality, opportunity and choice -- and I'd agree. That said, Palin has arguably taken advantage of equality opportunity and choice.

She has equality with any man to be a disingenuous, reprehensible gasbag in the name of self-promotion.

She took advantage of a golden opportunity to be a disingenuous, reprehensible gasbag in the name of self-promotion.

She has made a clear choice to be a disingenuous, reprehensible gasbag in the name of self-promotion.

Ultimately, IMHO, the post-feminist era will have clearly arrived when the goals of equality, opportunity and choice have been achieved. How various women avail themselves of that equality, opportunity and choice will certainly include plenty of examples of brand new people to heartily oppose -- women who would have never had a voice to disagree with prior to the rise of feminism.

Not to sound glib, but 'be careful what you wish for; you just might get it'.

Anne C. said...

I have always been on the fence about the word "feminist." For me it's not so much the misuse of the label for marketing purposes, it's because there have been (in the past, at least) overtones of female superiority in the movement. Perhaps because of some of the liberal arts classes I've taken, I've been aware of that fringe and rejected the label in favor of egalitarian (in much the same way as I've rejected democrat in favor of independent). It has the root word that is the core of my beliefs and has the added benefit of not being co-opted by political marketers.

(And YES, choosing to stay at home to care for kids is as feminist as choosing to leave the home to work -- as long as there is choice and respect.)

Anne C. said...

Nathan - Amen, brother!

Rachael said...

This is how I view the choice issue - it's about making sure that women can make their own choices, period. So I may not get it if someone chooses to be a homemaker, or someone chooses to go to one of those scary-ass churches make women dress like they're from the 1800s, but as long as it's the woman's informed choice to do so then it's not for me to block her ability to make that choice. It's about supporting our right to make our own choices and chart our own courses, not dictating what those choices are.

In that light, I think it's just fine if some women want to argue for their decision to be a stay at home mom, for example, and try to promote it as a valid and fulfilling choice to make. Just like it's just as valid for a career academic who has chosen not to have children to promote her own lifestyle.

Where the super conservative women really fall flat by calling themselves feminists is that they're actively trying to eliminate a woman's right to self determination. Since apparently it was all well and good for them to be able to choose (like in Palin's case, choose to have a special needs child) but other women don't deserve to have that choice at all.

And of course, there's also some seriously messed up stuff when you look at some of the conservative women writing about relationships, where they call themselves feminist in one breath and then in the next promote the "men won't buy the cow if they get the milk for free" and "settle for Mr. Okay so you can get married before you're too old" BS that's completely belittling to both genders. But yeah. That's a whole other thing.

Eric said...

As the resident Palin expert....

Palin's launch into the public eye didn't have anything to do with her children, actually, although from a feminist POV it's arguably worse than that. Palin had no interest in politics when she was approached by a local svengali, a town councilman who appears to have thought she'd be a bright fresh face and possibly (one hypothesizes) mistakenly believed that Palin would be easily channeled into a voting block on the council. (When I get home, I can dig Going Rogue from its unhallowed place on the shelf and find the name of the gentleman, which escapes me at the moment.) As with all the men who furthered her career, she would turn on him--a process she repeated with Frank Murkowski and Steve Schmidt (the McCain campaign advisor essentially responsible for her VP nomination).

Palin's use and disposal of men blinded by her photogenic qualities and willing to overlook her limited experience and intellectual constraints raises an interesting question from a feminist/postfeminist perspective (as Nathan touches on). First and Second Wave feminists would clearly be repulsed by Palin's old-school vamp strategy of wrapping men around her finger, exploiting them and throwing them away, which is essentially what her political career has consisted of. (It should be explicitly stated that I do not think she's actually slept her way to the top.) Third Wave feminists, on the other hand, and perhaps so-called "postfeminists" would possibly contend that a woman using feminine wiles to manipulate the rules of the system is in fact a radical feminist act, the empowered use and control of one's sexual image. (Laugh at that if you want, but don't laugh at me--this is a legitimate debate in Third Wave circles and the basis of an outright shooting war between the Third Wave and Second Wave veterans.)

One might say at any rate, however, that even if Palin's sexual Machiavelli antics are empowered or "feminist" they certainly aren't "liberated" in the fashion intended by Second Wave crusaders or First Wave pathmakers.

As for Palin and choice: Palin's essential crime is hypocrisy. The fact is that Palin acknowledges in Going Rogue that she considered aborting Trig and discussed this with her physician. Palin's anti-abortion moving of the goalposts is that she goes on to say she made the right choice to keep Trig and Pro-Choice advocates shouldn't criticise her choice; but, of course, Pro-Choice advocates do nothing of the kind, they merely want every girl or woman to have the opportunity Palin did to get fair, professional advice from her physician and proceed accordingly. Palin's anti-abortion hypocrisy is indeed one of the qualities that makes her a horrible human being--it would be one thing if she didn't want her own doctor to be able to advise her or anyone else, another thing to tell what is essentially a Pro-Choice narrative and twist it into a "Pro-Life" parable of some sort.

As for everything you say about Palin's lack of personal responsibility and sense of entitlement--well, that's utterly and completely true. I would, however, say that this goes beyond feminism and enters the realm of "personism" ("humanism" having been taken for other purposes); Palin isn't a bad woman, she's a bad person. Actually, I'm probably nitpicking to say that, since we're probably in complete agreement about that.

Hope this was a useful comment! And forgive me if it wasn't--now that I've drunk most of the beer, spent the money and eaten most of the preserves a certain AWESOME human being sent me, I'm still looking for ways to make my horrific personal experience reading Going Rogue pay off.

Eric said...

Minor correction: the beer is completely gone. I was thinking of the preserves. I haven't cracked the peach yet and there's a small amount of apple butter left. (I am only one person, being the reason why; if I could justify eating the apple butter by itself with a spoon, I would.)

Janiece said...

Thanks, everyone, for your thoughtful and interesting comments.

I think anyone who would choose to hang around here at HCDSM would agree that Sarah Palin is a reprehensible human being. I don't think that's a point of contention, unless Jim Wright's in the closet in the worst possible way.

Having said that, I would say that I would consider myself an egalitarian in the sense that Anne means. I find the idea of "Palin's sexual Machiavelli antics" disgusting, having struggled against that stereotype for the first 20 years of my professional life.

I think you all have put your finger in the sore, though. "Feminists" want all women to have equality, opportunity and choice. Palin (and her far right submissive sycophants) only want women who agree with them to have equality, opportunity and choice.

Anne C. said...

if I could justify eating the apple butter by itself with a spoon, I would.

I wasn't aware that justification was a requirement. I've been doing that since the beginning!

Janiece said...

Eric, Anne is correct. My entire family (and I think Anne's, too) eats apple butter with a spoon.

No need to deprive yourself, my brother. There's always more where that came from.

Rachael said...

Eric's comment made me dig up "The only moral abortion is my abortion" again, since I think that pretty much puts the finger on that whole attitude.

And now I want apple butter. :(

Eric said...

That's an amazing piece, Rachael, thank you.