Who You Callin’ A Feminist?

I privately pledged to myself that I was going to stop writing about Sarah Palin and feminism, because, quite frankly, there are a lot of things that interest me a whole lot more. But, as it turns out, I have a little bit more to say about the matter, because watching the discussion about Palin unfold over the last few weeks has crystallised a lot of things in my mind about how I think about feminism and critiques of feminism.

Sarah Palin and the Arbiters of Feminism‘ attracted rather a lot of attention, and I stand by most of what I said in that post, but I want to clarify a few things. I still don’t think it’s my business to determine who is feminist or not, and I hold to that. I am not interested in stripping people of the identities they claim. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t think that we should have conversations about the co-option of feminism, and about whether people who identify as feminist bear that identity out in their actions.

I think that, evaluating Palin’s life and work, it’s pretty evident that her actions are not feminist. I can’t point to anything that she has done that I would label as feminist and I would point to a lot of things she does as examples of anti-feminism. Sarah Palin promotes policy that harms women. She promotes attitudes that harm women. Sarah Palin is basically a duck that does absolutely nothing that one would even vaguely associate with ducks, and doesn’t even look all that much like a duck either.

And she has brilliantly co-opted the concept of feminism and used it for a political end. Doggedly supporting any candidate who is a cisgender woman, regardless of her politics, her stated positions, whether or not she is going to make positive changes for the world, is an anti-feminist thing to do. This ‘conservative grassroots’ that she claims to be mobilising is as anti-feminist as you can get, in so many ways. People in positions of dominance have a long history of doing this, of reclaiming the words and movements of people in oppressive classes and retooling them to suit their needs.

We can either give those things up, or fight back, and I am a firm supporter of fighting back.

I don’t think I need to articulate for you all the ways that I think Palin’s actions aren’t feminist. If you’re reading this site, there is a strong probability that you could list them just as easily. I think we’re on the same page here in terms of believing that Palin does not behave in a feminist way. And if she wants to claim that she is a feminist, I am damn well going to criticise her until the cows come home, just like I criticise other feminists who do things that I think are harmful. Just like I expect to be criticised when I do things that are harmful.

What I object to here is not the conversation about Sarah Palin and feminism, but who is being allowed to direct this discussion. Why should the people who co-opted the third wave be telling us what feminism is? Why should people who have traditionally occupied positions of power in feminism be telling us what feminism is? Why should people with a personal history of appropriation be telling us what feminism is?

I strongly agree that I am not going to give up the identity of ‘feminist’ without a fight. I don’t think that we should roll over and hand it to the Sarah Palins of the world, or, honestly, to a lot of the people currently being hired to write op-eds about whether Sarah Palin is feminist or not. And that means that I don’t want to see them being treated as ultimate authorities on feminism. It sticks in my craw to see people with a history of exclusionary attitudes claiming that Sarah Palin can’t be a feminist because she’s exclusionary. Her version of feminism is ‘what’s good for me and my friends, what I can manipulate to political ends,’ and that’s pretty much precisely the feminism subscribed to by most of the people being hired to write op-eds about why Palin isn’t a feminist.

Because, the thing is, all of the arguments that these people are using to explain why Sarah isn’t feminist could just as easily be turned against them. There’s no self-examination going on in these pieces. There’s not even an acknowledgment of the history of exclusionary attitudes in feminism, let alone an examination of the complicity of the authors in the continued exclusion of  many oppressed classes from the modern feminist movement. Many of these pieces define a vision of feminism that I actually really like, but they’re coming from people who don’t actually live that vision of feminism.

They’re talking the talk, but they aren’t walking the walk. And talking the talk is only one aspect of feminism. If you’re stuck on feminism as a movement, and not feminism as an action, you’re not going to recognise the way in which your own actions are anti-feminist even as you are attacking someone else for being anti-feminist.

I want to see the people not in power being given op-eds in the Washington Post. I want to see the New York Times commissioning opinions from feminists of colour, disabled feminists, transgender feminists, poor feminists, queer feminists, feminists not from the United States. And that is what is angering me about this discussion. There are feminists I know, respect, and honor who are laying it down and writing some righteous stuff that is singing in my ears, but they’re not the people who are being asked to speak on national media platforms about why Sarah Palin’s actions aren’t feminist. Even though they are the kinds of people who should be leading this conversation.

We can’t do it all. I can’t do it all. No one can do it all. What I ask for from members of the feminist movement who really want to live feminism is that they not actively hurt people. Not covering a topic that you don’t feel comfortable or familiar with doesn’t hurt people. Knowing that it is not physically possible for any one person to cover every single thing is not hurting people (myself, I’ve got a whole laundry list of topics I care about, deeply, that I don’t cover, because I am not a word-producing automaton who can publish 100 posts a day). Recognising that you are not an appropriate person to talk about something, that you should step aside and centre other voices, actually actively helps people. But if you are going out of your way to oppress your ‘sisters,’ other women, women in oppressed classes who could surely benefit from feminism every bit as much as middle class white nondisabled heterosexual cis women, then, I’m sorry, your actions are not feminist, and I don’t view you as an authority on feminism.