The Sexist

How Sarah Palin Confuses Liberals Into Arguing Against Feminism

Visit for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

I don't think much of Sarah Palin as a feminist, but the Alaska Governor has emerged as an interesting figure in the movement for one reason: she has encouraged conservatives to unwittingly defend women's rights, and liberals to deny them. This MSNBC clip, featuring the Huffington Post's Katharine Zaleski and the Washington Times' Amanda Carpenter, is a perfect example.

Let's find out how easily women's issues fall to the side in the interest of ideological posturing. The stage is set: you've got your liberal pundit, courtesy of HuffPo; your conservative pundit, courtesy of WaTi; and your encouragement for the two to disagree on everything no matter what, courtesy of MSNBC. Let's throw a feminist issue in there—making light of rape—and see what happens.

Here, Zaleski and Carpenter are asked to face off on David Letterman's recent Late Show joke. Letterman said this about Palin and her 14-year-old daughter Willow's recent Yankees game outing: "During the seventh inning, her daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez." Letterman later took the statement back in a joke-filled apology claiming that he had meant to make the comment about 18-year-old Bristol Palin, not Willow.

Here's what Palin had to say about it: "I found out later the comment that was made about the statutory rape of my 14-year-old daughter Willow ... that crossed the line. Then others, chiming in on other comments Letterman has made. It's quite a sad commentary on where we are as a culture and a society ... He doesn't have to apologize to me. I would like to see him apologize to young women across the country for contributing to that thread that is throughout our culture that makes it sound like it's okay to talk about young girls in that way."

Carpenter, of course, took Palin's side, arguing that the comment was unacceptable, and further, that Sarah Palin had bolstered her women's issues cred by taking a stand over the comments. "It's hard for women in general when accusations like this are made, dirty jokes and things. There's always a conflict of—do you turn your head, or do you make a statement about it and push back? And even when you make a statement, you're accused of manufacturing outrage," Carpenter said. "She took that risk. She said, this isn't acceptable. And I think women are happy to hear that message. I'm certainly one of them."

Zaleski, of course, took the anti-Palin side. Let's check out her argument here:

"Sarah Palin basically ran the hate-speak express during the campaign. She stood there and watched people as they screamed 'kill him' at Obama and 'terrorist.' If she really wants to rise above this, she'll talk about irresponsible speech in general, irresponsible speech that many of her cohorts on national networks are using, irresponsible speech that's leading to things like what happened on Wednesday at the Holocaust Museum. If she really wants to make this an issue, she won't make this about herself and her family all the time, her family who she persistently trots out there, and her daughter who she made a statement about on Thursday. . . . I challenge people like Sarah Palin, like people you talk to on Fox News, to really condemn the language that's greater, this really reprehensible language, that's not just about Bristol Palin but that's about hate speech that's basically leading to actions which happened on Wednesday. That's what's disgusting.

Again, I don't buy Palin as a feminist figure. I, too, think she too often uses her personal life—growing up fishing and hunting with the boys, and then finding great personal success in the Republican Party—as a stand-in for female empowerment, while simultaneously ignoring women's issues as candidate and Governor.

Still, there's something about Zaleski's arguments here that I find particularly anti-feminist. Let's break them down:

1. Obama's girls are off-limits, but Palin's are fair game: "If she really wants to make this an issue, she won't make this about herself and her family all the time, her family who she persistently trots out there, and her daughter who she made a statement about on Thursday."

Read: "Some girls deserve it."

2. Palin started it by making comments about Barack Obama (who is also off-limits), which is why her daughter especially deserves it. "She stood there and watched people as they screamed 'kill him' at Obama and 'terrorist.'"

Read: "She was asking for it."

3. "I challenge people like Sarah Palin, like people you talk to on Fox News, to really condemn the language that's greater, this really reprehensible language, that's not just about Bristol Palin but that's about hate speech that's basically leading to actions which happened on Wednesday. That's what's disgusting."

Read: "Rape is not a real problem. You're exaggerating."

4. Letterman claims he had intended to make the joke about Bristol Palin, and we take Letterman at his word.

Read: "Officer, I didn't know she was under 18."


    I like the title of your article because of this .

    "she too often uses her personal life—growing up fishing and hunting with the boys"

    That is sexism.
    Your blog make no sense
    you repeat liberals like like this one :
    "She stood there and watched people as they screamed ‘kill him’ at Obama and ‘terrorist.·

    The Secret Service Investigated: Allegations Unfounded [2] No Video, No Audio, No Witnesses, No Agent Heard Any Such Remark
    The Secret Service in Scranton said allegations that someone yelled “kill him” when presidential hopeful Barack Obama’s name was mentioned during Tuesday’s Sarah Palin rally are unfounded.[2]

    Not one Secret Service agent in the crowd heard the remark.

