'Sarah Palin Feminism'? More Like Sarah Palin Sexism


Have you heard the news? After years of mocking us, the right wing has discovered "feminism!" Well, sort of. In their Rovian factories of deceit, they've minted a new kind of feminism that shoves those of us who have actually been working for women's rights out of the picture (we're in the dreaded community organizers demographic). They've taken the proverbial F-word, the term we love, fight over, continually redefine, and work ourselves to the bone for, and re- appropriated it into: "Sarah Palin feminism."

"Sarah Palin feminism" means something very different.

Actual feminism means fighting against genuinely sexist slurs, some of which have been used against Palin, like the "VPIL..." meme, the "can a mother be a politician?" question and the sexist action dolls. These are genuine, if surface-skimming, instances of sexism, because reducing a woman to her body, or her motherhood, make her less than a full person. And the attitude behind the dolls and the bikini photos is connected to anti-women policies that don't just make us feel bad, but curtail our freedoms.

We've heard lots of complaints against this actual sexism from real feminist quarters, and not much from the right wing. On the other hand, what they have complained about loud and clear are the attacks on Palin's qualifications. "Sarah Palin feminists" claim to believe that the media's aggressive questioning of her record as Mayor of Wasilla and Governor of Alaska is sexist. Nothing sums this up more clearly than Jon Stewart's montage of conservative figureheads scoffing at claims of sexism from the Clinton camp, and then turning a 180 to cry "sexist!" once Palin arrived in their corner.

Unfortunately, while feminists believe in voting for a candidate based on what he or she will do for women, "Sarah Palin Feminists" also believe that female voters will flock to Palin merely because she is a woman. The callous reasoning behind the Palin pick was partly the idea that women voters will say "You have a uterus? I have a uterus! Let's get together!"

Now it seems their calculation may have had some success. One widely-seized-upon poll seems to show a gargantuan shift in female support to Palin from Obama, voters in the much-coveted "white women" demographic. (The Obama campaign disputes this polling.) Chris Matthews is titillated beyond belief because the "regular folks" (aka white folks) are back in play. 

One month ago, a different poll conducted on behalf of the National Women's Law Center showed that "women are significantly more pessimistic than men in their attitudes about the status quo in America, both on a societal level and in terms of their own lives." On issues like health care, reproductive rights, and the economy, women in this poll would seem like the prime Obama demographic: hungry for change, eager for a just government to help level an unfair playing field. Have women been so wooed by the Palin hype -- or offended by the Palin controversies -- that they're moving against their self interest?

We don't know which poll has better predictive value. But as the election draws near, we must take feminism back. We have to shake off distractions like the nothing-doing story that is Barack Obama using the "pig with lipstick" colloquialism. That's not sexism. Making rape victims pay for their own rape kits is sexism. Calling a candidate out on lies is not sexism. Abstinence-only education is sexism.

And reproductive rights are not just a feminist pet issue, but rather a genuine threat to the autonomy and health of all American women. The NWLC's press release reminded us of the following statistics:

One in four girls drops out of high school. More than 14 million women live in poverty, and more than 17 million women have no health insurance. Women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar paid to men.

These kinds of statistics may not reveal the most glamorous aspects of the feminist agenda, like fighting cleavage-gate, but most self-described feminists (including this pop-culture columnist) agree that issues like poverty and health care are what underlie our movement. We fight against attacks on women's bodies on TV and on the street, we fight for women's rights in presidential debates and in shelters, because they're connected. We can't follow the "Sarah Palin feminists'" lead, and focus on the spin of sexism without remembering the substance, on the ground, in our lives.

Are women so excited by Palin's presence that we don't remember the laissez-faire at best and hostile at worst approach a far right agenda would include when it comes to our rights? Can we forget the women who will lose their bodily integrity, maybe die, if women's reproductive rights are lost?

The right wing is trying to redefine racism (which has genuinely been present in the anti-Obama attacks and largely ignored) as something a black preacher said, and sexism as attacks on political record of a right-wing woman. It's classic Orwellian double-speak from the folks who brought you "compassionate conservatism," "time horizons," "No Child Left Behind" and yes, "Pro-Life." We have to fight back now, and hard, to keep in mind what sexism truly is, and where it hits the hardest.

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