Sarah Palin and the Arbiters of Feminism

A small town Alaska woman battles the forces of liberal elitism, taking her message of conservativism and family values criss-crossing across the nation. Will this belipsticked pitbull/mama grizzly prevail?

The mainstream feminist community is up in arms this week because Sarah Palin had the audacity to call herself a feminist. Cue a stream of articles exhaustively detailing exactly why Sarah can’t possibly be a feminist. And cue my amusement, as many mainstream feminists are apparently really so clueless that they don’t even comprehend the implications of the arguments they’re making. Really, it’s all been so entertaining that I want to plop down on a couch with T. R Xands and a bowl of Chex Mix to watch the show.

But, let’s examine some of these arguments that are being put forward to invalidate Sarah’s self identification as a feminist, setting aside the very preposterousness of the idea of policing who gets to be feminist. Mainstream feminists seem awfully concerned with this; they’re angry with people who choose not to identify with feminism and they’re angry at people who identify as feminist. It almost seems like they want to dictate the terms of who gets to be in their club, eh?

‘Sarah Palin promotes policy and social attitudes that hurt women!’

Darn tootin’ she does. Palin’s tenure as Mayor of Wasilla and later Governor of Alaska was marked by some truly heinous policymaking. And her speeches are littered with really problematic content when it comes to social attitudes about women. I disagree pretty vehemently with a lot of things that Sarah Palin says about women and I am appalled that she wants to deny bodily autonomy to women, to pick just one of the many extremely offensive things she promotes in her public appearances and with her policy.

However, those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. A lot of mainstream feminist rhetoric promotes some extremely problematic things about women. Transmisogyny, racism, classism, and ableism are all rife in feminist circles. Are there feminists who are resisting this? Absolutely there are, and that is awesome. But feminism itself is not necessarily harm free or even about harm reduction and there is a long history of really problematic stuff in feminism that is being ignored by people who declare that Sarah Palin can’t be feminist because of her attitudes.

By those grounds, a lot of people who self identify as feminist aren’t feminist. What this illustrates is not that the world is filled with fake feminists, but that feminism is not a hivemind. That feminists come from different backgrounds and have different social and cultural attitudes as well as distinct priorities. People within the feminist movement have quite varied priorities, interests, and politics. I disagree with a lot of the stuff that happens in mainstream feminism, so either I’m not a feminist or those people aren’t feminists and we both know that neither of these things is true, right?

‘Sarah Palin uses a divide and conquer strategy!’

She absolutely does. Such strategies are not alien to politics or social movements. In fact, us versus them attitudes are pretty much the mainstay of a lot of movements because they promote ingroup homogeneity. They make people cleave to the movement. They polarize issues to ensure that people become convinced that everything is a binary. Right and wrong become very stark and there’s no grey area.

Oddly enough, this dichotomy is also seem in the feminist movement, which has a fair amount of stepping on the backs and necks of ‘sisters’ to get ahead. People in marginalised classes are treated as less-than and secondary priorities, of course, but it’s not just that. Some of the things that happen in mainstream feminism seem almost deliberately designed to dehumanise and alienate some classes of women.

Michigan Womyn’s Festival, anyone?

‘Sarah Palin believes in systems that provide advancement and opportunities to few and oppress people in marginalised classes!’

Yes, yes she does. Palin absolutely believes in the bootstraps mentality, promotes cutting social services while enjoying her own wealth and privilege, and certainly seems to think that people are not just allowed to profit on human suffering, but perhaps even entitled to do so. This attitude is pretty common among members of the conservative community, and since Sarah is an icon of conservatism right now, it should come as no surprise that she toes the party line and undoubtedly believes in it as well.

Yet, again, there are a lot of parallels with the mainstream feminist movement, where the focus is on issues that are important to white, nondisabled, cisgendered, heterosexual, middle class women. Many of these issues are important, and working on them may provide some benefits to women outside these privileged classes, but nonwhite women, disabled women, trans women (and trans* people in general), queer/gay/bi/asexual women, and lower class women are repeatedly told to wait their turn. Given that this is often said while mainstream feminists are pushing our heads underwater and saying ‘just another minute,’ it’s kind of hard to take that promise, that our time will come, seriously. And sometimes, it’s very hard to believe that mainstream feminism does not, to some extent, prop up existing social structures even as it claims to do otherwise.

Indeed, some feminist rhetoric outright says that advancing the cause of a few women at the expense of others is a ‘victory.’

Liberal feminists are asking why Sarah Palin, a conservative feminist, should be allowed to call herself a feminist. They also ask why so many people want to distance themselves from feminism. Well, I think the parallels I’ve outlined here answer that question pretty thoroughly, and perhaps will open a few eyes. People who are outraged by Sarah Palin’s rhetoric and demand to know how she’s feminist now have an inkling of how people in marginalised classes who don’t identify with feminism feel. Because, let me tell you, many of us are surprised to see you calling yourselves feminists too.

Is Sarah Palin a feminist? Well, I’m afraid that I am not holding the Orb of Office this week and thus am not allowed to issue a formal ruling on who is (and isn’t) feminist. But I view feminists a lot like ducks. If an animal walks up to me and says ‘hey, what’s up, I’m a duck,’ it’s a fucking duck, ok, people?