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Opinion: The fake feminism of Sarah Palin

By Jessica Valenti
Sunday, May 30, 2010; B01

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

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."

Of course, by dismissing the past 40 years of feminism, women such as Palin disparage the very movement that made it possible for them to be public figures. After all, would Palin be addressing tea party rallies if Betty Friedan had never talked about the "problem that has no name?"

By tying their "feminism" to the suffragists, whose goal was realized nearly 100 years ago, they're not-so-subtly saying that women in America have achieved equality. In fact, they don't believe that systemic sexism exists. The conservative writer Christina Hoff Sommers, for example, says that women aren't oppressed and that "it is no longer reasonable to say that as a group, women are worse off than men."

If you believe women have made it, you're not going to fight very hard on their behalf. But it's difficult to rally women's support behind a message of inaction, so Palin is doing her best to frame this nonmovement as proactive and, of course, "empowering."

"More young women agree with these feminist foremothers [on abortion] than ever before," Palin said in her Susan B. Anthony List speech. "And believe in that culture of life, empowering women by offering them a real choice." (Exactly what said choice would be once abortion is illegal went unmentioned.)

A related strategy for Palin and fellow conservatives is to paint actual feminists as condescending hypocrites who simply don't believe in young women: "[They] send this message, that 'Nope, you're not capable of doing both. You can't give your child life and still pursue career and education. You're not strong enough; you're not capable.' So it's very hypocritical," she told the anti-abortion-rights crowd. Palin's "pro-woman sisterhood," however, "is telling these young women that they're strong enough and smart enough, they are capable to be able to handle an unintended pregnancy and still be able to . . . handle that [and] give that child life." (Unless of course, these young women were unlucky enough to live in Alaska when then-Gov. Palin cut funding for an Anchorage shelter for teenage moms.)

So Palin's "feminism" isn't just co-opting the language of the feminist movement, it's deliberately misrepresenting real feminism to distract from the fact that she supports policies that limit women's rights.

Of course, deciding who gets to call themselves feminists is a tricky business. Even some people who seem to generally disagree with Palin have found it difficult to bar her from the feminist ranks. Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Connie Schultz wrote that she won't "quibble with her" over the label, and Meghan Daum said in the Los Angeles Times that if Palin "has the guts to call herself a feminist, then she's entitled to be accepted as one."

Now, there's no grand arbiter of the label, and the tremendous range of thought in the movement means there isn't a singular platform one can look to as a reference point. And the sad reality is that there are plenty of self-identified liberal feminists who exhibit not-so-egalitarian ideals, such as racism or homophobia. So is it possible to exclude women such as Palin from feminism if we don't have a conclusive definition?

Absolutely. If anyone -- even someone who actively fights against women's rights -- can call herself a feminist, the word and the movement lose all meaning. And while part of the power of feminism is its intellectual diversity, certain things are inarguable. Feminism is a social justice movement with values and goals that benefit women. It's a structural analysis of a world that oppresses women, an ideology based on the notion that patriarchy exists and that it needs to end.

What Palin is peddling isn't feminism -- it's a manipulated buzzword being used to garner support for a party that time and time again votes against women's rights. Palin isn't trying to further a movement for justice or equality; she's shilling for women's votes -- a "stampede of pink elephants," she says -- for the midterm elections.

And it's working. The conservative "sisterhood" responded passionately to Palin's call. Blogger Lori Ziganto swooned over Palin and the other "true feminist" candidates she's supporting. "They are the new faces of feminism," she wrote. And Kathryn Jean Lopez at the National Review criticized those who would doubt Palin's feminist credentials.

But feminists -- or anyone who cares about women's progress -- need to stop Palin from turning feminism into yet another empty slogan. Because "sisterhood" and meaningless rallying cries aside, American women need real feminism in their lives, not just the f-bomb.

Jessica Valenti is the author of "The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession With Virginity Is Hurting Young Women" and the founder of Feministing.com. She has written previously for Outlook on women's rights in the United States and on virginity.

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