Sarah Palin Feminism: Right-Wingers Look to Open a New Front in the Culture Wars
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Powerful "traditional" women balancing work and domesticity are no big deal, says Joy Yearout, Susan B. Anthony List's legislative and political director. Yearout explains the continued enthusiasm for Palin following the Republicans' defeat: "She doesn't see gender as something that is victimizing. She doesn't see it as a barrier."
This suggestion that progressive feminists peddle victimology is a popular position on the right, particularly with the free-market feminists at the Independent Women's Forum. The IWF staff do not all identify as feminists, although director Michelle Bernard does so and states there can be such a thing as a "limited-government" or "red state" feminist.
IWF says it offers a feminist alternative to the progressives at the National Organization for Women -- women who IWF staffers claim exaggerate their victimhood to support big-government policies.
IWF champions "limited government, equality under the law, property rights, free markets, strong families and a powerful and effective national defense and foreign policy." It promotes school choice, conservative women's groups on campuses and women's issues in the Muslim world. And while O'Beirne, an emerita IWF board member, trashes feminists in general (while saying she always supported equal opportunity in the workplace), others on the right criticize the group for continuing to identify with the women's movement at all. Maybe that's why its staff so vigorously attacks liberal feminists.
"We are in the midst of third-wave feminism," argues IWF Director Bernard. "Young women look at it very differently than Gloria Steinem. Feminism was about women's right to choose the way they want to live." "Equity" or free-market feminists like Christina Hoff Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute support women's right to be treated equally in the workplace and schools, while opposing affirmative action, family-leave laws and other government programs that ensure that equal treatment occurs in fact as well as in the law. Like other conservatives, they see it as up to the individual to compete in the market, no matter what background or resources they bring to bear.
The free market feminism of Bernard, Sommers and some conservative Christians is part of a lineage of right-wing feminism that goes back to the post-suffrage National Woman's Party, which became the home of more privileged women who opposed regulating the market and were vigorously anti-communist.
Such women have long been entangled in class politics. For them, feminism does not lead them to support grander claims for economic justice.
The Palin phenomenon seems to be enlarging the small crew of free-market feminists. Equal "rules of the game," not substantive equality, is the goal. Their economic vision is in line with both the Heritage Foundation and the Christian Right's Family Research Council in explicitly promoting a "small-government" ideology. For free-market Christians, it is important to shrink the government and institute policies like school vouchers, so parents can use public funds to pay for Christian schools.
This is a position pushed by the new generation of conservative Christian politicians like Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn., and Palin. Both received their political training as conservative evangelicals, balancing a demanding public life with a large family and merging their "family values" ideology with business-friendly policies.
Young conservatives are inspired by Palin's sense of possibility as a liberated woman embracing "traditional" Christian, heterosexual, anti-abortion -- and gender egalitarian -- values.
Where this new energy takes them is anyone's guess. But with red states lagging in the number of women in elected office, and the GOP's white male complexion now recognized as a problem by some of those white men hoping to win back national power, the free-market feminists might find some support from the top of their party in the coming months.