Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sarah Palin And Sisterhood

Part of me thinks that ignoring her completely is the far better choice. She just doesn't want to go away, however, and so, alas, we are inundated with her words. Stuck with the phony faux-northern accents of former-Gov. Palin in to the foreseeable future (thanks, John McCain!), it is probably a good thing Jessica Valenti of Feministing is taking a stab at Mrs. Palin's attempts to steal "feminist" from the real deal.

The complicated nature of the spectacle of anti-feminist women in positions of power, like anti-integrationist blacks a generation ago, anti-immigrant rights folks from many countries who are naturalized citizens, and so on, can be easily dismissed (and usually are) with the acronym IGMFY. Usually, that is the main thrust of what is happening. Yet, as Valenti makes clear, there is more happening than simple ladder-lifting in Mrs. Palin's attempt to rewrite the history of the feminist movement in the United States. By attempting to redefine feminism as anti-abortion at its heart, she is attempting to leap across a century of American history, and rob the word of any substantive content since the initiation of women's suffrage just after the First World War.

One wonders why Mrs. Palin doesn't argue that, since the original feminist movement - inaugurated at Seneca Falls, NY in 1848, focusing almost entirely on voting and property rights for women - was racist to the core, today's feminists shouldn't also be such? It is commonplace enough, I suppose, to hear or read of the racism of the original advocates of birth control and abortion rights, in particular Margaret Sanger (her pamphlets and speeches were filled with horrid images of brown and black hordes defiling our country if they weren't reigned in via conception control; and abstinence wasn't possible for these folks because, for her and many who thought like her, immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans were little better than animals incapable of controlling their desires).

Whether or not the original women's rights movement was pro-abortion or anti-abortion is neither here nor there for the contemporary feminist movement, or at the very least should be. Unless Mrs. Palin has access to a time machine, we live in the early 21st century, and the goal of the feminist movement, having achieved the first goals of the feminist movement - voting rights, first, then equal protection under the law and certain property rights - the struggle has moved to socio-economic issues. Equal pay for equal work. A greater awareness of domestic violence and violence against women in general as a particular type of crime. Expanding the feminist movement from the white middle-class to minority communities and abroad through a focus on anti-women policies and violence (for example, the long fight against "female circumcision", which is, really, the excision of the clitoris in young women, rendering them incapable of sexual arousal and pleasure). Mrs. Palin's talk of "real" feminism and "sisterhood" focusing almost exclusively on abortion rights may or may not be accurate - it seems the historical jury is still out - but at the very least, it distorts the entire focus of the pursuit of women's rights in our current age.

Valenti is also right that the tendency among some feminists who might otherwise oppose the policies and preferences of Mrs. Palin are going too far in giving her the benefit of the doubt by refusing to denounce her attempted theft of "feminist". Like Phyllis Schlafly a generation ago, or Justice Clarence Thomas denouncing affirmative action when it is clearly understood he was accepted to college and law school under its aegis, Mrs. Palin has generally denounced the aspirations of the women's movement while benefiting from its successes. "Solidarity" is not just a slogan, or even a Polish union from the Cold War. It is a concept necessary to keep historic movement alive. It involves education and understanding, inculcating an understanding of the debt we all owe those who have gone before us, and the need to make their dreams our reality. Particularly among those most effected by official discrimination, to actively pursue policies that are detrimental to the goals and aspirations of the movements that gave other members of their cohort a voice, empowering them as members of our civil society, is the deepest betrayal.

Mrs. Palin, indeed, is no feminist. She owes her election in Alaska to feminism, and should acknowledge that; she also, to be equally fair, should be working to ensure that her daughters earn as much as men who work with her, do not face violence in their homes and lives, and can unite with women across cultural and political and racial and religious barriers to make the world a more congenial place for women. Just as abortion distorts far too much religious belief among conservatives, it seems it is doing so among many right-wing women.

Virtual Tin Cup

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