New Debate About Palin's Feminism Ignores Importance to Her Base
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Wed Jun 02, 2010 at 02:51:04 PM EST
Feministing's Jessica Valenti has generated a whirlwind with her op ed in Sunday's Washington Post called, bluntly, The Fake Feminism of Sarah Palin.
But nowhere in her diatribe nor in the thoughtful responses is an understanding of why Palin's ambiguous feminism speaks so strongly to her female base of conservative Christian supporters.
At issue was Palin's recent speech to the Susan B. Anthony List, the antiabortion version of Emily's List that funds Congressional candidates. There she aired her sotto voce feminism with an explicit call for a "prowoman sisterhood."

We've heard all this before, during the 2008 presidential campaign when Palin credited Title IX for her opportunities on the basketball court, used the honorific Ms. and embraced the identity of feminist at least for a while in her interview with CBS News' Katie Couric.

Back then, I was intrigued at how this would play with her conservative Christian supporters, since so many conservative evangelicals believe women's submission to men is theologically given. So I interviewed young activists at the Values Voters Summit, including staff of the Susan B. Anthony List who eventually launched Team Sarah, the political community supporting Palin's vision and perhaps her run for the presidency in 2012.  

What I found was some discomfort with Palin's membership in Feminists for Life but in general great enthusiasm among the younger generation especially, who said they'd been waiting for someone like Palin for a long time.

I also stumbled on a redefinition of "traditional womanhood." Where once it meant being submissive to your husband and a stay at home mom, the "values voter" base now use the phrase to mean a "Christian" woman who embraces the heterosexual nuclear family. She can work and have kids, be in public life, whatever, but she is a member of the conservative Christian tribe.

In an era where the "quiverfull" Christians are promoting a so-called "biblical womanhood" that has women submitting to their husband in all things, including voting, "traditional womanhood" becomes a liberated breath of fresh air by contrast.

And many of those I interviewed knew what was at stake; they needed Palin as a credible force in their movement that opposed that tendency.

Emily Buchanan, the young executive director of the Susan B. Anthony List, said,

She embodies the American woman. She's independent. She speaks her mind. But she also embodies the traditional values that are so important to Americans.

For such a long time, the powerful women in Washington were all touting prochoice as prowoman. People like Senator Hillary Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were the role models...To have a traditional woman, it's something people can relate to.

As I wrote, "Putting Palin in the political mix is either crystallizing new sentiments, or surfacing ones barely visible before."

And it wasn't only the women. Another, male, Susan B. Anthony staffer said,

There's a great picture of her with her son in a sling signing a law," adding, "My mother is not usually involved in the political process and now she is."

I observed,

To these activists, Palin is "normal," a word heard as often as "traditional." She wears makeup. She is pretty. She is an evangelical Christian. She is anti-abortion. She is also white. That is normal within the sphere of these conservatives. But "traditional" for these young people is no longer a woman who stays home with the children while the husband works, or who submits to her husband. Todd Palin's active domestic role is not so unusual--on stage at the Values Voters conference was Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, whose husband, a retired military man, is well known in this community for taking care of their child who was born with Down syndrome.

Jessica Valenti's snide dismissal of any conservatives embracing any kind of feminism ignores feminist history. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the Minute Women, a McCarthyite anticommunist group of the 1950s launched by Vivian Kellems, a National Woman's Party member and businesswoman. And as historians of the NWP have noted, after its suffrage era heyday it was filled with privileged, free market loving, New Deal hating feminists who wanted equal rights with men and personal freedom but not much more than that.

That Sarah Palin, a canny communicator, is using feminist language is interesting. And that she is creating enthusiasm and support among conservative Christians with it is equally interesting and worth exploring, not simply denouncing, even in the name of passionate feminism.


Palin, like most dominionists, uses language to further her goals and that of the ideology to which she belongs, irregardless of the meanings of the words.  Dominionism and the NAR (to which she is documented as belonging) do NOT believe in the rights of women- or the rights of anyone outside of the leadership.  Or to be more accurate, they want to define those rights and no self-respecting woman or man would or could accept their definition.  (I might add that if anything, they're trying to overcome the disconnect between having a woman in their organization achieve a position of power and their ideology which states that a woman must ALWAYS be under authority.  But then, I've always thought she was just a NAR pawn anyway.)

Palin supports and is part of a movement which has a goal of overthrowing the constitution of the United States and the establishment of a theocracy.  This movement does not recognize human rights... ask any walkaway.  You have NO rights unless you're in the leadership.  You have to obey and follow their rules or else.  

Feminism is about freedom- freedom of women to make their own choices.  It's also about equality- that women and men are equal.  I can also strongly argue that the idea of "women's roles and men's roles" are purely cultural and culturally defined.  Palin's cohorts insist that said roles are naturally defined and part of "God's plan"... to which I say they are willfully ignorant and bigoted.  It is also clear that freedom and equality have no place in Dominionism or any other form of fundamentalism.

by ArchaeoBob on Thu Jun 03, 2010 at 09:35:02 AM EST

I find the kneejerk response of Valenti and other mainline feminists to be predictable, overly simplistic, and a little depressing. Is "conservative feminism" really an oxymoron? Actually, I don't think so, and to call Palin's use of the "f" word mere political strategy is to miss the larger point: that times have changed, that women conservatives can no longer be slung into a one-size-fits-all straitjacket, and that mainstream feminists don't have a great track record of building solidarity across all sorts of lines: economic class, religious, race, or cultural. For too long, abortion politics have skewed feminist organizing in one direction. This is always going to be a tough issue for the sisterhood, but there's potential to organize around a variety of women's issues--such as child care, elder care, equal pay for equal work, divorce law, domestic violence. Palin is a polarizing figure, and she will never get my vote. But dismissing her as a dangerous idiot or narcissistic strategizer means we're also dismissing the women who respond to what she represents. And dismissing those who don't get with the party line is something feminists--progressive or conservative--can't afford these days.

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