The Sexist

The Feminist Mystique: How Election 2008 Killed a Notorious Word

Still ruining everything: Palin paved the way for Obama to kill "feminist"

The death of the word "feminist" was broadcast on the evening news. In September 2008, at the height of the presidential campaign, Katie Couric boarded John McCain's airplane, took a seat with vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, and lobbed the first in a series of softballs: Did Palin consider herself a feminist? Palin's response:

I do. A feminist who believes in equal rights, and I believe that women certainly today have every opportunity that a man has to succeed, and to try to do it all, anyway. And I'm very, very thankful that I've been brought up in a family where gender hasn't been an issue. You know, I've been expected to do everything growing up that the boys were doing. We were out chopping wood and we were out hunting and fishing and filling our freezer with good wild Alaskan game to feed our family.

"Feminist" isn't the only English-language word that suffered from Palin's candidacy, of course (see "maverick," "terrorist"). But while other terms employed by the Alaska governor withered from twisted meanings, "feminist" experienced a more symbolic death. Palin killed "feminist" not by altering the meaning of the word—its meaning has never remained consistent in a century of use—but by eliminating its taboo.

Whatever "feminist" meant, it was a strong, scary term, one often prefaced with "man-hating" and followed by "bitch" and/or "Nazi." Its power as insult was matched only by its usefulness as a community-shaping litmus test. If you would self-identify as a feminist, with all its negative connotations, you proved your commitment to the women's movement; if not, you were part of the problem. In some respects, feminism was justified by its vile reputation: If the very name of the movement scared people, it meant that it was still relevant.

"Feminist" was not always the dirtiest term. Self-proclaimed "feminist" author Amy Richards writes that "women's liberationist was actually the preferred term" in the 1960s and '70s. Then, it "started to get a bad name, so it was abandoned for feminism. Now, that has a bad name."

Palin's nonthreatening version of feminism, gender-neutral aerial wolf-hunting aside, is in many ways a product of the feminist's reviled reputation. Take a close look at how Palin phrases her feminist self-identity. She calls herself a "feminist who believes in equal rights." That's spin most feminists are accustomed to unloading on when they're branded "Feminazis" or "man-hating lesbians." "Feminism is just about equal rights with men," they reply. "This is a mainstream position that any reasonable person would support."

In truth, feminists don't want "feminist" to be accepted as a mainstream position supported by any reasonable person—and they certainly don't want it to be accepted by a rogue conservative who does not support abortion rights or contraceptive access for rape victims. Feminists were misguided when they criticized Palin for professing to align with a movement she so clearly did not support. They should have been shaking their heads that the word "feminist" had become so safe that even a Republican vice presidential candidate is comfortable invoking it in a televised interview. The term "feminist" has resisted a lasting definition in order to maintain its radical attitude. That way, when feminist agenda items are accomplished—voting rights, contraception access, pay equity—they can be deposited into the mainstream as feminists move on to newer, more controversial issues. The threatening connotation of "feminist" works to keep the movement relevant and box out the traditionalists.

Now, Palin has made it acceptable for anyone who's simply dipped into the movement's archives to identify as "feminist." Thanks to her, "feminist" may now refer to those who believe the women's movement has already accomplished its goals—or worse, that feminism was stronger in the distant past. Even as Palin's presence has faded from the national scene—and with it, her gosh-darn brand of feminism—a deeper threat to "feminist" remains.

When Michelle Obama refused in 2007 to identify as a "feminist" in an interview with the Washington Post, the dirty-word status was alive and well. "You know, I'm not that into labels," Obama said. "So probably, if you laid out a feminist agenda, I would probably agree with a large portion of it.…I wouldn't identify as a feminist just like I probably wouldn't identify as a liberal or a progressive."

But later in the campaign that would kill "feminist," her husband privately self-identified as feminist to Ms. publisher Eleanor Smeal. This month, Smeal had Obama's feminism illustrated on the cover of her magazine; in a bodice-ripping superhero shot, Obama pulls away his button-down to reveal a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase, this is what a feminist looks like. The cover set off a firestorm of debate among self-identified feminists—does Obama have true feminist credentials, or doesn't he? Whatever: Once the most popular guy in the world identifies with your movement, you are swimming in the mainstream. Sarah Palin, at least, was scary.

Now, instead of a conservative feminist vice president, we have a moderate liberal feminist president. Could this perhaps be worse—not for feminism, of course, but for "feminist"? It's no longer a bad word, and that's a bad thing for feminism.

