It’s the debate that looks like it’s never going to die. When Sarah Palin first stepped into the spotlight many were thrilled that a woman was in the running for Vice President. The excitement lasted for, oh, a couple of days until everyone remembered which party she’s a member of and that all the ‘Yay, a woman doing well in politics!’ cries in the world weren’t going to drown out the anti-woman policies of the Republican Party.
Ever since, the subject of how women should feel about Palin has been a hot topic on the news and across the blogosphere. At one end we’ve got Christian fundamentalists saying that as a woman she should not be in public office and that she’s obviously neglecting her role as a wife and mother in the process. On the other end of the ‘strongly dislike’ scale we have liberal and left-wing feminists, fearing for the future of America’s women if she gets any say in matters like reproductive choice.
Everything kicked off afresh last month when, in a speech for the Susan B Anthony List – the political action committee which helps anti-abortion women gain election to congress - Palin used the word ‘feminist’ numerous times and mentioned ‘sisterhood’. Good grief, she even talked about ‘the emerging conservative feminist identity’.
The backlash was immediate. Spearheaded by Jessica Valenti and her piece for the Washington Post on Palin’s ‘fake feminism’, we’ve enjoyed a good few weeks of posts and articles. The main bone of contention? Whether Palin should actually be calling herself a feminist or not. Wrote Valenti:
“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.”
Last week icon of the women’s movement Gloria Steinem weighed in on the drama as part of a television interview with Katie Couric, arguing that while a woman who is personally anti-choice can be a feminist, a woman who wants to make these views law cannot.
The incessant wrangling over who gets to call themselves a feminist has left a bad taste in the mouths of many women. Every so often an article or blog post making these sorts of judgements gets written and quite rightly, we get angry that people are taking it upon themselves to be the Arbiter of All That is Feminist, performing the Uber-Feminist Smackdown on those who don’t quite tick all the boxes.
So while we have countless people writing that Sarah Palin has no business whatsoever associating herself with a progressive social movement, plenty are admitting that actually, it makes them slightly uncomfortable to see all these women getting so, well, judgy just because she has conservative values.
When it comes down to it, we know that Palin’s support for women has a fairly narrow focus. She talks about women being smart and strong, talks about the fact that they can be a wife and have kids but also go to college and have an exciting career.
And that’s cool, but what about the lives of women who aren’t white, affluent, married mothers with a loving support network to get them through the bad times? Palin’s version of sisterhood doesn’t have a whole lot to say about them – unless of course it involves cutting welfare, banning abortion and making women pay for rape kits.
Sarah Palin and her critics seem to be making the abortion debate the main focus of feminism today and while we know it’s an incredibly important issue, it’s not the only issue the movement is facing. A commitment to sisterhood and encouraging women to get the most out of life should have a wider focus and I think that if Palin was seen to be showing awareness of this, she might have a few more fans.
Unfortunately the obsession with stamping out abortion above all else continues to be too much of a stumbling block and it’s the one thing that most feminists can’t look past when they see Sarah Palin – as Jessica Valenti put it – dropping the f-bomb. They see a woman reaping the gains of feminism but not wanting to help women who aren’t like her.
There are many disagreements between feminists, covering a whole gamut of opinions and issues – so is being pro-choice an absolute essential? Can women erase conservatives from the movement on the basis of one sticking point? One thing’s for sure – that this debate’s going to run and run.