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How We Can Fight the Right-Wing's Absurd Hijacking of Feminism

When a female candidate with antiwoman policies pops up, let's use it as an opportunity to re-establish what feminism is and to support the up-and-comers in our midst.

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Is it any wonder, then, that everyone from Palin's supporters to the mainstream media was eager to paint the vice presidential candidate as a feminist? If all it took was being a woman, well, then Palin was it! The Wall Street Journal called it "Sarah Palin Feminism." The New York Post called her "a feminist dream," while the Los Angeles Times ran a piece headlined "Sarah Palin's 'New Feminism' Is Hailed."

In much the same way Obama-supporting feminists were criticized, women who didn't back Palin were swiftly denounced as hypocrites by those on the right. Rick Santorum called Palin the "Clarence Thomas for feminists," blasting women who didn't support her. Janice Shaw Crouse of Concerned Women for America said, "Even feminists -- who supposedly promote women's equality and the so-called 'women's rights' agenda -- are questioning a female candidate's ability to get the job done." The criticism of women who failed to back Palin even indulged in sexism. Dennis Miller said that women who weren't behind Palin were simply jealous of the candidate's sex life, and Time magazine reporter Belinda Luscombe wrote that some women had a "hatred" for Palin simply because she was "too pretty." (My favorite, however, was Kevin Burke's argument in National Review that women who didn't support Palin were suffering from "post-abortion symptoms.") Palin even managed to divide some feminists. Elaine Lafferty -- a former editor of Ms. magazine who had endorsed Clinton but then signed on as a consultant to the McCain campaign -- condemned feminist leaders for "sink[ing] this low" and called feminism an "exclusionary club" for not welcoming Palin with open arms.

If there was ever proof that the feminist movement needs to leave gender essentialism at the door -- this is it. If powerful feminists continue to insist that gender matters above all else, the movement will become meaningless. If any woman can be a feminist simply because of her gender, then the right will continue to use this faux feminism to advance conservative values and roll back women's rights.

Ensuring feminism's future doesn't stop at embracing intersectionality -- we must also shine a spotlight on the real feminists. Part of the reason Palin and her cohort are so successful at positioning themselves as the "new" women's movement is because we fail to push forward and support new feminists of our own. This is not to say that younger women aren't at the forefront of the movement -- they certainly are. But their work is often made invisible by an older generation of feminists who prefer to believe young women are apathetic rather than admitting their movement is shifting into something they don't recognize and can't control.

For example, in an April Newsweek article about young people's supposed apathy over reproductive rights, NARAL Pro-Choice America President Nancy Keenan suggested that it was only the "postmenopausal militia" on the front lines of reproductive justice. Yet when I asked a NARAL spokesperson about employee demographics, I was told that people younger than 35 make up around 60 percent of the organization. And when they're not ignored, young feminists are painted as vapid and sexualized. Take feminist writer Debra Dickerson, who wrote in a 2009 Mother Jones article that today's feminists are all about "pole-dancing, walking around half-naked, posting drunk photos on Facebook and blogging about [their] sex lives." This insistence that a new wave doesn't exist or isn't worth paying attention to has left open the cultural space for antifeminist women like O'Donnell and Palin to swoop in and lay claim to the movement.

If the new wave of feminists -- the leaders of small grassroots organizations across the country, the bloggers who are organizing hundreds of thousands of women online, the advocates for reproductive justice, racial equality and queer rights -- aren't recognized as the real advocates for women, then the future of the movement will be lost.

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