The Sexist

Sarah Palin Supporters Talk Feminism


On Saturday, hundreds braved the first snow of the year outside BJ’s Wholesale Club in Fairfax to get a live glimpse at Sarah Palin, there to sign copies of her new memoir, Going Rogue. Having filed into the shopping center’s parking lot, the Palinites were sitting ducks for reporters with questions like this one: What does Sarah mean for women?

“I think she speaks her mind, and I think sometimes she speaks a little bit unguarded, so she is a little—she’s not conformed to speaking planned speech. Planned. It’s not planned,” Dee, a Palin supporter from Haymarket, Va., explained. “So I think she speaks her thoughts, and I think that she goes ahead and talks. I think she’s a strong woman. And she allows herself to express that … she’s not afraid to speak. And she’s fairly attractive, and that doesn’t seem to interfere with her being intelligent.”

“As a younger female, I like the fact that she has her own opinions and is not afraid to share them with others,” Chantilly, Va.’s Celia Coughlin submitted. “Also, that she can stand on her own and pave her own path and not really follow the line of any particular thing.”

Elizabeth from Gainesville, Va., says: “For women, she represents principles, life principles, and for the country she represents principles also.”

“I think she’s representing the women the way they should be,” says Patrick Darby of Rockville, Md. “You know, independent, strong, capable of doing whatever she wants to do, standing up for moral issues. And rights.”

Who could ever argue with “rights”? Or with refusing to conform to “speaking planned speech”? Therein lies the appeal of the Palin as culture warrior. Since she debuted on the national scene last summer, conservatives have attempted to corral this outspoken personality into a politically expedient persona: Palin as feminist. The November issue of conservative magazine Newsmax featured Palin on the cover, under the headline “Sarah Palin and the Leaders of the Newer Feminism.”

In the issue, Newsmax situates some notorious female conservatives, like Palin and Dr. Laura Schlessinger, alongside more traditional feminist icons, like Ms. Magazine executive editor Katherine Spillar and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Pegging Palin, darling to anti-feminist voters everywhere, as America’s hottest new feminist is a clever trick. As the crowd at BJ’s attests, Palin’s feminism contains none of the messy political agendas of former feminist waves—it is all personality, all self-reliance, and no politics. It’s about speaking your mind, even when you don’t know what you’re talking about.

It’s a bizarre twist on the old feminist adage that the “personal is the political.” Instead of identifying the structural influences over the day-to-day lives of women, this feminism focuses tightly on choices that have been fully operational for decades: Pants or skirt? Family or career and family? Maybelline or Cover Girl?

In “newer feminism,” every woman’s choices are valued—no matter what those choices mean for other women. Schlessinger isn’t an enforcer of rigid gender roles; she’s a facilitator of women’s choices. Palin’s opposition to abortion rights and comprehensive sex education isn’t anti-feminist; it is her choice to deny reproductive choices to other women. Under this model, Girls Gone Wild founder Joe Francis isn’t an exploiter; he’s a liberator of women’s breasts.

Last fall, Palin did some yeoman’s work in the rebranding of the “F-word.” After telling Katie Couric that she was a “feminist who believes in equal rights,” Palin quickly added that she believed that all of feminism’s work had already been achieved. This “newer” feminism isn’t shy about devaluing feminism: The Newsmax report casually accuses Gloria Steinem of “man-hating,” celebrates Schlessinger’s statement that feminism has “turned the family life upside down” as a welcome “departure from the feminism of old,” and raises the bogeyman of feminist “bra-burning” four times. In her contribution to the Newsmax piece, writer Andrea Tantaros floats a new definition of feminism: “choice.” Feminism, she writes, is now “defined by each and every woman.”

The democratization of feminism brings us back to the parking lot outside of BJ’s Wholesale Club. If feminism is now “defined by each and every woman,” why not by Mary Ellen Hood, a D.C. resident who eschews politics but loves Sarah Palin?

“I’m not so sure I would put a label on her as a feminist,” says Hood of Palin. “She presents herself feminine … The impression is that feminists are women who don’t like to value their feminine qualities, and they like to put it down and be like a man, and I don’t think that’s appropriate for women. I kind of like her in that regard, that she’s sort of celebrating her womanhood as well.”

Loretta Teele of Fairfax is also more comfortable defining Palin in opposition to feminism than in concert with it. “She’s more godly, loving, and she’s more into her family,” says Teele. “She’s not out there like some of the past feminists—and I do not want to call names—that are bashing men and everybody around them. Feminists have a tendency to bash men. They’re cruel, and she’s not that.”

Caroline, a Herndon resident, is open to seeing Palin as a “new” feminist. “I think in a way. You know, not in the classic kind—you know, I came of age in the feminist revolution and there was a lot of kind of anti-male and anti-traditional female roles, like kids. There was a touch of that, there, back in the old days. And so, in that sense, she’s surely not. She kind of does kind of integrate it all—family, husband, everything, so I do think that that is really good.”

