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.