Sarah Palin has generated a lot of controversy as a result of a speech she gave calling for a new brand of feminism. Palin argues that the true feminists are anti-abortion, and unwilling to compromise on the position. This speech has understandably outraged liberal and progressive feminists, and it raises an interesting question: Who gets to call herself or himself a feminist?
Third wave feminist book author and blogger, Jessica Valenti, has argued that Palin’s adoption of the feminist label is nothing short of a political strategy.
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.
One of the paradoxes of feminism is that there is not one way to be a feminist. If you ask a group of twenty feminists what feminism means, you are likely to get twenty different answers. But if feminism is to mean anything at all, is there a common denominator that unites the women’s movement?
I believe that there is. At its core, feminism is about improving women’s lives. It is about advancing equal opportunities for women. And it is about shifting our thinking about what women are capable of doing. You cannot call yourself a feminist if you support anti-woman policies.
While Palin was the mayor of Wasilla, she made rape victims pay for their rape kits. During Sarah Palin’s term as governor of Alaska, domestic violence services remained woefully underfunded, with the majority of the funding for these services coming from the federal government. Despite that fact, Palin actively blocked federal funding for the prosecution of sex crimes. Consequently, Alaska’s domestic violence and sexual assault rates are among the highest in the country.
The conservatives who back Palin have consistently blocked federal funding for birth control and emergency contraception. They have prevented the United States from ratifying the UN Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). And they have also opposed equal pay legislation. When you do the math, there is no way to say that these actions fit within the feminist model. While there certainly is room within the feminist movement for multiple opinions, you can’t make life worse for women and then have the audacity to call yourself a feminist.
Sarah Palin aside, there has also been controversy within the feminist movement over the past year about the perceived generational gap between second and third wave feminists. Many older feminists feel that the current generation of women takes their reproductive rights for granted, and that they aren’t involved in politics in the same way that women were in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Younger feminists feel that their efforts have been dismissed. For example, during the health care reform debates, pro-choice activists were able to garner 87,000 petition signatures against the Stupak amendment in merely three days by using social networking tools, such as Twitter and Facebook. When Dr. Carhart‘s clinic in Nebraska was under attack by anti-choice extremists, young feminists rallied support online and showed up in droves to escort patients safely into the clinic. Given these results, it is easy to see why third wave activists feel that their efforts have been overlooked.
Sadly, the conflict over methods of activism is not a new dilemma. At the turn of the 20th Century, younger suffragists such as Alice Paul and Lucy Burns felt that the national suffrage organizations had become complacent. Paul and Burns founded the National Women’s Party and adopted a very militant style of activism in order to get the suffrage amendment passed. They picketed outside of the White House and were eventually arrested for their activism. Paul and Burns led hundreds of other suffragists on a hunger strike in the jail, which eventually swayed public sympathy and helped the suffrage movement reach a goal that was 80 years in the making.
The suffrage movement evolved over several decades, and saw a change in leadership three times during the struggle to win the right to vote. The original founders of the movement, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, knew that they would not achieve suffrage in their lifetime. Anthony said that they were sowing winter wheat that someone else would harvest. They knew that they had to groom younger women to take their place, and they willingly passed the baton in due time.
Today we are at a similar point in the feminist movement. Many second wave feminists are nearing retirement age. They have spent their lives advancing the cause of women, but it is time for a new generation of women to assume the leadership role. Unfortunately, the perceived generational divide within the feminist movement will only hinder our progress. It is not strategic for us to argue about what forms of activism have the most merit. Today, online activism, such as blogging and social networking, is taking the place of the consciousness-raising that was popular in the 1960′s and 1970′s. Today’s feminists are organizing online, rather than in the kitchen or the living room.
There is merit in discussions about the definition of feminism, just as there is merit in debates about the strategic value of different methods of feminist agitation. However, if the feminist movement is to keep making progress for women, we need to be clear about our objectives (improving women’s lives), stop the infighting, and focus our attention on those (Sarah Palin) who are actively opposing our goals.