Palin and Bachman: real feminists

Naomi Wolf argues that feminism in North America is associated with the left, but is not necessarily left-wing.  I can agree with that, especially when I think of Women’s Christian Temperance Union activists of the 19th century (some of whom were lefty, but some of whom would fit well into the Southern Baptist Convention today).

It’s possible to buy Wolf’s argument, though, without necessarily agreeing with her definition of feminism:

The core of feminism is individual choice and freedom, and it’s these strains that are being sounded now more by the Tea Party movement than by the left.

Is this the core?  And even if it’s necessary, is it sufficient?  I know I’m going to sound like a child of the seventies, but I always took seriously the importance of consciousness-raising, and authentically identifying with women, with feminists, and with certain principles as a feminist.  Hence my deep ambivalence about one of Wolf’s last sentences:

But these women are real feminists – even if they don’t share policy preferences with the “sisterhood,” and even if they themselves would reject the feminist label. [my emphasis]

I agree with much of what Wolf says, but here, she loses me.  Can we insist others are feminist who reject “the feminist label”?  What kind of ‘real’ feminist rejects it?  I do not mean to agree with the main thrust of the article, an interesting one that I hope others read.  Palin and Bachmann do have wide appeal in part because of their capacities to speak as women and to women in voter-motivating ways.  I nod my head at Wolf’s last sentence, if only because feminists are wise to attend to the uses of feminism by others, whether or not they really are feminists:

In the case of Ms. Palin – and especially that of Ms. Bachmann – we ignore the wide appeal of right-wing feminism at our peril.

39 thoughts on “Palin and Bachman: real feminists

  1. Thanks for this great post. Wolf loses me more, and more quickly, than profbigk here. I too, however, took special note of profbigk’s first quotation from this piece by Wolf:

    “…The core of feminism is individual choice and freedom, and it’s these strains that are being sounded now more by the Tea Party movement than by the left…”

    I would venture to argue that most any good student (especially with feminist sentiments / concerns) studying Alison Jaggar’s 1983 book Feminist Politics and Human Nature, for instance, could (perhaps easily) refute Wolf(‘s claims in this piece) many times over.

    To be sure, “rugged individualism” and “a weak state that doesn’t impinge on… personal choices” are two of the biggest homeostatic mechanisms that perpetuate sexism (at institutional and personal levels).

    I will leave the detailed, careful analysis to others who wish to provide/engage it here.

    Let me just say that I seriously doubt that Palin, Bachmann, or, apparently, Wolf, understand “equality” in the important ways that our best feminists investigate and promote. (See the word “equality” in the second to the last paragraph of this piece by Wolf.) Palin, Bachmann, and perhaps seemingly Wolf provide no evidence (or even indication) I can find here of understanding or seeking gender equality, the end of sexual oppression, and the many important/requisite steps in this direction. (“Right-wing feminism” as Wolf seems to use the phrase/notion here seems to me harmfully to take us in different and even opposite directions from reducing gender inequalities, discrimination, and ending sexual oppression.)

  2. I want to see what other folks think about this, but I was considering this issue a bit when I recently read “Manifesta”. The authors seem to side with Wolf and profbigk, but I couldn’t shake the idea that this is actually a kind of reductio or modus tollens against “equality” definitions of feminism: those definitions open the door to classifying folks as feminists when they promote equality without a broader understanding of structural forces at work and the nature of gender subordination.

    I’ll grant that Palin and Bachmann (and Camille Paglia) promote equality of a specific sort. They promote the ability of women to be problematic in more or less the same ways that many men are problematic. Is this a useful form of equality? Is it feminist? I lean “no”.

    I guess on the way I’m thinking about it, this points to the need to define feminism not in terms of equality, but rather in terms of subordination and/or oppression. Palin and Bachmann promote equality (of a specific sort), but do they oppose the subordination of women? I don’t think they do.

  3. Actually, a bit of a footnote: re-reading profbigk’s comments on Wolf, I actually don’t think we’re disagreeing. But perhaps making a similar point in a different way.

  4. Unfortunately, most students I’ve had in women’s studies classes reject if even though I would consider them real feminists to the extent that they reject sex roles and believe that men and women should have the same options. What more do you want from feminism?

