I don’t think that word means what you think it means…

Despite working with political bloggers, and being friends with political bloggers, and once having been a political blogger, and following a lot of political bloggers on Twitter, I don’t usually do these political-blogger-style posts where I take apart something someone wrote on some other political blog and explain why I find it really problematic. Well. Let’s just say that this time Courtney Martin’s latest article at the Prospect drove me to it. So, because I just can’t do these things in a mature fashion, get ready for a rant.

Martin’s article is titled “Lessons for Feminists from Sarah Palin,” and as soon as I figured out that’s not a sarcastic title, I knew I was going to get irritated by it. My fears were confirmed when Martin begins thus:

When Palin parachuted onto the national scene, she landed smack dab on the fault lines of gender and politics, shaking contemporary feminism to the core. Now that the dust has settled from her oh-so-sudden resignation, it’s time for feminists (the alive kind, of course) to pick our jaws up off the floor, take a deep breath and really think through what we’ve learned from her year or so in the spotlight.

Um no. That actually didn’t happen. She set feminism back decades because the GOP paraded her as a forward-looking, anti-sexist candidate, while simultaneously marketing her as a Mom, with a capital M, a provincial woman who—oh yeah—just so happens to be governor of Alaska. Not threatening at all, right? Nope, nor was the way they made her into a sex object, doing nothing to reject the cartoons of Sarah Palin naked but for animal-skin draperies, the Sarah Palin calendars and action figures, even the Sarah Palin-inspired porno that made the rounds of the internet during the election season. And Palin herself, with her strong pro-life stance, is no more in the feminist tradition than Phyllis Schlafly, another woman who took an active political role to support a platform that was decidedly anti-feminist.

So, now that we disagree on that premise, Ms. Martin, what have we so-called “feminists” learned from the soon-to-be-ex-Governor of Alaska? Oh, right, apparently that buying into a commercially-marketed notion of “femininity” or “what a woman should look like” is… feminist? This was the part of Martin’s article that I had the most problems with:

Sarah Palin appeals to a broad need among contemporary American women who want to be leaders and demonstrate their intellectual strength, but also maintain their allegiance to traditional notions of femininity. Both her RNC address and her resignation speech were filled with this subtle duality and bold permission for women everywhere to flex their muscles while painting their fingernails.

Feminism has never been about limiting anyone’s gender identity or expression — quite the opposite — but unfortunately the media have been largely successful in spinning it that way. There are women all over the country who believe feminists are anti-femininity, that women who value piety or sell Mary Kay or give their daughters Barbies are automatically disallowed from the “F club.” Sarah Palin’s feminist flip-flop during campaign season — first telling Katie Couric that she was a feminist, then telling Brian Williams that she wasn’t — certainly didn’t clear things up.

Feminists need to get better at explaining that, in fact, feminism is opposed to anything that narrows human beings’ choices around gender identity and expression. Whether you are Sarah Palin and you want to wear a perky ponytail while standing by your “dude,” or you’re Rachel Maddow and want to wear thick black glasses while standing by your partner, we defend your right to do so. Femininity is not feminism’s enemy. What we’re against is blinding following traditional gender roles. What we’re for is self- and societal analysis that leads to conscious choices about self-expression — male or female, conservative or progressive, hockey mom or butch dyke. We simply must get better at saying that aloud, in public, and getting women across America to hear us.

Um, wow. Wow. And I’m not just speechless with outrage because I have a huge crush on Rachel Maddow. Way to use loaded language that makes it seem as if the Rachel Maddows, the butch dykes, the women with “partners” instead of “dudes,” the women who aren’t into Barbies or nail polish, are the ones who are somehow limiting feminism. And oh, Ms. Martin, way to skirt around the word “lesbian.” I know you think that our butch ways are ruining everyone else’s freedom of expression, but first of all, don’t stereotype the dykes and lump gender identity in with gender expression in with sexual orientation; second of all, it’s a little more challenging to subvert gender and sexuality paradigms on a daily basis than it is to put on some makeup or be a hockey mom. I don’t think Sarah Palin’s right to be in a women’s restroom has ever been challenged; moreover, I think it’s important to remember that Palin doesn’t support same-sex marriage or other forms of LGBT equality. She doesn’t want feminism or whatever it is she stands for to allow women a full range of choice and expression. Why, Ms. Martin, should we interpret her time in the public sphere in that way?