    The only person to allegedly hear it was the reporter. He would not comment on the issue.

    The Scranton Times-Tribune reporter, David Singleton, first reported the alleged incident on its Web site Tuesday October 14, 2008 [1] and then again in its print edition Wednesday.

    The first story, written by reporter David Singleton, appeared with allegations that while congressional candidate Chris Hackett was addressing the crowd and mentioned Obama’s name a man in the audience shouted “kill him."

    However, the Secret Service in Scranton said allegations that someone yelled “kill him” when presidential hopeful Barack Obama’s name was mentioned during Tuesday’s Sarah Palin rally are unfounded.[2]
    News organizations including ABC, The Associated Press, The Washington Monthly and MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann reported the claim, with most attributing the allegations to the Times-Tribune story.

    Agent Bill Slavoski said he was in the audience, along with an undisclosed number of additional secret service agents and other law enforcement officers and not one heard the comment.

    “I was baffled,” he said after reading the report in Wednesday’s Times-Tribune.

    He said the agency conducted an investigation Wednesday, after seeing the story, and could not find one person to corroborate the allegation other than Singleton.

    Slavoski said more than 20 non-security agents were interviewed Wednesday, from news media to ordinary citizens in attendance at the rally for the Republican vice presidential candidate held at the Riverfront Sports Complex. He said Singleton was the only one to say he heard someone yell “kill him.”

    “We have yet to find someone to back up the story,” Slavoski said. “We had people all over and we have yet to find anyone who said they heard it.”

    Hackett said he did not hear the remark.

    Slavoski said Singleton was interviewed Wednesday and stood by his story but couldn’t give a description of the man because he didn’t see him he only heard him.

    When contacted Wednesday afternoon, Singleton referred questions to Times-Tribune Metro Editor Jeff Sonderman. Sonderman said, “We stand by the story. The facts reported are true and that’s really all there is.”

    Slavoski said the agents take such threats or comments seriously and immediately opened an investigation but after due diligence “as far as we’re concerned it’s closed unless someone comes forward.”

  • Peter Townsend

    You are guilty of misinterpretation of Zaleski's comment. Your headline is misleading. The liberals merely expanded the meaning behind it and accused Palin of being a hyposcrit. Which she is. It did not dismiss the issue, it merely engaged a far greater one.

  • Lisa Graas

    What gets me is that the feminists are all whining instead of hailing Palin for doing what her male predecessors could not do for DECADES in Alaska -- brokering a deal for the largest private infrastructure construction project in HISTORY.......and getting it done by staying OUT of the company board rooms (unlike Obama) and protecting the rights of the resource owners -- the people of Alaska.

    Why no cudos for that? Just whining about Letterman. Sad. And while she is on the news trying to get word out about the pipeline deal, reporters invariably ask her about the Letterman thing. She responds and the feminists say *she* is whining!!!

    I have no respect for those kinds of feminists who want to do nothing but whine and won't allow her to be seen as the accomplished woman she is. No respect at all.

  • Wineplz

    I'm glad to see that ADCDL reiterated the findings from the Secret Service and the Scranton authorities regarding the alleged claim of someone yelling "kill him" in the audience of a Palin rally last fall. Too bad HuffPo's Katharine Zaleski relies on shock-value to divert attention from the argument instead of giving a valid response to the question at hand.
    And thank you, Ms. Hess, for seeing through Ms. Zaleski's diversionary language to show what she was actually saying; for bringing light to her double-standard that seems so prevelent these days. If Letterman had made those kinds of comments about Obama's daughters or Biden's daughters, I would be just as outraged.

  • Lisa Graas

    Sorry, I meant "kudos". We call Palin "the 'Cuda" sometimes so I got a bit mixed up.

  • mdesus

    here's the thing, and we already went over it with date rape, and rape stories (right m@?) are hilarious. Age of consent in alaska is 15 so she's real close to legal.

  • sys admin

    This blog post is completely incomprehensible.

    If there is a thought expressed in the article I cannot find it.

  • Bernie

    No one is coming out of this looking very good. Letterman's joke, as apparently intended about Bristol, still presumes the sexist old fashioned prudish notion that a 17 year old girl who has sex with the steady boyfriend she had been going with a couple years is a loose woman who would have sex with anyone. Not as bad as joking about statutory rape, but still not good from a fairness standpoint.

