Dec 1 2008

Sarah Palin: Maverick Feminist?

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/sskennel

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/sskennel

In the final weeks of the campaign, there was good news for feminists: The women’s movement had a new leader, ready to finish smashing that glass ceiling Hillary Clinton cracked. Yes, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was the fresh new face of feminism, even if feminists were too stubborn or elitist to admit it—or so some in the media would have audiences believe.

In what would surely be considered a nontraditional marriage, right-wing pundits attempted to wed Palin and feminism. Her incompatible stances on core feminist issues like safe and legal abortions, access to healthcare for working women and their families, and equal pay for equal work, were merely signs that “traditional” feminists are out of touch.

“Those are all women of a certain age who were in the first wave of feminism,” according to Fox News analyst Monica Crowley (10/9/08). “They don’t understand this woman. They don’t get Sarah Palin, how the fruits of feminism could produce a pro-life conservative woman. They think that their whole movement and their fight has been hijacked.”

First-wave feminism was actually in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when women fought for suffrage and legal personhood. But Crowley did raise a decent point: Perhaps the second-wave feminists she was actually referring to had good reason to fear that their movement had been hijacked—with the help of the media.

The coverage of Palin’s feminist side began after she identified herself to CBS anchor Katie Couric (9/30/08) as “a feminist who believes in equal rights.” While she retracted it a few weeks later, claiming, “I’m not going to put a label on myself” (NBC, 10/23/08), that didn’t stop the media from championing Palin as an unsung heroine of women’s liberation.

“When I look at her, I see somebody that I would assume feminists would take some pride in . . . who worked her way, you know, through the system when she was a mom,” declared Fox News host Martha MacCallum (10/14/08). “She has all kinds of neat things going for her, regardless of what you might think of her political take.”

Conservative columnist Cal Thomas opined (Fox News, 10/11/08):

I think there’s a double standard for women. . . . Feminist groups want more women in leadership positions. Really, what they want is really their kind of women with their ideology and their political platform. A conservative, articulate, good-looking Republican woman is somebody they trash.

Fellow panelist Patricia Murphy concurred that “it starts to make feminism look as exclusive as a country club.”

CNN host Jane Velez-Mitchell (10/24/08) was quick to defend Palin against “feminists on the liberal side saying she can’t do it all, which is what they’ve been trying to get women to be able to do for decades.”

Conservative Fox News guest Kerri Houston Toloczko (10/8/08) likewise treated feminist criticism of Palin as a curious vendetta: “Instead of reveling in [Palin’s] success . . . they’re throwing her under the big pink bus, and then the diaper bag and the Bible in after her.”

Toloczko even nominated Palin’s husband, Todd, for “feminist of the year.” After penning an op-ed in the Hawaii Reporter (10/7/08) giving Todd the title, she told Fox‘s Greta Van Susteren:

If the feminist movement was as honest as it should be . . . he would be their ideal husband. He’s comfortable around the diaper. He’s comfortable around the kitchen. . . . He supports his wife in every, you know, way, shape and form there possibly can be. But I think he’s probably more their worst nightmare.

It’s hard to say what is most confusing, the assertion that the feminist movement is searching for the ideal man, that Todd Palin’s ability to change a diaper somehow makes him a champion of women’s rights or that having a supportive husband is a feminist’s “worst nightmare.”

As pundits enthusiastically endorsed Palin-style “feminism,” some of them simultaneously pinned tired stereotypes on feminists and their supposed supporters in the “liberal media.” Pat Buchanan told MSNBC viewers (10/22/08) that Palin was “under savage attack because she’s so attractive and so conservative.” Right-wing radio host Joe Hicks claimed (CNN, 10/21/08) that media “came out of the gate disliking this woman because she isn’t the prototype for what they think a feminist should look like.” Because the media is usually so welcoming of feminists (see, e.g., Extra!, 11-12/06, 5-6/05, 7-8/04).

Radio host Bill Bennett (Morning in America, 10/21/08) explained his view on liberal feminist opposition to Palin: “Let me give you three things that I think drives them crazy, and you don’t have to comment. That she’s very attractive, that she’s very competent, or that she’s very happy. You know, as a human being.”

Well, that pretty much sums up all three waves of feminist theory. It is all about hating other women for their looks, their jobs and their happiness. Or, wait, is that the kind of divisive rhetoric that feminism struggles to unite women against?