Photo by buddhakiwi

  • Sady

    This is GENIUS in so many ways. Then again, sometimes I read this and get a stomachache and think "feminism" might not be all that mainstreamed after all:

    I like "feminisms," plural, because I think so much of the threat around someone like Palin is the way they can say they are "feminist" and then say that "gender hasn’t been an issue" in their lives. Feminism is the belief that women should be fully equal to men in all respects - oh, and they totally are, so we can stop working! In essence, is what they are saying. Mainstreaming feminism often removes any challenges to the status quo from the movement and focuses on talking about how POST-gender-inequality we are and everything should stay exactly the same and gender analysis is making a big deal out of nothing and everything should just stay exactly the same because it is perfect.

    I hate to be Debbie Downer, but it ain't so. And having multiple feminisms, which sometimes conflict with each other, helps to resist that mainstreaming and declawing of the movement. I hope. But, yeah, feminism can mean anything up to and including anti-feminism, these days.

    Which is why I privately prefer "babykilling spinster."

  • Gail

    Ask 10 different people to define "feminist" and you'll get 10 different answers. It's a passe' label!

  • Out

    Obama is sexist NOT a feminist.

  • Jennifer

    Democratic women do not have the monopoly on "feminism"....

    Sarah Palin is THE definition of feminism.

    When women bash other women, we all loose.

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  • Emily

    Feminism is not supposed to be controversial. It is commonsensical, so by virtue we would be fighting against the odds to make it naughty. The goals the movement seeks to achieve "voting rights, contraception access, pay equity" are not evermore scandalous, they are rudimentary. It's pitiful that they must be achieved slowly, one step at time involving arduous processes of convincing those in power that women deserve the same freedoms as men. I would absolutely NOT agree that tagging our president as a feminist hurts the movement. Instead I think it's a slap in the face to those that mock feminism as something that only hot-tempered, irrational women spout off about because they hate men or love women too much or whatever. These people (men and women) generally never bother to learn what feminism is actually about. Now, when an educated, thoughtful, truly concerned man dedicated to the cause of spreading justice becomes the most popular person in the country (world?) and he can get on board, it’s as Katherine Spillar explained: It’s a wake-up call ( Many of the same issues we have been dealing with for decades remain on the table. Equal pay, for example, is so basic it’s outrageous we still have to rely on a “bad word” to muster up any hope of even getting the general public to recognize why it’s problematic that women don’t make the same amount of money for the same job a man does. The same job. Ay. Feminism isn’t an elite club. There is not a limited supply of “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirts. Anyone can wear one. Shit, everyone should.

    Also, the idea that a man, or a popular person, or both at once cannot be a feminist without dampening the cause is preposterous and totally archaic.

    Nice comment from Frisky:

    "The only people making a mockery of feminism are the feminists who get their knickers in a bunch over EVERYTHING. It’s shameful and it’s embarrassing. The world is not black and white and it’s certainly not men vs. women. Women can align with (and vote for!!) men without turning their backs on their gender, and a man can stand up for women’s rights without being some superhero who’s rescuing feminism. The man was raised by two strong women, is married to a strong woman, has a strong mother-in-law, and is raising two little girls. Why WOULDN’T he be a feminist?"

    Pretty much.

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  • repingeorgetown

    No, what's scary is sad hipster townie paper reporterettes who took too many women's studies classes and went to too many Lilith Fair concerts. Get a haircut, lose the birkenstocks,wax that upper lip and get a real life.

  • mdesus

    and make me a sandwich.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Hess was 14 when Lilith Fair ended. GEEZER!

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  • wiggles

    "Sarah Palin is THE definition of feminism."

    If your definition of feminism is to charge rape victims for their own forensic kits and to nominate a state attorney general who blames domestic violence on women's failure to "keep their mouths shut", you have some serious rethinking to do on the subject of feminism.

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  • billy tk

    Spot on.
    Feminism is hiding between the reasonable fight for the fair treatment to push agendas that has nothing to do with fair treatment of women.

    The man hating feminazis realize that she will achieve - no - have achieved the reasonable goals of feminism - without using it as a Trojan Horse for the rest of the liberal agenda. This has them spitting up hairballs. She is going to achieve all that without divorcing her husband, breaking up her family, killing her unborn child and without being part of the liberal inner circle. They will not be able to use the fight for women's rights as an excuse to hide their true agenda. They will not be able to sell the whole package anymore and get away with it. In short - they will not get to exploit women anymore.

  • billy tk

    wiggles - you are attributing things to Sarah that you know is not true. Why don't you ask her the question directly. Or maybe not - it is easier to just make accusations without facts.