Increasingly, conservatives are using cornerstone beliefs of liberal feminism to co-opt icon feminist images and even the term feminism for policies and people who most of us agree are not in fact invested in the advancement of women world wide but rather in themselves and often xenophobic or “gender neutral” agenda. In my mind this is happening due as much to the failure to take this trend seriously and address holes in actual feminist organizing on the part of feminists as it is due to neo-conservative understanding that women are now the majority in this country and need to be courted accordingly.
When Sarah Palin ran for Vice-President in the last election, many conservative women saw her as a beacon of “conservative feminism.” For some of them, she represented an idealized womanhood that they felt empowered women. She was:
- in public office
- on the public stage in a male dominated field
- one of the first women nominated for vice-president for a major party in the elections (you’ll note there was also a woman running for VP on the Green Party ticket that year)
- seemingly a committed wife and mother and career woman at the same time
These examples of seemingly strong female leadership dovetailed with liberal feminism’s emphasis on “revolution from within” or state level action, ie getting women equal pay and equal representation in leadership roles and public positions. Conservatives used these connections to argue that “liberal” feminists, ie feminists on the left, were not as invested in women’s political and economic equality as they were in a liberal politik; if we had been invested in the former, so the story goes, we would be championing Palin alongside her supporters. In other words, when liberal feminism articulates feminist goals as strong women, in the public sphere, taking leadership roles in the government and impacted public policy without coupling that to specific policies and ideologies about the empowerment of ALL women (not just a woman, some women, or undefined “women”) not supporting Sarah Palin or Meghan McCain looks like backtracking or proof that real goals of feminism are not about women’s equality but rather a particular set of liberal ideals. By shaking and then claiming the foundations of liberal feminism for themselves, neo-conservatives can then argue that current versions of feminism have never been considered with rural women, poor women, “every day women”, wives, mothers, etc. And that in turn makes it possible for them to try an co-opt other forms of feminism that have made similar critiques in the past without linking them to unexamined whiteness or in the case of Palin, calling up white supremacy or white entrenchment.
Many bloggers, pundits, and journalists who have claimed the public face of feminism found the idea of Palin so distasteful that they were unwilling to critically examine how the rhetoric of liberal feminism they espoused could in fact lead to Palin seeing herself, or others seeing her, as a feminist. Their public derision of the idea was seldom tied to concrete criticism in ways that were easy to digest for people not steeped in feminism in the first place and thus easy to manipulate from the Right to look like elitism. In other cases, the focus on reproductive rights over a myriad of other ways Palin’s political agenda differed from those of feminists reinforced the stereotype for conservative women that feminists were anti-mother and anti-child and allowed party leaders to ratchet up fear about”the family” and “family values” as a result.
Many refused to address the sexism Palin endured during the campaign because of her offensive politics and some even took part in it. For those inclined to see any activism around identity and/or oppression as “liberal agenda”, these failures further reinforced the idea that feminism was not about gender and sexism but rather part of the “liberal machine”. The very public rejection of all things Palin and the jokes made about her by people who on other ocassions had championed a feminist interpretation of current events, made those of us engaged in discussing sexism against her invisible or easy to erase. Worse, some conservatives and liberals alike took the opportunity to claim our spaces as somehow connected to their co-optation of feminism because we dealt with sexism against conservative women while other more public figures were not doing so.
Daily Kos (while this image shows them together, we could argue the angle of McCain’s right arm is in fact him hitting her)
As we feminists know however, liberal feminism is only one of many types of feminism currently in existence. And while liberal feminism focuses on the public sphere, especially government, the law, and “equal” access to upper middle class jobs, they also focus on certain rights and responsibilities that run counter to neo-conservative politics represented by Palin and others. These rights are not detached from women’s equality but are in fact central to it. They include:
- reproductive choice – which for many is a fundamental tenant of feminism because it gives women power over their reproductive cycle which in turn can open doors for education, career advancement, care work in their existing families, etc. and is not in fact in anyway related to hating children or motherhood but rather embracing basic family planning
- sex positivity – which can be interpreted in many ways but almost always includes the right to choose what you like, how you like it, and with whom, as well as the access to education about ensuring that you are practicing safer sex, have access to repro materials before, during, and/or after if needed, and that your choices will not lead to social or political sanction
- ending sexual oppression – ie a direct confrontation with the various ways that our society encourages and condones rape and domestic violence through education, legal confrontation, and female empowerment; this also includes the right of women to choose how they dress, look in general, and to be proud of their bodies and their sexuality without fear of reprisal or condemnation (the latter has become a major organizing principle for mainstream feminism for instance)
- a tacit understanding that ALL women need to be seen as equal in our society – which, though contested amongst feminists daily, means that women of color, trans women, lesbian and bi women, poor women, rural women, differently-abled women, etc. all deserve access to services, education, and advancement that will level the playing field amongst women and between women and men (while this has often devolved into a “diversity” statement or tokenizing in mainstream and liberal feminism, radical feminism, women of color feminism, decolonized feminism, queer feminisms, and others have made this issue central to their organizing)
Not only was/is Palin against most of these tenants but she also actively supported program decisions that cut off funding to homeless pregnant teenagers, educational programs related to any kind of reproductive knowledge in the schools, and is seemingly staunchly against the rights of immigrant women and potentially women of color in general. Her comments about race during and after the election have made the nation less safe for women of color and actively targeted both black and Latin@ people as un-American or simply not American at all. And in some cases, her speeches have occurred in places where a marked uptick in racial incidences and/or racist rhetoric occurred immediately following her time there. Her own focus on sexual purity and pro-life stance, left her own family vulnerable to teen pregnancy, a farcical engagement, and rumors of infidelity. And despite painting herself as an advocate for mothers, especially of differently-abled children, she cut off funding for teen mothers in her area and also nearly reversed her own pro-life stance when she discovered her child was going to be differently-abled. Her policies regarding school based sex ed and health care directly impacted rape survivors and despite having this brought to her attention by feminists and child advocates in Alaska, Palin did not change the policies. In other words, while her public image continues to borrow from liberal feminist rhetoric to craft her as the conservative “true” pro-woman, her policy decisions, jingoistic speeches, and personal decisions often run counter to the rights of marginalized and vulnerable women and girls.
