Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sarah Palin is a feminist, actually - because she works against women.

Image: Sarah Palin stands next to a smiling soldier, aiming a gun. From Wikipedia.

Recently, Sarah Palin’s recent pronouncements of feminism have been attacked by quite a few major feminist writers. Their argument is basically that Sarah Palin works actively against women, which I guess is fair enough.

I do not like Sarah Palin myself - she's detrimental to this country. But I think that Sarah Palin is a feminist, because she enforces a long-held feminist tradition of hurting women.

None of the posts above consider s.e. smith’s awesome rebuttal on this very topic. If you haven’t, please go read it now. Here is my favorite part:

Liberal feminists are asking why Sarah Palin, a conservative feminist, should be allowed to call herself a feminist. They also ask why so many people want to distance themselves from feminism. Well, I think the parallels I’ve outlined here answer that question pretty thoroughly, and perhaps will open a few eyes. People who are outraged by Sarah Palin’s rhetoric and demand to know how she’s feminist now have an inkling of how people in marginalised classes who don’t identify with feminism feel. Because, let me tell you, many of us are surprised to see you calling yourselves feminists too.

Is Sarah Palin a feminist? Well, I’m afraid that I am not holding the Orb of Office this week and thus am not allowed to issue a formal ruling on who is (and isn’t) feminist. But I view feminists a lot like ducks. If an animal walks up to me and says ‘hey, what’s up, I’m a duck,’ it’s a fucking duck, ok, people?

Feminism is for everyone, as bell hooks put it – and that includes bigots.

I define feminism as working against racism, cissexism, heterosexism, ableism, ageism, sizism, colonialism, sexism, and all those other innumerable implications of the kyriarchy.

And yeah, Sarah Palin doesn’t live up to that.

But you know what? Neither does the fucking feminist movement. Neither do I.

So my definition includes the problems, the baggage, the failures of this crucial movement. I am subject to these failures, and I am part of them. They are inextricable from feminism, and trying to bar Sarah Palin dismisses our baggage, our failure, when we should own it and admit that she is a feminist who hurts women, like many feminists, like every feminist.

We don’t do it all in the same ways, on the same stage, at the same level. Sarah Palin is hurting women on a more global level than I am when I fuck up, but privilege is a necessary and sufficient condition for hurting people (which includes women) and she is just a very famous example of a well-honored and still-continuing feminist tradition.

She is a feminist because she identifies as one. Trying to pretend that she isn't is trying to pretend that the movement's history of hurting women who are not white, not cis, not rich, not het, not able, not monogamous, not right. Because like Sarah Palin none of us are right, and all of us are wrong. We are trying to bar her because we see that she is like us, that she reflects the worst of us. But she is like us, and we are like her. Feminists, all.*

We, feminists, work actively against the rights of women because we use “lame” regularly, or create bills that restrict reproductive freedom, or appropriate and erase the work of WOC, or play host to ableism, or deny trans folks humanity. And I don’t see anyone getting up in arms about why Amanda Marcotte or Mary Daly aren’t feminists. Instead, I see women questioning feminism, and often abandoning or rejecting it.**

Maybe the question to ask isn’t “Why isn’t Sarah Palin a feminist?” Maybe it’s “Why does Sarah Palin want to be a feminist?”

*Though I use the plural first person here, I want to note that I know that you, reader, are not necessarily a feminist, and may have abandoned the movement for these very very valid reasons.


  1. Mod-to-mod comment time!

    I think this is a good point, but while it starts out really well spoken (I especially like s.e. smith's duck quote, and bell hooks "feminism is for everyone"), it ends, like it's titled, on a note that's highly aggressive and not necessarily productive, in my opinion.

    You seem to recognize that feminism is flawed, contradictory, human, and a group full of people at odds with each other. People who label themselves as feminist can be from one end of an ideological spectrum or another or confusingly in the middle, they can say one thing and do another, they're PEOPLE.

    And you definitely recognize that we can't be exclusionary if we're going to proclaim

    But we walk into this post hearing that "feminism harms women" and by the end of the post we're asking why Sarah Palin would want to be (a feminist).

    I don't think that's the answer, either. I mean, unless we're all abandoning ship to declare ourselves anti-kyriarchists instead, which is maybe legit. But I think what the real answer is here, and I think you were aiming for this and got a little heavy handed, is to admit we're individuals, we disagree, we're flawed, we make mistakes, and that's totally okay and normal and even necessary.

    One of those mistakes is putting a sign up that says "liberal environmental pro-choice anti-war anti-mainstream pro-sex anti-makeup anti-porn white cisgender vegans only" (or whatever are the latest requirements for membership to the club). But the mistake isn't HAVING a club.

  2. But we walk into this post hearing that "feminism harms women" and by the end of the post we're asking why Sarah Palin would want to be (a feminist).

    I mean, it does harm women though, that's part of the point. And it's not so much "why feminism" as "why is this anti-woman woman want to be a part of this movement"?

    It is rhetorically heavy, and perhaps too much. But I'm seeing too much apologism for feminism in discussion of her views, too much "here's how she's different" and not enough self-reflection on what makes her want to be a part of this movement, and it feels like erasure to me. It's times like these when

    But the mistake isn't HAVING a club.

    But I think it is. Once you start excluding people....where does it start? It's too much like the exclusion/erasure of non-privileged women from feminism.

    Thanks for the necessary and intelligent challenge, Faye :)

  3. I want to note: I do welcome dissent, on all posts but on this in particular. I understand that I'm taking a rather strong and as faye said, perhaps heavy handed stand.