Others aren’t budging. “A feminist? Maybe borderline a little bit,” says Coughlin. “But I don’t really see her—no, not really.”

“I don’t even know what that means,” confirms Dee.

Feminism is now “defined by each and every woman,” and some women are still content to define the movement as those godless, mannish, childless specimens of women who hate men. The latest wave of the women’s movement is all about women having choices—as long as they make the right ones. Call it “newer” feminism, or Sarah Palin feminism, or anti-feminist feminism—just make sure you get a woman to say it, to make sure that it will be above all criticism.

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  • Richard

    "The latest wave of the women’s movement is all about women having choices—as long as they make the right ones. Call it “newer” feminism, or Sarah Palin feminism, or anti-feminist feminism—just make sure you get a woman to say it, to make sure that it will be above all criticism."

    I just wonder if within feminism if this is really inevitable because the category of what constitutes "women" and even more so their goals is not singular or very clear. Maybe its the women's studies texts, but I think its really tough to exclude Palin and others from the category if their goals are on some level to achieve what they conceive as a better or equal position for women.

    That being said, I think you could and should discuss why Sarah Palin's policies and beliefs about how to achieve equality for women is extremely harmful to women.

  • Brennan

    @ Richard
    Palin's goals have nothing to do with a "better or equal position for *women.*" They have everything to do with a better position for her *as* a woman, and if other women's rights and choices have to get trampled on in the process, it's no skin off her nose.

    Exibit A: Wasilla rape kits. Good for her--make victims of sexual assault pay for their own exams, save some money and look good for balancing the budget. And if some women can't pay . . . well, crime will just go down, won't it? Win win.

    Exibit B: Abstinence only education. Good for her--resonates with the base, builds her religious appeal, lets her show off her own cute kids (all of them conceived within the covenant of marriage!). And if some seventeen-year-olds have to have unplanned pregnancies, well . . . oops, that one kind of came back to bite her.

    Exibit C (and this is the scariest): She thinks the work of feminism is finished. Must be, right? After all, she got herself elected to high office while raising a pack of cute kids. Now she's making money hand over fist and all these people seem to love her and line up for her autograph, so how can there still be discrimination and harrassment and gender-based violence? After all, her life is just peachy-keen.

    The scary thing is, people will buy it. People want to believe that sexism is this specter of the distant past--that because women are more visible today we're also equally valued. Palin is popular not because her supporters think women are just as good as men but because she conforms to their idea of "women the way they should be" or what's "appropriate for women." This is positively terrifying to me because in the not-as-distant-as-you-think past is was inappropriate for women to do silly things like vote or seek an education (and still is in parts of the world). If people stop actively talking about the rights and needs of *all* women, there's no place to go but backwards and women like Palin will find their niches rapidly shrinking.

    I'm sure others can come up with more thoughtful and constructive examples; I just jotted the ones that first came to mind.

  • Linda Hirshman

    The idea that feminism embraces every woman's "choices" no matter how self-destructive and politically destructive does not start with Palin or her supporters. Where have you been?

    This, about the choice not to prosecute a rapist, from the trendy, "new" feminist supporting website, Jezebel:

    "My sexual assaults (yes, it's now happened twice) are not a political peg for other women to hang their hats on, and I should not and will not apologize to anyone for making decisions that were best for me. My body is mine — it doesn't belong to Feminism anymore than it belongs to the men who sexually assaulted me — and what I choose to do with it, or about it, is supposed to be my choice. To be told, subtly or otherwise, that my choices are invalid or anti-feminist is demeaning and condescending and in violation of the whole concept that feminism is about giving women choices and letting them make them."

    Similarly, the New York Times culture reporter Pat Cohen thinks any decision a woman makes about quitting her job or the division of housework is a good evolution away from the elitism of bad old Friedan type feminism:
    "Choice feminism was an adjustment to reality."

    Or Pogo: We have met the enemy and it is us.

  • pmsrhino

    All a personality contest with these people. Yeah, Palin's been through some sexist shit and it's not cool. And she did hold up well. But just because I respect her for that doesn't mean she's a feminist. All women have to deal with that shit day in and day out but all women are not feminist. Having a vagina does not automatically make you a feminist. If you believe strongly against taking away freedoms and rights and choices from women I do not think you can be feminist. Believe what you want, think what you want, do what you want, but when you work as hard has Palin has (and would have if she'd gotten into the White House) to undermine years of women's struggles for choice and freedom that I'm sorry, she is not a feminist in my book. The best GOP move to date was to frame Palin as a feminist and a victim of sexism (as if MANY Democratic women and other conservative women in government and politics aren't treated the same way or worse) in order to get people (women) to stand with her and feel like she is someone who will fight for them and their rights like she's fought for hers.

    Utter bullshit. Your anatomy does not make you a feminist nor your actions, but you ability to speak up and fight for other women's right and freedom to make their own choices, not just the choices you think they should make.

