‘Feminist’ is being reclaimed as a socially acceptable identification …

but not by the likes of us. No, it’s Sarah Palin and Co. And there are interesting issues, both political and philosophical here. In order to convincingly deny that Sarah Palin’s a feminist, one might suppose we need a clear definition of what ‘feminist’ means, or at least some agreed-upon necessary condition that she doesn’t meet. Does our lack of such things show that we should call Palin a feminist? Kate Harding suggests not:

So, can’t I just agree to disagree with Sarah Palin – or at least to ignore her use of the term and continue to go about my business? Well, evidently not, or I wouldn’t be writing this. The problem is, words mean things. I could start calling myself a red meat conservative, or campaign for those of us who are against the death penalty to “reclaim” the term “pro-life,” but at some point, the relationship between your beliefs and your choice of words either passes the sniff test or it doesn’t. And someone who actively seeks to restrict women’s freedom calling herself a feminist is, not to put too fine a point on it, a liar. There’s a difference between a big tent and no boundaries whatsoever; if Palin’s “entitled to be accepted” as a feminist just because she says she’s one, then the word is completely meaningless — as opposed to merely vague and controversial. And I might just start calling myself a “right-winger” because I’m right-handed, or a “fundamentalist” because I believe everyone deserves a solid primary education, or a “birther” because I once hosted a baby shower.

But Harding also makes some important points on the opposite side:

So why is the idea of “Sarah Palin, feminist,” any worse than the umpteen bona fide prominent feminists who have promoted racism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, ableism and the ongoing dominance of only a certain type of women’s voices over the years? Arguably, it’s not. Arguably, it’s the logical endpoint of a movement long shaped by women who are but one –ism away from the top of the heap in the first place, and perhaps more interested in taking that one step up than in ending oppression all the way down. If the feminist movement primarily serves women who are already tantalizingly close to full kyriarchal approval, we probably shouldn’t be surprised when a group of women who are even closer – basically just like the old feminists, except they don’t expect the government to help anyone and aren’t fussed about bodily autonomy! – decide they’re yet more qualified to run it.

And if you find that thought as horrifying as I do, a good, long look in the mirror is probably in order.

What do you think?

9 thoughts on “‘Feminist’ is being reclaimed as a socially acceptable identification …

  1. I (a) don’t really care if she calls herself a feminist, and (b) think she can call herself whatever she likes. I don’t think the right is seriously interested in taking over ‘feminism’ (or that it’s at risk of happening) — it’s just a short-term little jab to get those on the liberal/left part of the spectrum all riled up, to give the Becks and O’Reilly’s etc. something to cackle about. So I say, ignore it, and get on with being active feminists, because I must confess, I don’t think a ‘defining feminism’ debate is useful or called for.

  2. Captiver, I also have no wish to get involved in disputing over who gets to use the word. It’s more interesting to wonder what different we think there may be between people we regard as ‘real feminists’ and those we don’t. Even among those who count as ‘real,’ there are those solely or almost solely after their own careers, etc, so it is quite a task.

    Let me start from the other end, then. I’m a bit uneasy about tarring all white Western feminists as really not very different from Palin. One problem is that we live in an environment that is sexist, racist, homophobic, ablist, etc, etc. We would have to be saint to be untainted. That does not make the racism, etc, a good thing, but it might focus our attention on differences that are less direct. In particular, we might look for the differences in dispositions or some such. And given that the stabiity of characters is at least in question, we might want to look at the dispositions a group tries to support and foster in its members.

  3. I’ll add Larry Flynt’s brand of feminism to that pile. Has Palin ever even had a good nailin’ ?

  4. OK, jj, but I suppose I don’t think the enterprise of trying to define ‘feminism’ is worth bothering with, even if we make interesting discoveries about dispositions and such like. Not only does it seem not productive in any way I can see, it looks counter productive to me. I don’t see what value/use you are see as coming from unpicking “feminism.” Assuming you see some, but you might not, as I’m not sure I understand your message fully.

  5. And my own experience with rich white ladies is that they identify with the “I’m not a feminist but…” camp if they’re Queen Bees or professional slut-shamers. I’ve never met anybody personally that uses the F word to abuse her authority/privilege to keep others down.

    The internet is a different matter entirely. But there’s enough intelligent discourse out there that I don’t fear a bunch of men’s lapdogs will enslave our daughters anytime soon. In spite of attempts like these to reclaim feminism in the name of the missionary position, I think things are getting better over all, not worse.

  6. Captiver, I’d be happy to disassociate my question from anything to do with the word. I’m concerned that we might think that we can’t distinguish Gloria Steinem from Sarah Palin. It does seem possible to argue that GS starts out interested in having women like her valued more, given better opportunities, etc. At the same time, her op-ed about how black men now have it easier than white women, at least as far as the press goes, seems to be the product of a limited point of view and perhaps a racist one. But I don’t think she’s close to SP.

    I probably would want to be even more concerned about dismissing the elitist suffragettes, who perhaps were sexist, racist and classist in a number of ways.

    What I was trying to think about then is not that the racism and sexism of the society excuses them, but rather that they have something like values that in a different society would not lead to the limited and exclusionary actions that they do in our society, or at least ones so limited and exclusionary.

    Then, remembering the recent attacks on the idea that individuals have very constant virtues, I thought we could side-step that by talking instead of groups who together espouse values and encourage actions to promote the welfare of more than just elite women.

    This might not get us far, but I’m struck by the realization that one’s appreciation of a person takes in not just actual actions, which are almost always limited, but other more dispositional stuff.

  7. Well, she’s a woman, and has held (and holds) positions of power. I suspect that’s what she means.

    I myself don’t have a coherent grasp of what’s meant by “feminism,” because it changes depending on who you talk to. It’s not a question of a unified agenda, but of a common perspective with more or less common ends. For a lot of people that I know (outside academic circles, or in academia but not as philosophically/critically inclined), “feminism” simply follows from being born a woman. I identify myself as a feminist (with much to learn), but to these people I don’t count, because I’m male. I do have a problem with this view; I have the same problem with inherited religion (e.g. my parents are Catholic, so I’m Catholic, or whatever) or voting tendencies. Any socio-political (or philosophical!) position that you just inherit is not worth having, in my opinion.

    At any rate, I think that’s what’s going on there. Perhaps one day she’ll come into contact with people with a much broader (deeper!) knowledge of feminism, and she’ll learn something.

  8. JJ, I haven’t read the full Harding piece, but everything in the second quotation sounds like she’s talking about power relations among women (of different classes, sexualities, races, etc.) and within feminism, not the behavior of any given white feminist. As I read her, her claim is that a feminist movement lead mostly by white, straight, cis, wealthy-and-upper-middle-class, able-bodied women will tend to ignore, reinforce, or perhaps even actively promote other forms of injustice. That’s a claim about general trends, not a universal quantifier.

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