    Feminism is a wonderful thing, and it does deserve defense. Sarah Palin reflects the worst of feminism, as I said in the OP, but not the best. There are wonderful, fantastic things that she is NOT reflecting. I am thankful for feminism, and in awe of the work that feminists do. But sometimes, like with Palin, I abhor them.

  4. What makes her want to be a part of it?

    Well, "girl power" stuff that makes you FEEL powerful but actually feeds kyriarchy has been around forever. (I study this in the European Middle Ages. So, yeah. Forever.) The 'token woman' in Western society has traditionally been allowed a degree of power, as long as she preaches the submission of other women (Phyllis Schlafly, Paula White, etc). I believe the word is "empowerful"? And I also want to note--this is not feminist, but it is also not connected to specific political views (namely, abortion).

    I do come down on the side of she's not a feminist, because I happen to believe that feminism means a commitment to *breaking* power structures for the benefit of others rather than taking advantage of them for one's individual good. (Oh, and just for good measure, "Tea Party Feminism" is not feminism, either; it is repackaged "Proverbs 31 woman" drivel that fundamentalist churches like to spew).

    But I think your question is really important, and I wish more people were asking it. Instead it's turned into an abortion thing.

    It's also frustrating that what sparked this was Palin's comment on how she has been able to be both a mother and have a career. Um, y'know, Black women have been doing this for centuries. Have been expected to do this for centuries. If that alone grounds Palin's assertion that she's a feminist, then feminism has not accomplished squat.

  5. Willow, thanks for the constructive and interesting comment. I agree with you - the abortion thing is frustrating. I appreciate your valid defense of feminism. I'd really like to hear more on the subject of the history of "girl power" etc.

    A couple of responses:

    It's also frustrating that what sparked this was Palin's comment on how she has been able to be both a mother and have a career.

    I understand that you're referring to other commentaries but just to be clear to future readers, this is not what I was reacting to so much as the strident arguments for her exclusion from feminism (and also frustration at s.e. smith's excellent post being overlooked).

    Minor note: I do take a bit of issue with insistently terming the past millenia or two as "forever" - women and people did exist before that.

    Pardon me for not replying in greater detail - you caught me right as I was heading to sleep. Thanks again for your valuable commentary.

  6. "Forever."

    Heh! Okay, no problem. 'Forever' was mostly a placeholder--I actually suspect it's quite a quite bit older than the Middle Ages in the West, and I would be interested in exploring Girl Power in other early non-Western superpatriarchal societies (the foundation for medieval Girl Power is, of course, biblical), but in terms of solid knowledge I can only go back to 1100s Western Europe right now.

    Basically, European medieval Girl Power is grounded in the idea that women are weak and deficient, therefore God sometimes chooses a woman as God's mouthpiece on Earth to make a special point (this is how medieval men justified Christ's appearing first to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection. Also, in Judges 4 Deborah herself invokes this to Sisera!). Women weren't normally allowed to preach or teach in public, but starting with Hildegard of Bingen in the 1100s, for a handful of centuries women who claimed to be receiving mystical revelations from God could indeed preach. The caveats were, of course, that they were heavily dependent on the support (read: protection) of their male confessors, and also that their messages weren't threatening to Church power and authority. Catherine of Siena, for example, got away with what seems like really audacious deeds, but she wasn't revolutionary at all. Women like Marguerite Porete and Na Prous Boneta, whose messages *were* subversive, were burned at the stake.

    I'm simplifying, of course. If you have access to a college library, the first half of Grace Jantzen's Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism is probably the best resource. In terms of books available somewhat cheaply to purchase and *maybe* at a well-stocked public library, Caroline Walker Bynum's Holy Feast, Holy Fast is the classic work on the topic. And if you're interested I can e-mail you as well.


  7. [cont'd]

    I just want to make clear one thing that I'm not sure came across in my original post--I'm aware that my view of feminism also excludes quite a few liberal feminists, and that's sort of the point. That is why I think the question you, RMJ, are asking is so important--I want liberal feminists (and, in fact, "radical feminists") to ask themselves whether they are actually seeking to remake society or just to improve their own position in what we've got right now.

    And my apologies for the unclear antecedent in "what sparked this." :o) Thank you for clarifying; zir post and yours are both excellent. And I have the unfortunate feeling it is being overlooked for the same reason no one but you has asked "why does she want this title"--most feminists would rather gain status than remake society, because the latter would involve a loss of other privileges (chiefly race, gender orientation) for many of us.

    wv: "combhree." That's awesome.

  8. I guess I see this whole "who is/isn't a feminist" and "what is feminism" thing a lot like I see the "what is art" debate. The words "feminism" and "art" are both really powerful but vague symbols in our language. And because of that, a lot of people want to claim those terms for themselves.

    In both cases these words are basically defined by example, rather than a more formal definition. You won't find many people arguing that Rembrandt didn't make art, or that Friedan wasn't a feminist. But beyond examples such as these, there is this big space where people can fight to own the term and associate themselves with those examples (and/or fight to keep others from being associated with those examples).

    I think my own relationship to "feminism" and "art" is really similar to eachother. I care a lot about women's rights etc., but I don't say whether or not I'm a feminist. And I care a lot about my animations, but I don't say whether or not it is art. My attitude is essentially, "You can have that word if you want it. And you can apply it to me or not as you see fit. In the mean time, I'm going to get on with doing stuff."

    And that's not to say that how these symbols are defined isn't important. I think it is. And there are certainly people who if they told me to my face, "You are not a feminist," it would greatly affect me, because I know them and what they think that means. But at the same time, I know people that get really constrainted by self-identifying as "artists", for example. Suddenly the things they can do are limited by whether or not they think others will consider it "art". Or, alternatively, they get really caught up in trying to get what they do recognized as "art". And I'd rather just get on with it, and let other people sort out the words.


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