Sarah Palin’s Great Feminist Magic Trick

Written by Amie Newman for RHRealityCheck.org – News, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice.

Sarah Palin is the latest in a string of conservative women and equally conservative advocacy organizations (“Feminists for Life”) to wrap themselves in the amazing technicolor coat of feminism. In a Washington Post article on Palin’s feminism grab, the writer notes:

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin told a group of women who oppose abortion rights that they are responsible for an "emerging, conservative, feminist identity" and have the power to shape politics and elections around the issue.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing underneath the flashy coat Palin and her fellow "emerging, conservative feminists" are wearing (unfortunately, at least, for the majority of women and girls in this country who are counting on real change in the form of equality. If the idea of Palin baring all under a multi-colored robe excites you, I can offer you nothing more at this point than a farewell). And though the co-opting of "feminism" as a movement is worthy of analysis, why should we be surprised? Sarah Palin is nothing if not a savvy strategist and she’s keyed into a brilliant strategy: her base of supporters is her “Sisterhood” and she’s ready to rally them. As Jessica Valenti writes in her satisfyingly on-point Washington Post article entitled “The fake feminism of Sarah Palin",

It’s not a realization of the importance of women’s rights that’s inspired the change. It’s strategy. Palin’s sisterly speechifying is part of a larger conservative move to woo women by appropriating feminist language. Just as consumer culture tries to sell "Girls Gone Wild"-style sexism as "empowerment," conservatives are trying to sell anti-women policies shrouded in pro-women rhetoric.

There is nothing new about Sarah Palin as a feminist. Not only is it likely that most people see Sarah Palin as a feminist already, she was rockin’ the feminism boat while she campaigned for Vice President. Sure, she’s anti-choice, and has done nothing noteworthy related to actual grassroots or political advocacy for women’s equality and in fact has actively worked to limit women’s choices. But Palin is a strong, independent, extremely successful woman who balances career and family – the world is her oyster and the women’s movement would want this for any and all women.

Obviously, conservative, Republican and independent women can be – and are –  feminists in some senses of the word. Many are successful professionals or are firmly seeded in the outside-the-home working world as the breadwinners in the family, some take advantage of maternity or paternity leave so that they can be both professional and parent, most have access to – and use – contraception that allows them to make choices about their reproductive lives, maybe they even run for Vice President of the United States having walked the path forged by the feminists who came before them.

But here’s where I get tripped up with the “feminism” Sarah Palin and her ilk are peddling. Women in the United States, on the whole, are looking for change in the form of equality and justice, says the National Women’s Law Center:

When women volunteer the most important issues facing American women today, they are most likely to cite: health care issues (including women’s health issues); pay for women and the issue of equal pay; opportunities for women in the work place; education; child care issues; and women’s rights in general.

Regardless of age, income, and education, more than half of women (55%) feel that the government should do more to solve problems and help meet people’s needs.

But how does Palin’s idea of “feminism” address answers to these obvious problems? Feminism, for Palin and her sisterhood, isn’t related to the long line of veteran women who came before them who broke barriers in the workplace, in the military, on the home-front. It isn’t about healthcare for undocumented immigrant women. It isn’t about the women (and men) who work every day to ensure access to the safe contraceptive methods that allow them to plan for their families. It isn’t about the feminists who have (and continue to) work towards pay equity for all women so our hundreds and thousands of women in the workforce, especially those single mothers, are paid fairly for the work they do. It’s not about recognizing how hard the women’s movement has worked to raise awareness of issues around sexual assault, domestic violence and rape. It’s not about the work of women’s rights advocates on behalf of women globally who are dying during pregnancy and childbirth. And, of course, it most certainly is not related to the feminists who have and do work daily to ensure access to safe, legal abortion care. As Valenti writes,

It isn’t a structural analysis of patriarchal norms, power dynamics or systemic inequities. It’s an empty rallying call to women who are disdainful of or apathetic to women’s rights, who want to make abortion and emergency contraception illegal, who would cut funding to the Violence Against Women Act and who fight same-sex marriage rights. As Kate Harding wrote on Jezebel.com: "What comes next? ‘Phyllis Schlafly feminism?’ ‘Patriarchal feminism?’ ‘He-Man Woman Hater Feminism?’ "

No. This is the feminism of conservatives – it’s akin to the, “I raised myself up by my own bootstraps and so can you.” The “I didn’t get any help from (chose one): welfare, affirmative action, government funded health care” and so therefore neither should you. It’s the “I decided not to have an abortion when I find out I was carrying a baby with Down’s Syndrome and so you shouldn’t be allowed to have the freedom to make the decision that’s best for you” type of feminism (never mind that Palin had the free choice to decide her fate and the fate of her child- without government interference and with much greater than average resources at her disposal.)

