Sarah Palin opposes abortion and comprehensive sex education. While mayor of Wasilla she made sexual assault victims pay for their own rape kits. She also calls herself a feminist. Delaware GOP Senate nominee Christine O’Donnell has said that allowing women to attend military academies "cripples the readiness of our defense" and that wives should "graciously submit" to their husbands—but her website touts her "commitment to the women’s movement." Pundits who once mocked women’s rights activists as ugly bra burners are abuzz over the "new conservative feminism," and the Tea Party is lauding itself as a women’s movement.
The right once disparaged feminism as man-hating and baby-killing, but now "feminist" is the must-have label for women on the right. Whether or not this rebranding strategy actually succeeds in overcoming the GOP’s antiwomen reputation is unclear (see Betsy Reed, "Sex and the GOP"). After all, Republicans have long supported overturning Roe v. Wade, voted against family and maternity leave, and fought groundbreaking legislation like the Lilly Ledbettter Fair Pay Act. When it comes to wooing women’s votes for the GOP, there’s a lot of damage control to do.
Feminists are understandably horrified—the movement we’ve fought so hard for is suddenly being appropriated by the very people who are trying to dismantle it. But this co-opting hasn’t happened in a vacuum; the mainstream feminist movement’s instability and stalled ideology have made stealing it that much easier. The failure of feminists to prop up the next generation of activists, and the focus on gender as the sole requisite for feminism, has led to a crisis of our own making.
Conservative women have been trying to steal feminism for more than a decade—organizations like the Independent Women’s Forum and Feminists for Life have long fought for antiwomen policies while identifying themselves as the "real" feminists. But their "prowoman" messaging didn’t garner national attention until actual feminists paved the way for them in the 2008 presidential election. During the Democratic primary, feminist icons and leaders of mainstream women’s organizations insisted that the only acceptable vote was for Hillary Clinton; female Barack Obama supporters were derided as traitors or chided for their naïveté. I even heard from women working in feminist organizations who kept mum on their vote for fear of losing their jobs. Perhaps most representative of the internal strife was a New York Times op-ed (and the fallout that followed) by Gloria Steinem in which the icon wrote, "Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life."
Soon after, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, responded in a Democracy Now! segment, "Part of what, again, has been sort of an anxiety for African-American women feminists like myself is that we’re often asked to join up with white women’s feminism, but only on their own terms, as long as we sort of remain silent about the ways in which our gender, our class, our sexual identity doesn’t intersect, as long as we can be quiet about those things and join onto a single agenda."
The argument was not a new one—women of color and younger feminists have often taken white second-wave feminists to task for focusing on gender inequities over a more intersectional approach that also takes race, class and sexuality into account. But this intrafeminist skirmish over identity politics took on a life of its own in the aftermath of the bitter primary struggle. By pushing a vote for Clinton on the basis of her gender alone, establishment feminists not only rehashed internal grievances—they opened the door for conservatives to demand support for Palin for the very same reason. Unwittingly, the feminist argument for Clinton gave credence to the GOP’s hope that the mere presence of a female on the ticket would deliver women’s votes.
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.
Women vote for their interests—not their gender or age—but they still want to see themselves represented. If the only young women Americans see identified as "feminists" are those on the right, we run the risk of losing the larger cultural battle and the many younger women who are seeking an answer to the mixed messages about what feminism really is. And frankly, if we position vibrant young activists front and center, there will be no question as to who is creating the best change for women.
So instead of wringing our hands every time a new female candidate with distinctly antiwoman policies pops up, let’s use it as an opportunity to re-establish what feminism is about and to support the up-and-comers in our midst. Let’s focus on building power for the new wave of feminists by giving money to the organizations that best represent the future of the movement (like SAFER, NY Abortion Access Fund and Girls for Gender Equity); by providing media training and placing young activists on television and in the op-ed pages (as the great Women’s Media Center does); and by pushing young feminists—not just women—to run for office.
Feminism isn’t simply about being a woman in a position of power. It’s battling systemic inequities; it’s a social justice movement that believes sexism, racism and classism exist and interconnect, and that they should be consistently challenged. What’s most important to remember as we fight back against conservative appropriation is that the battle over who "owns" the movement is not just about feminists; feminism’s future affects all American women. And if we let the lie of conservative feminism stand—if real feminists don’t lay claim to the movement and outline their vision for the future—all of us will suffer.