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  • DEO

    The only label I can put on Palin is LIAR. Whoever she happens to be talking to and whatever point pops into her pointy head will be the STANCE DU JOUR.
    If Palin says TWO things in a row, you've got a CONTRADICTION.

  • Lady Raine

    Ugh, Sarah Palin is an embarrassment to women of all kinds whether Feminist, Anti-Feminist, or otherwise.

    She never had the intellect or the skills to represent women or a political group. She reminds me of the "perfume lady" at Macy's that you just ignore as she blabbers on and on in her Stepford World in her mind.

    I mean, jesus the woman should have stopped having babies LONG ago. She's too old, failed at raising the ones she already had, and still cannot seem to figure out "what the problem is" with her kids and her family. She cannot handle a family, but is a walking example of a "female-middle-aged-crisis".

    I hope for her sake she realizes how silly and vapid she is, gets a grip on the reality of being an "older and more mature" woman and just gets out of politics altogether.

    I sort of view her as the "idiot that slipped through the cracks" somehow and ended up in Politics.

  • VeggieTart

    Sarah Palin is by no means a feminist. Anyone who would make it more difficult for a rape victim to get justice is actually the opposite of a feminist! Feminists believe in a woman's right to make the right decision for her when it comes to sexuality and reproduction. Feminists believe that whether women work outside the home or not, they should be supported.

    And just how is she "strong"? She couldn't even hack one term as governor! She practically had hissy fits at legitimate criticism of her (lack of) qualifications. She came across as an utter diva. She's not independent; she has successfully crammed herself in the box that the Republicans require for support from the party.

    What really ticks me off is that people who were slamming Hillary Rodham Clinton back in 1992 for being a strong, independent woman are probably the same women gushing over Palin's alleged "strength".

    As Rebecca West said almost 100 years ago: I myself have never understood what femnism is. I only know people call me a feminist when I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.

  • Richard

    It's hard to take on all the comments about Palin, but I'll address a few and make my broader statement based on them.

    "Palin’s goals have nothing to do with a “better or equal position for *women.*”

    I think this lets me make the distinction that I was going for. I think on some level her goals are largely in line with feminism, its just that her methods to get there are actually work against it.

    Looking at abstinence only education, I think that she truly believes that this type of education does benefit women and would allow them to live better lives. She is wrong and implementing these policies would be terrible for women, but that's not the point.

    I think the problem here is defining feminism as a set of means rather than a set of goals. Cynically or not, Palin is a feminist because she largely embraces the end goals of feminism even if her means actually result in the opposite.

  • Anne

    Sarah Palin is a poor role model for any woman who has political aspirations. Someone who still shows no grasp of national and international issues, and only chooses media favorable to her for interviews, should not be taken seriously.

    What does anyone think would happen if she ran for president? She would have to give specific, detailed answers to any questions about her policies and goals, instead of the canned GOP talking points. And someone is sure to use her inane remarks about various things against her. They could be Republican primary opponents or the Democratic opponent in the general election. At 45, she is too old for the cutesy act if she wants to be taken seriously.

    She is just as divisive and inflammatory now as she was in the campaign a year ago. Recycling things like William Ayers and the birth certificate issue show the same kind of fearmongering and hatemongering that cost the Republicans the presidential seat.

    So, all in all, I don't see her as representing any kind of feminism that I would recommend for my daughter or any other young female in my family.

  • Julie

    Thank you for this article, Amanda. I can't stand it when people uncritically link "choice" "women" and "feminism" and call it a day.

  • Robert

    Ms. Hess' article in the December 11-17 issue of the City Paper called, "Girls Gone Mild" was an interesting analysis of Sarah Palin's brand of feminism. While she seemed to be on the right track, she also seemed to miss the point that "feminism" as a movement has necessarily evolved over the last century. Contrasting Sarah Palin's outlook with that of feminist pioneers such as Gloria Steinem is disingenuous, as the goals and historical context of each woman's activism have necessitated different approaches. Putting aside certain political stances that Ms. Hess may myopically deem fundamental to feminism, Sarah Palin has a great deal in common with influential Twentieth Century feminists. Palin stands on the shoulders of the feminist leaders who came before her, having had the opportunity to achieve much of her political prominence because of the advances they made. As Palin carries her torch, she sees the next frontier in the advancement of gender equality as ensuring that women have the power to individually decide what feminism means to them. You may not agree with every aspect of her politics, but Palin represents an important part of the modern feminist movement.

  • Mona

    I'm 55 years old, I grew up in that era at beginning of feminism, I KNOW what that word means, and Sarh Palin in no way speaks for me. If she had not had a husband, and family support, we would never have heard her name. If she had been a single mother, doing it entirely alone, and then succeded, I might be impressed, she didn't and I'm not. And with all that support, I would think she would be far more educated than she is. If I want someone folksy to represent me, I'll take care of that myself.

  • Joseph

    Palin doesn't stand for anything except money. She has shrewdly used the opportunities presented to craft a lucrative career. That's it. There is no deeper meaning and she'll disappear with her millions when the attention fades.

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