How Dare Sarah Palin and Other Anti-Woman Conservatives Call Themselves Feminists

It’s a debate that’s been raging ever since Sarah Palin made her absurd "mama grizzlies" comments praising conservative women as the "real feminists." Palin’s disingenuous claim that women can be feminists while opposing basic feminist ideas kick-started a surge of conservative, anti-feminist women insisting that feminists unfairly exclude conservative women from feminism.

And now Ross Douthat is wading into the fight, insisting that if conservatives can’t be feminists, then at least feminists should be happy to see so many women running for office, even women who oppose all our policy concerns. Insisting instead on the traditional definition of feminism -- "advocating the social, political, and all other rights of women equal to men" -- is, according to conservatives, a nasty, mean-spirited thing to do.  

As Douthat details, this debate has risen after the surge of conservatives insisting that their new-found willingness to elect women to office is enough to get them into the feminist club (so they can set it on fire and burn it to the ground, no doubt). While Douthat punts the question of whether there can be such a thing as “conservative feminism,” he clearly sympathizes with the argument that taking advantage of feminist gains should be enough to get you into the club, even as you oppose feminist demands for future progress. His argument is quite a bit like suggesting we should hear someone out who claims to be an architect because he climbs stairs designed by someone else. 

Real feminists find themselves unimpressed with the notion that there can be a feminism based around rich, powerful women passing policies that destroy the possibility of equality for all other women in the country. Nowhere in the centuries-old definition of feminism is there a phrase explaining that equality is only for rich, white, straight, married mothers with conservative politics. That Michele Bachmann has the same right as James Inhofe to trot out a particularly loony kind of right-wing nuttery doesn’t do much for the vast majority of American women, who have the same needs they always did for equal pay, equality at home, bodily autonomy and freedom from violence. 

Even ignoring the dictionary definition issues at stake, there’s no real reason to think Douthat is correct that conservative “feminism” should be taken seriously as a new kind of feminism that will throw the world of feminism into chaos. The penchant for rewriting history that underpins the anti-feminist claims to feminism should be enough to preclude any need to take them seriously.  For instance, anti-feminists have aggressively misrepresented the history of the suffrage movement, trying to imply that the women who supported “voluntary motherhood” would be hostile to modern methods of family planning. If you’re willing to do that, nothing is sacred.   

In fact Douthat misrepresents basic American history:

    In this environment, it isn’t a surprise that women in the public square now disagree about everything from abortion to health care to foreign policy. If anything, it’s a sign that feminism may be returning to its fractious, ideologically unpredictable roots. 

His assumption that American women have walked in lockstep since the 19th century and are only now beginning to find disagreement is demonstrably false. As I detailed at Slate, as long as there have been feminists, there have been women who loudly reject feminism. Plenty of women resisted the vote, resisted anti-discrimination legislation, resisted equal education, and even resisted the fight against rape and domestic violence. And they’ve been amply rewarded for it by men who want to hear women say they don’t want silly things like rights. Douthat owes Phyllis Schlafly an apology for insinuating that this new crop of anti-feminist women is doing something new.  

It is true that 19th-century feminism was disorganized and fractious compared to modern-day feminism, but that’s because early feminists hadn’t had nearly two centuries of experimentation to figure out the best ways to achieve the goals laid out at Seneca Falls. (It’s worth noting that modern anti-feminists claiming to be feminists still disagree with some of the Seneca Falls demands, especially in terms of ending male dominance at home and in church, as well as ending the sexual double standard.)  The demands of modern feminists for reproductive rights and health care stem not from blind loyalty to some arbitrary liberal platform, but because we actually see how these policies will further our goal of equality for all women. 

Douthat is right about one thing. The current crop of female conservative leaders does owe a great deal to the modern women’s movement. But anti-feminist women taking advantage of feminist gains without so much as a thank-you has been the pattern throughout history. Women who opposed the vote or equal pay happily took these things on for themselves after they failed to stop progress. The new crop of conservative women will happily gobble up the rights won for them by others, while insisting that no one else gets to join the party. Sorry, Ross, but that doesn’t make them feminists. It just makes them greedy.


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