Friday, June 4, 2010

Are You a Good Feminist or a Bad Feminist? What Sarah Palin and Have in Common (from Emily)

Palin's recent speech at the Susan B Anthony Fundraiser has some people calling her a chauvinist in feminist clothing. In between praising Reagan, the troops, the NRA, and of course the Tea Party, she claimed the title of feminism for conservative women. But don't worry, she still insulted feminists in general while doing so. The crux of Palin's argument? That allowing women to get abortions is bad for women, and therefore it's true feminism to oppose abortion.

Her argument taps into a debate as old as feminism itself: can two groups want opposite situations for women, both firmly believe what they want is best for women, and yet both claim the feminist title?

Enter Jessica Valenti, the founder of Valenti critiques Palin's speech, and she makes a lot of excellent points in her critique. Namely, that Palin simultaneously insults and embraces the term "feminist," at times claiming the title and at other times rejecting others who claim the title. As Valenti also points out, Palin claims that "these feminists" tell pregnant women they aren't capable of carrying a child full-term, without providing any evidence that feminists say so, and without even defining who "these feminists" are.

And that's my complaint about Palin's argument in general. I don't hear any evidence in this speech to support what she's saying about "other" feminists. Even pro-abortion-rights feminists don't tell women that they have to get an abortion, but that's what Palin's implying they do. She also never defines what she means by "pro-life." Are we talking no abortions ever, under any circumstances? Are we talking restricted access to abortion, only as a last resort if the mother's life is in danger? Those who think the pro-choice, pro-life debate has only two options are buying into the myth of a polarized, black-and-white world.

Enter Valenti again... Now, in her defense, Valenti's article provides much more evidence to support her claims. And Valenti obviously has a better grasp than Palin when it comes to rhetoric and the principles of strong writing. But when it comes to prejudice and logical fallacies, she is right there with Palin, spearing strawmen and strawwomen left and right.

Prejudice is more obvious in Palin: she insults liberals, The Media (I assume Fox News is no longer a form of media?), and "Pro-Women's Rights Feminists." It's typical Palin rhetoric: you're either good or bad, with us or against us, a true feminist or a radical feminist (though she does admit that even "East Coast University Feminists" have a right to their opinions). The Good Witches / Bad Witches perspective is tempting. If you misrepresent your opponents they're easier to tear down. For instance, according to Palin "left-wing feminists" don't like her because she has a large family. Because everyone knows feminists hate women who have the audacity to give birth.

Valenti's logic is just as fallacious when she turns feminism into a restricted club. Her article dismisses conservative feminists outright, saying that if they oppose abortion rights, they oppose women. And Valenti makes me just as angry as Palin makes me, when she says that feminism is about equality and fighting patriarchy. I'm all for fighting unhealthy forms of patriarchy and promoting equal opportunities. But I spend a lot of time trying to convince people that feminism is about elevating women. Period. Not just elevating our position in relation to men. If all we wanted was equality, we could just make everyone poor and illiterate. Equality is good, but not the only goal of feminism.

I appreciate what each of these women is trying to accomplish. I'm willing to take their word for it when they say they want what's best for women, and wanting what's best for women is a prerequisite for feminism. Paradoxically, they're both right when they say that wanting what you think is best for women doesn't make you a feminist. Many people think genital mutilation or being treated like property is best for women. There is no easy way to determine who the true feminists are, as Valenti herself acknowledges.

But no matter how worked up we get, we cannot promote an Us and Them mentality. To do so would mean buying into the very notions that make sexism and racism possible. And as bell hook has pointed out, the Us and Them mentality prevents true progression.


  1. Yes! Us and Them or U v. TH is perhaps a tool of oppression, used by and fostered by oppressors. For instance, do pro-rights activists love abortion, as they are made to seem? Do pro-lifers hate women and love only fetuses? I think the answer is no to both questions, but never does anyone work towards a coalition to reduce the number of abortions needed by women experiencing unwanted pregnancies (something that seems to have worked in socially progressive countries) through access to information, birth control and education. It's much more politically efficacious to keep us going at each other, calling each other murderers, etc.

    I don't think anyone really celebrates abortion, although we can celebrate choice, but we can't get away from polarized thinking on this issue.

    Btw, Emily, I found your blog on Mary--I have poems in the same issue as your story. I'm a Provo-ite and have a feminist blog that I share w/ some other women. I'll forward the link to you if you're interested.

    Great to know about more feminists in the area.

  2. Lara,

    I think you're right about how hard it is to get away from polarized thinking on issues like abortion. But wouldn't it be fantastic if we could form a coalition?

    Awhile ago I watched a documentary about abortion clinics that looked at both polar ends of the issue. The documentary did a really great job of humanizing the people who went to and worked at an abortion clinic, while also humanizing the people who protested at that very clinic. But one of the women who worked at the abortion clinic raised a really telling (and sad) point:

    She said that the groups who were fighting so hard to keep pregnant women from having abortions backed off and stopped helping and supporting those women as soon as the babies were born. As if merely keeping the babies alive those extra nine months guaranteed the children a good life. Among other things, I think we need more work toward helping individuals who are in very real, and very difficult social and economic circumstances actually raise those children they decide to carry full-term.

    And , about Mary - I remember reading your poems! I'd love the link to your blog. I'm also always excited to meet other feminists in the area. Also, if you ever want to guest-contribute a post on here, or if you want us to post a link to one of your posts, just let me know.

  3. As if merely keeping the babies alive those extra nine months guaranteed the children a good life. Among other things, I think we need more work toward helping individuals who are in very real, and very difficult social and economic circumstances actually raise those children they decide to carry full-term.--YES. This is exactly what I meant--the fallout from the furor over groups whose focus is exclusively on enforcing the carrying of pregnancy to full term and groups who are (at least painted as) celebrating the termination of pregnancy. I have no sympathy w/ the pro-life movement at all, but also feel that the politicization of both "sides" of the argument leaves out all the stuff in and around, like access to health care, housing, drug treatment, nutrition, education, etc.

    I don't think it's too cynical to believe that the powers that be benefit from pitting these to groups against each other, and that, as has been true forever, women and children are the ones who suffer the most.

    Our feminist blog is It's nothin' fancy, mostly for the edification and amusement of some family and friends. Hope you like!