Yet, many conservatives continue to rally around Palin as their feminist icon ignoring her huge and public failings and recasting her divergences from feminism as political choices rather than issues of female empowerment. Thus their rhetoric transforms certain “values” into pro-woman ideology:
- family values becomes a way to support women’s rights by ensuring that women fulfill their their “god-given” roles as wives and mothers and is supported by repetition of the questionable trend of aging second wave feminists who claimed their high paying jobs and power in government or companies did not compare to an overwhelming sense of loss because they never had children or married
- anti-immigrant policies transform into a way of protecting women from drug runners and violent crime and even protecting immigrant women from rape and sex trafficking by unscrupulous coyotes (note unscrupulous law enforcement or business owners are not mentioned in this formula)
- rejecting title IX and other affirmative action programs supposedly works toward female equality by eliminating language and programs that “set them apart” and thus “reinforce divisions” rather than dismantle them
- choosing pro-life politics over rape survivors health and well-being becomes both “cutting the pork”, ie positive fiscal management and an ability to make “hard decisions”, and supporting young girls by stopping them from exacerbating one form of abuse (rape) with another (“killing a baby”)
Despite what the history of this country has taught us about what “gender neutral” and “race blind” curriculum and policies actually mean, this rhetoric and the ability to spin it at the drop of a hat has ushered in a new era of co-opting the labels of social justice for neo-conservative causes.
Enter Jan Brewer.
Like Sarah Palin, Brewer is being cast as a crusading conservative feminist standing against the patriarchal Washington government and the ineffectual male dominated public sphere in order to make “America” “safe” for women and children. Never mind that those women and children do not include anyone Latin@ or who might “look like an immigrant” and that their safety or relationship to America as American citizens, naturalized citizens, or workers who keep the country afloat by doing the jobs no one else will, are irrelevant in Brewer’s world. Once again, conservatives have adapted the language of liberal feminism to their own ends by pointing to Brewer’s success in a male dominated career, her “bold stance against a male president and male governors” all of whom have publicly condemned her, etc.
And once again, the very feminists who depoliticized identity politics in the hopes of mainstreaming gender equality are now sitting back aghast and/or silent about the co-optation of feminist principles by Republicans in order for them to shine a bright, bright, light on a woman who has helped make an entire state inhospitable to women and girls, including female students and workers. As with the case of Palin, these public “feminist pundits” believe the idea that Brewer is feminist is so ludicrous it does not warrant a response. Certain feminist pundits have become so tongue-tied by questions about Brewer as feminist that they look almost as ignorant as Palin during a Katie Couric interview before devolving into a series of elitest remarks that fail to address policy, give concrete examples of discrepancies in the rhetoric of immigrant criminality and the reality of immigrant participation in this country, or to address historical examples of why we have affirmative action, multiculturalism, Title IX and other similar programs. The failure to connect feminism, immigration, and history or to provide concrete examples once again opens the door for the Republican counter-attack that liberal activism is about entitlement programs, taking from “real Americans”, and supporting “over-educated liberal elite” women over “real women”.
While no one imagined that conservative women would try to take feminism for their own, the ongoing failure to critically examine why they are currently being successful at certain kind of falsely pro-woman propaganda is as much to blame on us as it is the spin doctors courting women on the Right. There is too much at stake to continue to dismiss these women outright or to lapse into self-congratulatory condescension when their names or actions come up. It seems to me that we have two major issues to deal with in the post-Palin aftermath:
- How our own rhetoric and/or praxis has opened the door for complaints of “politiking” and exclusion – in other words, when the public face of feminism is increasingly an upper middle class urban heterosexual white woman who is neither conversant on the issues facing rural poor women or interested in becoming so, how does that feed into the idea that feminism is in fact not for everyone but only the chosen few? how does certain forms of feminism’s legacy of excluding, erasing, or downplaying the needs of marginalized women allow conservative women who are blatant and militant about those or similar exclusions to think they have more in common with mainstream feminists than mainstream feminists think and to claim the moral high ground because they are honest about it?
- How can we re-articulate feminist organizing principles in ways that are both concrete and accessible to a myriad of audiences – in other words, while multiple feminisms exist, we continue to put a very specific mainstream image forward in the media (blogging, “feminist presses”, and film and tv) that may not be accessible to all women either because it comes across as elitest or out of touch or continues to exclude certain women, may not seem relevant to some women (my students are always saying that feminism was great because it got them slots in college and female professors and the chance at good jobs but they don’t need anything else so it’s “kind of dead now” anyway), or has not adequately addressed some of the legitimate complaints from traditionally ignored populations (for instance the legitimate issues of care and emotional health raised by pro-life or vanilla advocates, or issues of female space in a trans world, etc)
While we cannot control the actions of people who would hope to take over our movements and re-create them from the inside out, we can be proactive about our politics and our outreach. And while many feminists on the ground are doing this, the mainstream and its outlets are falling short time and again to the detriment of all of us. There was a time when no one would have dared replace Rosie the Riveter with Jan Brewer’s face or recast Wonder Woman as Sarah Palin , let alone refer to either of them as feminist. Now these acts are common place. Wars of rhetoric and naming and over meaning and history are all too common place. As feminists we need to start sharpening the tools in our immense toolboxes or be prepared to go looking for them in the dark that is falling across this nation.