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Opinion: The fake feminism of Sarah Palin

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By Jessica Valenti
Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sarah Palin sure is dropping the f-bomb a lot lately.

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In a widely noted speech this month to the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion-rights group, Palin invoked the words "feminism" and "feminist" no less than a dozen times. She called for a "pro-woman sisterhood" and addressed the "sisters" in the audience. If it weren't for the regular references to gun rights, you might have thought you were listening to Gloria Steinem.

If this rhetoric seems uncharacteristic of the former governor of Alaska, that's because it is. When running for vice president in 2008, Palin flip-flopped on the feminist question, telling CBS's Katie Couric that she is one, but later telling NBC's Brian Williams, "I'm not going to label myself anything."

Today, however, Palin is happily adopting the feminist label. She's throwing support behind "mama grizzly" candidates, describing the large number of women in the "tea party" as evidence of a "mom awakening" and preaching girl power on her Facebook page.

It's not a realization of the importance of women's rights that's inspired the change. It's strategy. Palin's sisterly speechifying is part of a larger conservative move to woo women by appropriating feminist language. Just as consumer culture tries to sell "Girls Gone Wild"-style sexism as "empowerment," conservatives are trying to sell anti-women policies shrouded in pro-women rhetoric.

Several years ago, when antiabortion protesters realized that screaming "Murderer!" at women wasn't winning hearts and minds, they launched more palatable campaigns claiming that abortion hurts women -- their new protest signs read "Women Deserve Better." (Not surprisingly, this message is much more effective than spitting invective at emotionally vulnerable women.)

When members of the conservative Independent Women's Forum argue against efforts to address pay inequity, they say the salary gap is a result of women's informed choices -- motherhood, for example -- and that claims of discrimination turn women into victims. Conservatives have realized that women respond to seemingly feminist arguments.

But, of course, Palin isn't a feminist -- not in the slightest. What she calls "the emerging conservative feminist identity" isn't the product of a political movement or a fight for social justice.

It isn't a structural analysis of patriarchal norms, power dynamics or systemic inequities. It's 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. As Kate Harding wrote on Jezebel.com: "What comes next? 'Phyllis Schlafly feminism?' 'Patriarchal feminism?' 'He-Man Woman Hater Feminism?' "

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?

Easy: They preempt criticism of their lack of bona fides by aligning themselves with a history that most women are proud of -- the fight for suffrage. They claim they're the real feminists, as Palin did in her speech lauding the Susan B. Anthony List for "returning the women's movement back to its original roots." (She wasn't talking about voting rights; she was referring to the debated notion that first-wave feminists were antiabortion.)

It may seem odd to argue that for women to make progress, they should ground their movement in the past -- but it's appropriate, given the beliefs of conservative "feminists." They don't want to move forward; instead they knock 1960s-era feminism as hooey while claiming to support equality. In her book "Going Rogue," for example, Palin writes that she doesn't agree with "the radical mantras of that early feminist era, but reasoned arguments for equal opportunity definitely resonated with me."


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