    It’s an empirical question what sort of policies and politics it takes to get women the same options. I would argue that it takes massive government intervention–affirmative action with hard quotas, social engineering and the various services of a social-democratic welfare state to get women the same options as men. There’s where Palin and Bachman would disagree.

    But that is a matter of empirical disagreement–not necessarily a difference in ideology.

  5. Wow, Wolf digs even deeper :(

    Even if the core of feminism is “individual choice and freedom” that’s certainly not the main message of the tea party (or any faction of it), at least, not their goal as manifested by their actions (“keep government out of my Medicare” comes to mind). Even if it were, it’d be some combination of libertarianish wider personal sphere and conservative endorsement of church and “traditional” family power structures (aka, patriarchy power structures) (if we go by their rhetoric).

    Hardly feminist.

  6. Wolf’s version of liberal feminism makes me queasy, at best. With regards to this question, however, I think Linda Alcoff’s post is quite instructive. There’s also Nina Power’s “One Dimensional Woman” and Nancy Fraser’s recent article about “Feminism, Capitalism, and the Cunning of History”. I guess I just want to put the radical back in feminism or, as some of my friends would probably say, perhaps I’m just romanticizing the past. I actually think it’s a sad state of affairs when the right (and sometimes liberals) can claim feminism in the way it does.

    But, as I mentioned, here’s Linda Alcoff’s more informative reaction to the Palin-as-Feminist question.

  7. Thanks for your thoughtful thoughts, all, and thanks to ram for reminding us of Alcoff’s excellent, related piece.

    Yes, to be honest, I didn’t post the piece due to any endorsement of Wolf’s brand of liberal feminism; I too prefer more radical revaluations than she tends to engage. But I do try to keep an eye on public ascriptions of feminist identities to others, because I have come to think it important that feminists not ascribe ‘feminist,’ as an identity, to those who reject the label. We can productively discuss (as, e.g., Alcoff does so well) the extents to which we observe non-identifiers exploit feminism, or genuinely espouse key principles of it, or associate with those who do so identify, and so on, but I think it is inappropriate, politically and philosophically, to seek to pin it on those who have not self-identified.

    I’d go so far as to say that when my students express so many feminist-consistent beliefs, I’ve invited them to embrace the identification, but I avoid doing it for them. I think it is too important as a signifier of one’s priorities and one’s solidarity with others.

    Hm, I don’t have this all worked out yet, but you see where I’m going.

  8. Harriet, are you just teasing us, or are you about to provide a link or excerpt from your piece?

    (And where can I get me one of these here asbestos suits?)

  9. As regards my comment #1, Matt Drabek in comment #2, Harriet Baber’s second sentence in the second paragraph in comment #4, and Bijan Parsia in comment #5: right on!

    However, I respectfully may have an apparent disagreement with Harriet Baber’s emphasis on distinguishing between the matter of empirical disagreement and ideology. Even if Palin and Bachmann agreed both 1) that our status quo forms of individualism (or, in Wolf’s terms, “rugged individualism” and “a weak state that doesn’t impinge on… personal choices”) permit if not foster and promote gender inequality and sexual oppression and 2) that “it takes massive government intervention–affirmative action with hard quotas, social engineering and the various services of a social-democratic welfare state to get women the same options as men” (in Harriet Baber’s terms), it seems a plausible conjecture that they both (Palin and Bachmann) would find such means/roads to, or requirements of/for, equality too unjust/unethical (in their minds) and would not support them. Of course not necessarily, but arguably and apparently actually, this is a matter of ideology (as well as an empirical matter of course).

    Just to be clear, all sorts of liberal feminism in all sorts of ways exploit migrant workers, contribute to global poverty, and lack sufficient care/concern/respect for women and people around the world. Even socialist feminism needs a broad, cosmopolitan perspective/framework to deserve appropriate categorizations within ethics, justice, and feminism, in my mind. The main feminism most important to talk about (and act on, etc.) is cosmopolitan feminism, which is really just cosmopolitanism. For instance, see Joan C. Tronto’s The Nanny Question in Feminism and Thomas Pogge or Gillian Brock more generally.

