September 9, 2008
It's almost embarrassing to answer the question of whether or not a socially conservative woman could appeal to feminists, because the answer is a tautology. The two categories -- social conservative and feminist -- are fundamentally opposed on the basic issues of gender roles and women's rights. The libertarian strain of movement conservatism isn't necessarily opposed to women's rights, but the whole point of social conservatism is to roll back the social gains made by various groups, especially women and gay people. Social conservatives may pretty up their views with language about "life" and "family," but at the end of the day, we're seeing a struggle between feminists and anti-feminists.
The media blitz around Hillary Clinton's campaign left the impression that "feminism" is a movement solely oriented toward electing middle-aged white women into high office. This would lend one to thinking that "feminists" would want to elect Sarah Palin vice president, no matter how bad her policies would be for ordinary women. But that's not what feminism is about. Different feminists have different ideas about feminism, but the core ideas are pretty standard: Women should have equal access to education and career opportunities as men. Women should have the freedom to marry and date who they want and control their fertility. Women should have the same rights as men to live free from harassment and discrimination. Domestic violence and rape are part of a system of violence that contributes to the oppression of women. I've met feminists of every stripe and every description, but they can in good faith call themselves feminists because they believe these things.
The simple measure of one's social conservatism is how much he or she resists feminism and the gay rights movement. Palin rates high on the anti-feminist scale. She opposes not only abortion rights, she is also against giving women the tools they need so they don't have to get an abortion, as evidenced by her support for abstinence-only programs in schools, which discourage students from using contraception. She's extremely hostile to same-sex marriage and domestic partner benefits. There's no reason to think Palin is against violence prevention, but as I said yesterday, she most likely agrees with John McCain that women don't have a right to equal pay for equal work.
The only case in which I can see feminists offering even tepid support to a socially conservative female politician is in the extremely unlikely circumstances that her opponent is just as or nearly as conservative as she is, or if she offers an entire slate of Christianity-inspired social justice programs that would benefit women as a whole. Feminists are not incapable of holding their noses and voting for anti-abortion politicians who are firmly behind education and welfare programs to support families, anti-discrimination legislation and access to comprehensive sex education and contraception. But someone who believes in offering social support, much less offering women so many tools to empower themselves, is not really a social conservative at all. So again, we're at square one. It's categorically impossible to be both feminist and socially conservative.
Amanda Marcotte is the executive editor and writer for the blog Pandagon.net. Her first book, "It's a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environment," is published by Seal Press.
Ah ha! A point of agreement between us! I knew we could find more common ground than just non-ironic consumption of cheap beer.
You're quite right, Amanda. There's probably no such thing as a socially conservative female candidate who will win the hearts and minds of modern American feminists.
Your list of requirements for "good faith" feminism seems fine, and I personally find little to disagree with. And by that definition, it's hard to see where a truly socially conservative gal with a standard pro-life, anti-gay marriage, anti-affirmative action slate might find purchase in the feminist heart for her pointy-toed pumps.
But what I learned at the knee of my 1970s feminist, name-hyphenating, here-honey-why-don't-you-put-down-that-doll-and-play-with-this-truck mother was that feminism is about seeing female humans as more than just uterus-bearing beings. And that's the kind of feminist I have become. Maybe that's why I find all the feminist hysteria around the uteri of the Palin women so confusing. And that's why I don't think abortion should be the alpha and omega of female political discourse.
To me, this means that the kind of powerful woman who inspires a (hilarious) website like Sarah Palin Facts should have some claim to respect from feminists both for her joke accomplishments -- "Little known fact: Jesus has a bracelet that says, 'WWSPD?' " She's a role model! "Sarah Palin can divide by zero." She's good at math! "Sarah Palin's image already appears on the newer nickels." She's on U.S. legal tender! -- and for her real ones.
Truth be told, I haven't been tracking feminist hermeneutics too closely. I'm sure you'd agree, Amanda, that encouraging strong female role models is an important part of feminism. But in a world where mainstream feminists almost unanimously backed Bill Clinton during the Paula Jones scandal and now excoriate McCain for choosing Palin, I'm not totally clear on what feminism entails -- if not simply support for the Democratic Party.
So is a pro-Palin feminist a contradiction in terms? Where might we find such an elusive creature? The Mariana Trench? The Bermuda Triangle? Kicking it with Amelia Earhart and Dick Cheney in an undisclosed location? Oh wait, we have one handy right here: me.
I happen to think Palin's position on abortion stinks. But abortion and your list of other feminist concerns don't come close to capturing all of the issues I care about most -- not by a long shot.
So here's one answer for how a feminist might wind up supporting a socially conservative candidate: Her feminism isn't the most important thing about her political views. If a candidate came to me and said, "I will cut taxes across the board by 50%, privatize Social Security, dramatically reduce regulations on businesses and push for school choice nationwide," I'd vote for her in a heartbeat even if she were a crappy feminist. Palin falls short of this libertarian dream, of course, but you get my point.
Maybe claiming myself as part of the feminist sisterhood complicates things too much. Since you, Gloria Steinem and company have more at stake in holding on to the label "feminist" than I do, and you don't seem to want me in your club, I'll cheerfully relinquish the title for the duration of our Dust-Up.
But if I'm to be drummed out of the sisterhood, then the last, best hope for a socially conservative woman like Palin to win over anyone who calls herself a feminist goes with me. Perhaps you say good riddance to bad rubbish?
Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor at Reason magazine.
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