But I think the central issue that troubles me about these grafs is that stereotypical straight suburban soccer moms and butch dykes (and please, Ms. Martin, leave it to the butch dykes to decide whether they want to be called “butch dykes”; that’s kind of a loaded term) are somehow opposite sides of some sort of Spectrum of Feminism. It’s the conflation of sexuality and gender and presentation and assuming that they somehow equal a political identity—when that is far from the case.

And then we come to Martin’s conclusion:

It may have made feminists squirm to see that the movement’s fight produced a moment ripe for a soldier like Sarah Palin, but from another vantage point, her candidacy (and more importantly, Hillary Clinton’s) prove we’ve won certain battles. Women are taken seriously as political candidates. Plain and simple.


Despite all that, I feel thankful that she inadvertently pushed feminists out of complacency. We were obliged to clarify where we’ve won and where we’re falling behind, who we’ve brought into the fold and who continues to see feminism as an elitist, anti-man, femininity-rejecting posse of miscreants (thanks, mainstream media).

I really don’t think anyone took Sarah Palin’s candidacy seriously. I didn’t take her seriously. The mainstream media didn’t take her seriously. The blogs didn’t take her seriously. The GOP base, who fetishized her wild Alaskan exoticism, didn’t take her seriously. The folks who made that porno certainly didn’t take her seriously. Any idea that women are taken seriously in political races as candidates and not as woman candidates is a total joke. Hillary Clinton’s campaign demonstrates that, as do the Sotomayor hearings. Palin was ridiculed and sidelined in a different way from Clinton or Sotomayor, but she was ridiculed and sidelined nonetheless. And speaking as a feminist, if Sarah Palin “pushed” me “out of complacency,” it was to realize that we can’t let retrograde family-values conservatism define what women’s role in society is. I think we probably had forgotten that in the wake of the Schlafly/ERA debacle; it’s a lesson that’s probably new to feminists of my generation who became aware of the world during the Clinton years. I don’t think the past six months have been successful for feminism at all. We’ve seen Michelle Obama, a strong and independent career woman who also managed to raise a family, become the World’s Most Famous Mom. And while motherhood is awesome, it sucks that all she can do is support her husband in his full-time job. The media’s treatment of Hillary Clinton has been appalling, as has the media’s and the Senate Judiciary Committee’s treatment of Sotomayor. It’s hard to be a woman in politics. It’s hard to be a woman in journalism. It’s hard to be a woman in academia. And I really don’t think Sarah Palin’s candidacy changed that, or that reaching out more to family-values conservatives will continue to change that.

Martin ends her article by saying, “No matter who [Palin] claims to be, we need to keep pushing ourselves to clarify who we are.” Well, I don’t think this is nearly as difficult as Martin is making it out to be. Feminism is about choice and independence and acceptance of all kinds of woman, and it has nothing to do with implicitly lumping women into categories as either suburban (straight, femme) moms or The Great Lesbian Menace. It has nothing to do with defining categories, and it certainly has nothing to do with political candidates who make their daughters’ teenage pregnancies a publicity bid for the pro-life movement; who oppose what, as far as I can see, are most of the platform planks of the mainstream liberal feminist movement.

I have no idea how Sarah Palin identifies herself, but I have a hard time believing that her party would express its support for the feminist movement. I’m all set to embrace Palin, but until she and her party embrace me, my absolute non-femininity, and my understanding of what it means to be a feminist, there is no fucking way I’m celebrating the Governor of Alaska’s contribution to The Movement.