    Okay, enough from me for now… I need to read carefully the links kindly and helpfully provided in comments #6, #10, and #11 before trying to comment further (if at all)…

  10. Oh, and I forgot to mention that the phenomenon is nothing knew, cf Andrea Dworkin’s Right-Wing Women.

    The co-option of the label is also, I think, not too new. The claim that feminism or feminists turn their back on right wing women (e.g., who experience sexism, esp. from their opponents) is typically false. (I see plenty of feminists attacking sexist attacks on Coulter or Palin.)

    The usual projection technique is all over: Western feminists don’t care about Afghan women because they don’t support the war (even when RAWA opposed intervention). Etc.

  11. As always, Dr. Baber, I loved the “Not a feminist but…” work. People still have such a problem with the F word. I met a social worker last week who claimed he didn’t think there were any feminists left. I had to wonder WTH he was doing working in his profession if that was his belief. I seriously considered recommending to his boss that he go back for more training.

    Keep up the good work :-)

  12. The words Xtian feminist are an oxymoron.

    YOU ARE FUCKING, FUCKING BIGOTED WRONG! I’m a Christian and a feminist. Christianity is fundamentally a package of metaphysical claims. Like all metaphysics it’s controversial. Fine. But it doesn’t commit me to any particular views about sex roles. Check out the Nicene Creed: Holy Ghost proceedeth form the Father (and the Son? IMHO not), resurrection, life of the world to come. Nothing about female subordination.

  13. Hi Harriet,

    First, let me point out that I, myself, said nothing about Christianity. I think that’s a red herring wrt the current topic.

    Second, there are, of course, plenty of attempts to reconcile feminism with (various sorts of) Christianity or to reform (various sorts of) Christianity along feminist line. (I recall reading The Church and the Second Sex as well as Beyond God The Father.)

    Third, whether “Christianity” is compatible with feminism depends a lot on the particular metaphysical claims being made. There are plenty with plausible consequences for sex roles.

    Of course, all that being as it made, I think that feminism does best when it recognizes intersectionality and the path dependence of our lives. Many women are Christian and a robust feminism should speak well to them and their lives.

  14. Hi Harriet,

    Xena wrote “The words Xtian feminist are an oxymoron.” They also wrote, “I’m with Bijan Parsia.” right before that. However, I didn’t write or claim or even imply that “The words Xtian feminist are an oxymoron.”

    I did write, “Even if it were, it’d be some combination of libertarianish wider personal sphere and conservative endorsement of church and “traditional” family power structures (aka, patriarchy power structures) (if we go by their rhetoric).”

    I think it’s a bit of a stretch to go from that to “The words Xtian feminist are an oxymoron.”

  15. I didn’t say spiritual feminist was an oxymoron, Dr. Baber.

    Lemme see if I can dig up the specific verses I remember from the awful pentecostal services that gave me nightmares as a child. Something about god being at the head of every man and a man being at the head of every woman. I will also pull up more about that appalling obsession with Mary’s virginity that put all of Europe at each other’s throats for all those centuries, and my M&E course material I sarcastically quoted in the comment profbigk deleted yesterday. Just direct links today, no flip commentary, I promise.

    Btw, most of my earlier introduction to feminist theory comes from the Wiccans I studied with. My skepticism eventually won out over the spiritual beliefs, and postsecondary education dashed the historical inaccuracies within the Wiccan cannon for me. But their holistic, ecofriendly worldview stayed with me. Perspectives that emphasize Mind(soul) / Body dichotomies still strike me as painfully inconsistent, not to mention damaging to those of us deemed closer to the earth, and therefore ‘less than’ the men who are supposed to be more airy-intellectual, etc.,

    I’m also a fan of Sartre’s spin on Hume’s breakdown of the 4 godly O’s. If I were to accept that some form of Divine Presence exists, it would be of the immanent, rather than the transcendent variety. Sexual taboos bother me as well.

  16. I hate removing comments by commentors who break our “be nice” rule. Please lets ALL remain civil, or I’ll might cry sitting here in Whole Foods.

  17. Ok, BP. That WAS my leap.

    Dr. Baber, cuss me all you want in the name of constructive debate. But please don’t diss BP because I put words into his/her mouth.