Somehow the statistics that provide us evidence (One in four girls drops out of high school. More than 14 million women live in poverty, and more than 17 million women have no health insurance. Women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar paid to men) that women and girls are in desperate need of an immense overhaul of societal and governmental structures, bypass conservative feminists completely.

What’s more, when the problems are allowed to make it into their line of vision, conservatives blame them squarely on the traditional feminist movement:

Palin, whose teenage daughter Bristol is also a mother, criticized abortion rights advocates for delivering the message to young women that they don’t have the strength to go through with pregnancy and motherhood.

"Our prominent woman sisterhood is telling these young women that they are strong enough to deal with this," Palin said.

"They can give their child life, in addition to pursuing career and education and avocations. Society wants to tell these young women otherwise. These feminist groups want to tell these women that, ‘No, you’re not capable of doing both.’ . . . It’s very hypocritical."

With a few well-worded phrases, Palin simply wipes away decades of sweat, toil and hard work and instead reworks feminism as a movement that limits women’s choices instead of expanding them.

Sarah Palin and her supporters choose to ignore, then, the millions of young, teen mothers who have no access to quality prenatal care, no access to quality childbirth services, limited financial resources, limited or no access to public schooling, and limited or no access to a job that would allow them the paid or unpaid maternity leave to care for their babies. But, again, this is a conservatism that falls back on an astounding lack of empathy, believing that the options, choices and opportunities available to oneself are automatically available to others – and if they aren’t, it’s only through the fault of those who do not have them.

Perhaps the most amazing part of Sarah Palin’s feminist rallying cry is related to abortion access. Palin was particularly passionate about her “feminism” at a gathering for the Susan B. Anthony List – a group that works to elect anti-choice politicians. They are so named because some believe that Anthony’s stance on abortion was akin to the anti-choice movement’s political stance today.  It is an unbelievably courageous and arrogant co-opting of one of the most admired women’s rights advocates in U.S. history. Anthony hardly was an anti-abortion advocate and there is, in fact, what amounts to zero evidence that she would be opposed to safe, legal abortion today. Not only is there no evidence to support Anthony’s opposition to legal abortion, there is no evidence to support Anthony’s opposition to abortion, period, in this day and age.

So, then, Sarah Palin’s faux-feminism is what cubic zirconia is to diamonds. It’s cheaply produced, low-quality counterpart. For women who want a feminism peddled by Palin, any sort of concrete advocacy or legislative action eludes them. Will Palin’s feminism translate into support for and action on behalf of the Global MOMS Act to improve maternal health? The International Violence Against Women Act? Action to eliminate environmental hazards for pregnant women and children? Will Sarah Palin and her feminist “sisters” work to ensure expanded access to contraception and high-quality, affordable childcare? Prenatal care for all women? Will they advocate for legislation that would help pull women and their families out of poverty? Will they step up and speak out when the Vatican launches an “investigation into the proliferation of feminism and activism” amongst Nuns? Will Sarah Palin and her conservative, feminist sisterhood respond to Pat Robertson’s claims that “feminism…encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians?” Or is this not quite the type of feminism they were hoping for?

There are some for whom the word feminist means very little – though women of every economic and social strata, ethnicity and race, religion and age align themselves with the idea that (and desperately want to see) women have the right to equity, equality and justice. There is a hesitancy, at times, to embrace the feminist label completely. There are also many who do not see their priorities adequately represented by the more mainstream feminist organizations. What would be most refreshing, then, would be to see Palin’s grab for “feminism” provide the spark to feminists to evaluate just how the women’s movement can become that much more enticing and relevant to the women and men of this country who fall firmly on the side of equity and justice for all– not just those women and girls conservative, Republican women believe “deserve” them. Sarah Palin’s brand of feminism is just that – a branded ploy, behind which there is nothing more than a wink and a smile.