    Palin's initial anger was of course justified, but she should take Letterman's offer to go on the show and clear the air. She would do well to explain to Letterman and his vast audience why and how the pervasive sexual humor that infects society harms girls and women of all ages. Her refusal to cool down and talk it out will hurt her among moderates who probably agree with her point but think she should explain her points and move on.

  • pirati

    Bernie, she has explained her point, on other shows and moved on. Jeez, man.

  • mdesus

    we're talking about palin so that's jesus man.

  • Gretchen

    mdesus- where do you get the 15 yo age of consent for Alaska idea? I believe that only applies to a two year discrepancy in age difference. Unless Alex R is 17 years old, then your point is moot.

  • Gretchen
  • Amanda Hess

    Alex Rodriguez is 33 years old.

    The A-Rod part of the joke is as mystifying to me as the rest of it. I know Rodriguez has been linked to several famous women, but has he ever been accused of rape or with sleeping with underage girls? I haven't heard anything like that.

    Sounds like more of the same slut-shaming logic to me---A-Rod is perceived as promiscuous, so it's okay to joke about him raping someone?

  • Amanda Hess

    Also, New York was the site of the "joke rape," so here's the New York state info:

    "Third-degree rape for anyone age 21 or older to have sexual intercourse with someone under age 17.

    Second-degree rape for anyone age 18 or older to engage in sexual intercourse with someone under age 15. The fact that the offender was less than four years older than the victim at the time of the act is an affirmative defense."

    Sorry, but it's a rape joke. It just is. The fact that both Willow and Bristol have, as far as we know, never even met A-Rod makes it even creepier.

  • mark colavecchio

    um...the age of consent in Alaska is 16...but whats your point? Rape is rape no matter the woman's age...its violence against women and KUDO's to Ms. Hess for pointing out the obvious: that the unwitting liberal women who rage against the Governor embarrassed themselves by arguing against women???

  • Ian Schlapkohl

    It was a crappy offensive joke, and Palin has said most of the right things (for once), but I'd take her exhasperated anti-rape crusade a lot more seriously if she hadn't forced rape victims to pay for their own rape kits when she was mayor of Wasilla.

    So yeah, in this instance doing the right thing is in the political interests of Palin, but a broken clock is right twice a day. I take this with the same seriousness that I take Dick Cheney's pro-gay marriage stance. Neocons are selfish, sexist, racist, biggots and they only way they'll take a correct stance on an issue is if it affects them directly.

  • Amanda Hess

    Ian, I agree with you totally on this. It is interesting, for me, that the issues directly affecting neocons are beginning more and more to emerge as feminist (and pro-gay) issues. Hopefully some day some of this will stick.

  • Ian Schlapkohl

    Well, I guess the the virtue of having tons of kids is that some of them are likely to end up with an alternative lifestyle, or under the threat of rape. Wow, that last part felt weird to type.

  • Pingback: Sarah Palin: Not Offended Enough! - The Sexist - Washington City Paper

  • Q

    Amanda, this is by far the worst thing I've read. Only #3 has some semblance to what the commentator was saying. To make things simple, let me help you:

    #1 David Letterman is a commedian with POOR Taste. To verbally assault A-Rod in a joke is one thing, to pull Bristol in it is pretty lousy, regardless of her out-of-wedlock publicity. BTW, his stewardess remark wasn't funny either.

    #2 Palin should hold him accountable for things that he said. It's not feminism to hold people accountable. IT IS THE RIGHT THING TO DO! Dave's remarks were reprehensible and like she said almost stimulating statutory rape or indecent acts in general.

    #3 While Zaleski's was dealing with the broad problem of hate speak, don't interpret her comments to be PRO-RAPE! No where in her discourse could a reasonable person interpret “Some girls deserve it.”, “She was asking for it.”, or “Officer, I didn’t know she was under 18.” The only reason I give a little leeway with your “Rape is not a real problem. You’re exaggerating.” is because someone reading the general hate speech comment may get distracted from the issue of statutory rape.

    Let it Go Amanda. Let it Go!

  • Conrad Davis

    Do you think the writers of the joke intended it to be about willow (the 14 year old) and A-rod, or Bristol (the adult) and A-rod?

    Letterman claims it's the latter. Other jokes have previously been ambiguous enough to have been about one of the Palin girls other than Bristol as well (as the linked article makes very plain), but the "RAPE JOKE RAPE JOKE" wingnut brigade only came out now. Why?

  • Amanda Hess


    Honestly, I think part of the reason is that Sarah Palin has more time on her hands now, and she's also in charge of her own public image. Remember, during the campaign, her statements to the press were reigned in by the McCain camp as much as possible. Maybe they didn't trust her to address the issue (or ANY issue), or they didn't think it was important.