3 thoughts on “I don’t think that word means what you think it means…

  1. Oooh. We all should be ashamed for taking Governor Palin seriously because the main stream media didn’t. I am really embarrassed. Since when is the main stream media the national conscience? Seems to me they are more like a gutter mind when they give voice to people who make salacious comments about the Governor (or her daughter) and when they poke fun about the Tea Party-goers. For every 52 people who did not take her seriously there were 48 who did in this country enough to vote for the R ticket.

    And what is “forward-looking” exactly? You mean to the day when we can eliminate Downs syndrome babies in the womb without any harm to the mother? Or maybe just extract them so they can be experimented upon? Oh, I see, you want to return before “retrograde” to a time when abortion was commonly accepted and sexuality was determined by whatever was your pleasure. You want to go really ancient. I call you the retrograde, the caveperson, the Neanderthaless for wanting to go way way back before civiliziation took root. Get off these stupid, little terms of progress, forward, retrograde. They mean nothing and they say nothing. Say something direct like “there is no natural law or universal morality.” Say what you really mean and don’t hide behind buzz words.

    As for it being hard to be a woman in politics, some women join in and make it tough on themselves. Look at some of the attack blogs on wordpress: lynnrockets who seems to spend about half her day coming up with little witty lyrics to songs just to embarrass the Governor or try palinoscopy or any of the others.

  2. pelinore,
    I reread the post, and much to my surprise the author mentioned neither abortion nor ancient standards of sexual expression. This is quite surprising given that you spend a good bit of your argument, namely the second paragraph, arguing against these two things (and cave people…?).
    Assuming the politics of people you haven’t met is never wise. While you may have gathered from reading this blog that the author has a strong liberal bent, putting words into people’s mouths – especially as a means of categorizing them and subsequently dismissing their ideas – implies a complete disregard for what they are trying to say. In short, going off on a rant about what you feel the author implies about about Downs syndrome and abortion by virtue of their other political views is inappropriate in a response to an article about feminism and Sarah Palin .

    Now, in response to what you said:
    Of course the main stream media is not the nation’s conscience. Furthermore, nowhere did the author say that they were. Rather, the media is a reflection of a lowest common denominator of our society. But this misses the author’s point, which is a response to Ms. Martin’s original argument: that citing Sarah Palin’s candidacy as a triumph for modern feminism is both generally inaccurate and, in many cases, insulting to women who identify as feminists.

    Finally, I agree that woman do make it hard on other woman, especially those in positions of power. However, it’s not just the woman. A whole lot of the vitriol in the media, which is very male dominated, comes from men. Citing women in general, as if women were a collective body actively trying to get in their own way, does not address the problem.

    p.s. it’s Neandertals or Neanderthals depending on how Germanic you like your German words. (or Homo neanderthalensis or Homo sapiens neanderthalensis depending on your view of their mental capacity).

  3. Rocky, thank you for your response. I was coining a feminine version of the word Neanderthal.

    This is the basis for my comment:

    1. Sarah Palin pro-life, meaning she is against the destruction of the unborn at whatever stage and therefore is also against the destruction of embryos for research. Sarah Palin has stated that marriage is between a man and a woman. Sarah Palin promotes a culture of life.

    2. The blogger called Sarah Palin a retrograde. The blogger believes Sarah Palin is not forward-looking.

    3. Let’s cut through the bull. What does retrograde mean for this blogger? Without any explanation forthcoming I conclude it must mean pro-life, pro-traditional marriage, pro-culture of life. Which of course means that forward-looking is the opposite of that. Now all of these terms have a chronological element and you know as well as I that the description “from the Dark Ages” or “from the Middle Ages” is meant to be an insult and derision. Do I need to go on? These appelations mean nothing because you can always go back farther and find some human being or community that was doing whatever sexual perversion or culture of death act you want.

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