  18. Hi Xena,

    I don’t think it’s necessarily an indefensible leap. And, suitably circumscribed, I think it’s pretty plausible (e.g., see Daly in Church and the Second Sex vs. Daly in Beyond God the Father; and of course, that’s all very Catholic, not other forms of Christianity).

    I do think if you explicitly endorse an anti-feminist form of hugely patriarchal Christianity which labels itself anit-feminst and you say that you’re anti-feminist, then I think claiming that such people really are feminist is….weird…to say the least. (This is different from trying to help or defend or stand with women who are themselves deeply committed to anit-feminism — no misogynistic attacks on Palin, please!)

    Reclaiming institutions that are historically heavily misogynistic (at best) is a tough task. (Cf. beauty, femininity, the viel, derogatory terms, etc.)

  19. Look, I am not dissing anyone. The phrase “The words Xtian feminist are an oxymoron” appeared. It’s hard to understand how to read that as anything other than the claim that Christianity and feminism are inconsistent. I dispute that. I’m a Christian and a feminist.

  20. Thanks, BP. That’s exactly what I meant, except I’m not so sure where I stand on Daly’s work yet. Others have knocked her for being blatantly transphobic, and I’m leaning toward that criticism, myself, given her Raddest of radfem bent. I preferred Janet&Stewart Farrar’s work. Then again, what I found appealing about Wicca was also what killed it for me. Polytheism was still a reclaiming of the Greek, Norse, and Egyptian pantheons. Those cultures were far more brutal and misogynistic than ours.

    And no, I’d never attack Palin the human being. Her politics infuriate me, but being female has nothing to do with that. We are 2 very different women. To say that any aspect of her silliness is a product of being female would be to say that I’m just as silly because I’m female. HARDLY!! Nope. My problem with her politics comes down to the inconsistencies in her arguments.

    Don’t cry, Dr. Jacobson. It’s all good. I’m very much in agreement with Dr. B’s work and most of her politics. And, from what she’s said on past posts, I understand that she’s from a place where salty talk is the norm. So am I. I don’t mind heated debate, and I welcome more discussion of her religious views. I’d be contradicting my own statements about cultural relativism if I claimed otherwise.

  21. Dr. B, I was referrig to the words, F*** YOU, directed at BP, as a response to the leap that I made. Like I said, cuss me if you’d like, but please argue like the excellent academic you are when you argue with BP about what I said.

  22. Hi Xena,

    Yes, Daly is problematic in several ways (race and trans come to mind, though her transphobia is mostly in her support for Raymond’s work). The Church and the Second Sex and Beyond God the Father are her earliest works and are pre her most radical. (Beyond God The Father is a transistion work, definitely on the radical side. Church & the Second Sex is pretty straight up liberal reformist.) I think they are interesting to read as someone one grappling with Catholicism and ending on a radical rejectionist note. For me, the challenge to radical feminism (with which I’m rather sympathetic with, if only because it’s part of *my* path! I do try to be aware of its more serious flaws) is how to combine separatism with a deep acknowledgement of intersectionality. Loyalty to women has to cope with loyalty to women who have deep ties with men (e.g., black women with black men, children, brothers, parents, lovers, comrades).

    (I don’t really know why the transphobia holds so hard in anti-essentialist radfems. In essentialist, it’s obvious: You’re a man or a women by immutable nature, so therein you stay. But if one is not born, but made a woman, then it would seem that acceptance of transwomen, at least, would be at least a powerful pull.)

    Hi Harriet,

    Feel free to dispute those words, just don’t mistakenly attribute them to me :) Thanks!

  23. 2 of the passages that make it impossible for me to be a Xtian:

    1 Corinthians 11:3 (the half remembered quote from #20.)

    Genesis 3:16 which is not only incompatible with my feminism, but also with the current consensus among evolutionary biologists. Femaleness came first. Maleness was just an adaptation. Both are now required for our survival as a species.

    BP, I guess we have to agree to disagree on the separatist issue. There is much in the radfem literature that is valuable, especially as a counterbalance when horrific crimes against a woman’s humanity are deemed acceptable bc of her gender. Just as some types of political manouevering are acceptable in a crisis, women-only spaces are crucial in times of healing. But as a permanent way of relating to the world? No, that would be like suggesting that we all leave casts on our formerly broken but now healed limbs for the rest of our lives, imo. That’s not what equality means to me. Equality is about living among, trading, debating, sharing and sometimes gently competing with our male friends, partners and allies. In an environment that promotes fairness, of course.