  • Amanda Hess

    And Q: I don't think that Zaleski is pro-rape! She does, however, appear to believe that rape jokes are more acceptable when they're told about certain people (and the daughters of certain people) depending upon that person's past behavior. I disagree, and I also believe that the kinds of arguments that Zaleski and others use to justify rape jokes can mirror the arguments that people use to justify, excuse, or downplay rape. It's the same thing that makes rape jokes destructive in the first place---even though they are NOT by any means "rape," they use the same discourse.

  • Mark Anderson

    Liberals have been supportive of women's rights and conservatives have not. Conservative women have been the beneficiaries of liberal success in this field but don't support policies that got them where they are, how's that for confusion. It's an ironic situation, and with the Palin's it's magnified by the motherhood of Bristol Palin. Bristol now is the spokesperson for the Sarah Palin line of abstinence only, when it's painfully clear to everyone but the Palin's, that abstinence doesn't work. That is the real background of the joke, the density of the Palin's on their own experience. It was a joke in bad taste but understandable.

  • alana

    I feel like the real issue here is that we’re allowing Palin (and others like Meghan McCain) to turn this into an issue between Liberal and Conservative women. Where is the benefit in that? If Palin wanted to have a real conversation about the underlining misogyny in our society that made these jokes seem appropriate in the first place, then she wouldn’t be politicizing the issue for sympathy.

    Sexist jokes against any woman, no matter what political ideology she has, hurt all women. But let’s not pretend Palin is trying to use this opportunity to have an honest dialog about it.

  • alana

    Oh, and isn’t it a bit hypocritical for people to be so upset by the comments Letterman made while no one bats an eye at the public statement in which the Palins insinuated that Letterman was a pedophile?

    That seems much worse then a joke about “knocking up” a teenager who is famous for being “knocked up.”

    (I want to clarify that I’m NOT rationalizing Letterman’s comments. I’m just not playing favorites or picking and choosing who has the right to make offensive comments.)

  • Pingback: Letterman Apologizes (Again), Palin Accepts - The Sexist - Washington City Paper

  • AndyShep

    Palin is a smarter politician than most people understand. She chose a perfect issue to expose the cold hard truth about a large number of liberals. She is allowing Democrats to Hoist themselves on their own petard.

    Those who dislike her automatically give Letterman a pass to a degree that they are not even capable of seeing what others see. Palin is addressing conservative leaning Americans who voted Democrat, most importantly Christians who do not hate gays or advocate torture. For many it is clear that if a mother brings her fourteen year old daughter to a baseball game and someone makes a joke that the woman's daughter was having sex with ballplayers during the seventh inning stretch two things are clear. That person is an idiot, and they should immediately apologize.

    If those who say that she had it coming, also want to hold the mantle of the group of people who support women and feminism, they really don't come off looking well. Palin exposes strongly liberal Democrats for what they are by allowing them an opportunity to be themselves in public.

    Given a choice between caring about abortion or caring about respect for women, many women who voted democrat care far more about being treated with respect than they do about someone killing/aborting their unborn child.

    If you reacted strongly to the word killing above then you think differently than they, and you probably don't understand them well. They don't want to work hard to ban abortion or work hard to keep it. To them the word feminism means respect for them and their families.

    Many women out there identify with the goals of feminism (as they see it.) They want to be treated with respect at the workplace and advance in their careers. The problem is the picture of a Liberal feminist is one of a woman screaming about her right of abortion, but to many women the struggles of Sarah Palin are much closer to their own aspirations and struggles.

  • Pingback: Last Week’s Most Popular Blog Posts - The Sexist - Washington City Paper

  • Pingback: The Onion’s Best and Worst Rape Jokes - The Sexist - Washington City Paper

  • Pingback: Sarah Palin’s Next Move - The Sexist - Washington City Paper

  • Pingback: Sarah Palin’s Other Lessons For Feminists - The Sexist - Washington City Paper

  • your an idiot

    Force conservative to unwittingly defend womens rights?!!yes all conservatives think women deserve no rights...did i get that right amanda hess?
    Facts dont matter to you people. Is your grasp of reality so tenuous, your logic so twisted that you cant think of one single thing that sinks your pathetic premise? (unwittingly support human rights) as if they dont support womens RIGHTS. There is a big difference between womens RIGHTS and the activist man hating drivel that feminist groups aspouse. are you 12 years old. Go back to sucking your thumb.

  • Pingback: The 10 Most Popular Sexist Posts of the Year: Semen, Nipple Slips, and Sarah Palin - The Sexist - Washington City Paper