Sarah Palin Provokes Me to Ask: What is Feminism?

I was strangely attracted to this Newsweek article this week on "Saint Sarah," which says:
Palin has been antagonizing women on the left of late by describing herself as a “feminist,” a word she uses to mean the righteous, Mama Bear anger that wells up when one of her children is attacked in the press or her values are brought into question.
 and also says:
In her speech to the SBA List last month, Palin derided the old feminism as a relic of “the faculty lounge at some East Coast women’s college, right?”—even as she wrapped the label around herself, channeling the pioneer wives who “made sacrifices to carve out a living and a family out of the wilderness.” Hers is a “mom of faith” movement, a “mom uprising.” It’s an emotional appeal, unfettered by loyalty to the broader policy agenda of traditional feminism. (Palin will praise suffragettes, abolitionists, and Margaret Thatcher, but not the early feminists who arguably paved the way for the 96 Republican women running for House seats in 2010.)
And this leads me to ask: What is feminism?

I've been calling myself a feminist since the 80's, and I did my D.Min. dissertation on Feminism in the UU ministry (a whole other issue is the quote in the article from a Harvard professor that says, "You hate to say it, but mainstream feminism has had an antireligious bias for a really long time").  So I ought to be able to give you a working definition of feminism.  I'll leave the deciding whether or not Sarah Palin is one to you.

So here goes:

What feminism is not:
  • Sadly, it's not a mandated stance on other isms, like racism and heterosexism.  It'd be nice if these things went together, but it's not mandatory.  You can be a racist feminist and you can be a sexist anti-racist.  Understanding the interlinking nature of oppressions is secondary.
  • It is also not, in my opinion, a mandated stance on abortion.  While for many it is required that you believe in a woman's right to control her body in order to be a feminist, I believe you can be a feminist and still believe that abortion is murder and that trumps a woman's right to choose.  I don't believe this, but I think it's a legitimate stance within feminism.
  • Feminism is not the same as just being a woman and interested in our own self-interests.  
What feminism is:
  • Feminism is definitely believing that a woman can do any job, hold any office.
  • Feminism is believing that women can also choose to stay home with families, and that women who choose this should have support.  This includes societal support for motherhood.
  • Feminism is believing that women should live lives free from rape, domestic violence, sexual assault, and sexual harassment.  Feminism is against all violence against women.
  • Feminism is believing that women should have the means to plan their pregnancies and to not have children if desired. 
  • Feminism is believing that women should not have to use their sexuality or their femininity for economic security or workplace advancement.
  • Feminism is believing a woman's work should be equally valued with a man's work -- equal pay for equal work.
  • Feminism is believing that it is not true that men's experiences are normative and women's experiences are other.
  • Feminism is against all forms of discrimination against women.
  • Feminism values women's experiences and artistic expressions. 
  • Lastly, feminism is a social movement that has the goal of bringing about change that creates situations for women that are equal to men's situations.
That's feminism.  Now, what is Sarah Palin?


Before she was a VP nominee, I saw Sarah Palin as a good feminist role model for my daughters, albeit one with whom I stongly disagreed. She balanced a rapidly advancing career with marriage and five children and I think that is laudable.

In the last year and half, she has revealed herself to be someone I find quite distateful and I hope my girls do not emulate her beliefs, policies, or ethics. You cannot doubt that she believes there is a place for women in authority and that she and her daughters are every bit as capable as men. Her policies are not those of mainstream feminists, but her rise to power is. I guess this goes to prove I don't have to like or agree with all feminists.

On the other hand, I find evangelical churches to be inherently sexist so there is the counterarguement.
Paul Oakley said…
I would prefer to remove the definition of feminism from the realm of belief and position it, instead, in the realm of commitment.

IMO, Feminism is a commitment to the creation and maintenance of a society in which sex, sexuality, gender, and qualities associated therewith are completely dissociated from determining all matters of power, control, safety, opportunity, status, income, respect, obligation, or norms.
Cynthia Landrum said…
@Paul - Very nice definition. I see what you're saying about moving it from belief to commitment.

@Strange - But is anyone who believes that she or her family members should and can be powerful inherently a feminist? Is that all it takes?
Holmes Family said…
She is a way for conservatives to win more votes from mothers. Like when pro-life groups tried to win more supporters by saying "women deserve better" instead of "murderer". Same views, just different packaging.

For starters she didn't support the equal pay bill (the Ledbetter Act),even though she claims to be a supporter of equal pay for women. Which is a VERY big issue for women, especially single mothers. So she is saying she supports women, while not supporting women.

She thinks the only choice a woman has is to be a mother. She is a member of FFL *which opposes birth control even for married couples*. She doesn't support sex ed in schools, even though that would reduce the teen pregnancy rate. So she doesn't support educating young women so they can make inform choices with their bodies.

She doesn't support spousal benefits for same-sex couples or same-sex marriage, so there is a whole section of women she outright doesn't think deserve rights. And has said it is because she doesn't support their choice *we all know homosexuality isn't a choice but to her it is*, and even if it were she doesn't see their choice as valid.

The only "choice" she seems to see as a valid one is to be a mother in a "traditional" family setting. And if that woman happens to be able to make millions while being a mother than great. She is proving that women can do it all. But Palin had a massive support system, what about the women who don't? She is silent on that.

If Palin was really for women why did she leave a position that would have allowed her to greatly impact the lives of women in Alaska? She says she is a feminist, but I am at a lost for anything she has said or done that is really a pro-feminism.

She left a position that she could have used to help women, in order to take a job making lots of money. And I've yet to see her put those millions to use helping women and children.

For me it takes far more than just gaining power/money to say one is a feminist. At the end of the day they must also believe that every woman has the right choices *not just on the issue of abortion*.

I don't see that from Sarah Palin.
I don't think she would agree with all of qualifiers in your definition of feminism, but she is for equal pay for equal work, and she certains seems to believe that women are qualified for any office or job, no matter how vaulted.

I can't speak for her in regards to some of your points, and my thoughts would just be conjecture. I will say I was outraged to learn she required rape victims to pay for their own post-attack medical examinations while mayor of Wasilla. Does that mean she is not anti-rape? Probably not, but she clearly does not hold the same attitude toward this issue as most self-described feminists.

It would be strange to call her a feminist when she is so clearly against the social movement of feminism that has made it possible for her to succeed. I guess I'm not sure which side of this I'm arguing. I need to think about this some more.
DairyStateDad said…
I asked DairyStateMom for her thoughts, which she shared with me and invited me to post on her behalf. We're both pro-choice and we understand you are, too. And there's the rub, as DSM sees it:

If one believes abortion is murder, that strongly implies that there needs to be legislation against it. As soon as one removes moral agency regarding family planning from women's lives, one removes the ability to chart a course independent of child rearing, which is necessary for anything even approaching workplace equality. We can make all the noises we want to about how the state should be friendlier to child-rearing -- and I don't disagree! -- but the bottom line is still that women have to make it clear to employers that they are capable of staying in the work force in a straight line.

Now the reality of everyone's career is not a straight line, and this is as much employer-driven as employee-driven, but the perception drives the reality as much as the other way around. You have to take the excuses away.

So if a feminist is someone who believes that women should be able to chart their own course, and access to abortion is necessary to do that, then a feminist has to be able to be OK with being allowed to get an abortion, even if she never does it herself.

Or at least that's what I think today. Ask me tomorrow and I might feel different.

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