    However, I do understand your radical rejection of Catholicism. My lineage is an ideological soup going all the way back to Belfast and Residential School plagued Northern Ontario. Don’t even get me started on the Pentecostal Church Ladies that tried to ‘rescue’ my 8-year-old ghetto-girl self!

  24. Hi Xena,

    I don’t know if either of us has said enough to know if we disagree on separatism. One obvious way to reconcile (a kind of) separatism with intersectionality is to make one’s separatism a tactic (as you suggest). It’s not hard to get from there to more radical separatism (e.g., the extreme move can have tactical and strategic value by (for example) weakening the notion that women are essentially dependent or by giving other women leverage). Separatism can also be a principle. Marilyn Frye is my favorite on this, esp. when she talks about how the slave has no control over the master’s access to them. Separatism, to what ever degree, is an assertion of control over access…a particularly striking way of exercising autonomy. (I’ve found such thinking to be enormously personally helpful. YMMV.) But, generally, feminism (at least, radfem) is not a movement of radical individualized autonomy, but of solidarity with other women (and solidarity, rather than subserviance, is another exercise of autonomy). And therein lies the trickiness. If solidarity with women requires abandoning other (“tainted” relations) such that only women-identified and born women who love women can have true solidarity, then it’s going to (and has traditionally) required abandonment of racial or class ties (or love and sexual relationships). This doesn’t work (and leads to e.g., WOC and transwomen rejecting feminism for alternative anti-oppression movements (e.g., “womanist”); which is an exercise of separation and an indication of a solidarity failure).

    Anyway…complex topic!

    Re: Catholicism…I don’t radically reject it per se, never having been one or of any religion. I’ve always been firmly atheist, and don’t care a whit for any religious doctrine or practice except insofar as 1) they cause trouble for people, societally and 2) they give fun philosophical puzzles. I find it a bit mysterious that people do believe (but I find it a bit mysterious that people believe a lot of things :)) at least in the sense that I can’t imagine myself believe such things.

  25. Hi Harriat,

    Well, in a now deleted comment you wrote right after my comment pointing out the distance between my view and writing and what Xena comment suggested I believed, you replied:

    You said: “The words Xtian feminist are an oxymoron.” Does “Xtian” mean “Christian” or doesn’t it? If it does–and I’m not sure what else it abbreviates, you said that Christianity was incompatible with feminism.

    (I left off the not being nice bit that got the comment deleted.)

    If that juxtaposition was not meant to make that “You” refer to me, then sorry for being confused (in these asynchronously interleaved threads, it’s helpful to me if you’d use names or comment numbers). If it was, then you attributed the words to me. (Since I don’t think Xena had another post in between, it’s hard to see it as not having been a response to me, esp. given the not being nice bit that got the comment deleted sorta required attribution.) In either case, it’s pretty clear that you attributed them to someone! :) And they can be attributed to Xena, of course.

    We can, of course, let this point drop. It’s no big deal. I’m sorry that you were offended and felt attacked by Xena’s comment. I hope the discussion afterwards was sufficiently nuanced and more on the topic to be clear that, afaict, the line wasn’t really meant to capture arbitrary people who are both (some form of) Christian and feminist.

  26. It seems clear that it was the not-nuanced attribution of oxymoronicness to ANY Christian Feminism that offended Harriet Baber.

    Although I am no longer a practitioner of any Christian denomination, I too immediately identified the statement as transparently false. Arguments for the inconsistency of feminism with Christianity have to be offered (as they eventually were). They are not logically contradictory. No complex and varied bodies of philosophical, theological and sociopolitical tradition admit of simple contradiction.

  27. Regarding my comment #1 and comment #12, just to be clear, I contend that forms of feminism that promote gender equality and that reduce gender discrimination and sexual oppression ONLY FOR CERTAIN GROUPS OF WOMEN AND AT THE EXPENSE OF (directly) HARMING other groups of women (or oppressed people) is inconsistent with the requirements of ethics/justice/feminism. Arguably but contentiously, liberal feminism contains this inconsistency, as do (arguably but contentiously) combinations of nationalism/nation-state protectionism and feminism. These contentions of course require arguments/reasons, though if anyone finds them offensive, please kindly help me see why so I can learn to avoid such offensiveness in the future.

    Also just to be clear, I disagree with the seemingly unqualified (or perhaps seemingly under-qualified) generalization, “Western feminists don’t care about Afghan women because they don’t support the war (even when RAWA opposed intervention). Etc.” I personally know dozens of Western feminists who appear to falsify this generalization. In addition, many of the students (some Western and feminist) in the Global Ethics class that I teach every semester learn and care very much about women in Afghanistan. Perhaps the statements in this paragraph contain misunderstandings of Bijan Parsia’s comment #13. If so, could Bijan Parsia or others kindly help clarify the relevant dialectic?

    If Bijan Parsia or Harriet Baber care to reply, do you agree or disagree with anything in my comments #1 or #12 above?


  28. Hi David,

    Yes, you misunderstood my comment, but I don’t think I was clear enough. I’m not *making* that genearlization, I’m attributing to various right wing figures who project their own lack of concern for women onto feminists. You need to include the prior phrase “The usual projection technique is all over:” A clearer version would be:

    “The usual projection technique is all over: You get right wing figures saying: “Western feminists don’t care about Afghan women because they don’t support the war (even when RAWA opposed intervention)”. Etc. SImilarly, “Oh you liberal feminists are hypocrites because you don’t defend Sarah from sexism from liberals.” All these things are trivially falsifiable, but used as a stick against feminists.”

    (Just recently, in the atheist community, Dawkins launched a version of the “Western feminists don’t care enough about Islamic women” line.

    So to be crystal clear: I’m not making the generalization. I’m observing that such a generalization is often made by right wing figures in an attempt to co-opt feminism whilst attacking (loads of) feminism. The Wolf line basically accepts a big chunk of that.

    I don’t think it’s impossible to be right wing and feminist per se, but I think it’s unlikely to be a right wing anti-feminist and a feminist :)

  29. Hi Bijan,

    Thank you very much for the clarification. Unfortunately, I think I now see how in a great many cases/contexts, a version of what you say applies/is largely correct.

    Any comment more specifically on/directed toward the first paragraph of my comment #33, which summarizes sentiments from my comments #12 and #1?


  30. I think your basic point is incontestable: Feminsim “for some” is not a particularly good feminism. Of course, the way a feminism for some might arise is explicitly (e.g., explicitly racist feminism of the form “Only White Women Count”) or implicitly (e.g., by tending to focus exclusively on concerns and in a manner that disproportionately benefit a certain subclass, or simply erase another). The latter is the heart of the ongoing critiques of rad and lib feminism (esp. academic and “institutional” feminism e.g., NOW) from women of color, trans and other sexed people, disabled women, and many others etc.

    With regard to right wing women (loosely construed) and, in particular, figures such as Palin and Bachmann, I think an intersectional analysis has a lot to offer. Even if they embrace some forms of equality and empowerment for women, it’s typically for *some* women (e.g., white, certain kind of Christian, of a certain class) and compatible with oppression of large classes of women and men. Co-opting feminism to the generally problematic causes they espouse is a danger that requires care.

    I don’t super care about whether we call them “real” feminists or not per se (although Wolf’s argument as quoted above seems rather specious). What matters is that their goals are not generally liberatory.

    That is, “not sharing policy preferences of the sisterhood” is critical and not to be brushed aside. It is the content of those policy preferences that whether theirs is a feminism worth sharing, or if it is a feminism at all, lies.

  31. It’s worth comparing Amanda Marcotte’s line with Wolf’s. (On Bachman:)

    So, we have a woman running for President who literally believes that her god made women to be the helpmeets of men, and that marriage should be built around women submitting to their husbands. And this belief, being weird—especially for someone who claims she wants to run the entire nation—was asked about during a debate.

    And this is “sexist”?

    No, it’s not. The belief she has is sexist

    I would hope that most feminist can agree that advocating systematic sexism is not feminist.

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