One of the many trends in this midterm election cycle, recognized and promoted by those whose job it is to recognize and promote trends, is that 2010 appears to be the “Year of the Woman.” Sharron Angle won her primary for the Nevada Senate race. Nikki Haley, with headline-making help from Sarah Palin, won her runoff primary for South Carolina Governor Tuesday. Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman won primaries in CA, the former for Senate and the latter for governor. All are women.
All are also Republicans, which is perhaps the greater surprise.
The narrative falls apart when you look at actual numbers, but regardless, the success of GOP women in headline-topping races has motivated some interesting commentary on feminism.
Sam Bennett of the Women’s Campaign Forum (an organization impressively non-partisan in its support of women candidates) wrote for Huffington Post that “Sarah Palin is not a feminist. In fact, the fabricated term ‘conservative feminist’ is an oxymoron.” She then added, “Sarah Palin calling herself a conservative feminist is like BP calling themselves a corporate environmentalist. You don’t get to just pick up that word and use it the way you want it.” Barrett’s chief objection: Palin and the GOP’s new alpha women are all, except Whitman, staunchly pro-life.
But is it fair for Bennett to claim the term feminism for her own and say that anyone who disagrees cannot “pick up that word and use it” to advocate a different opinion? That’s an exclusive definition of a broad term, and it begs the question, can you be a feminist and be pro-life?
Moderate liberal assumptions say that abortion may be morally difficult, but it is not the place of the government to outlaw it. The pro-life position, according to the center-left, is an assault on women’s freedom, and therefore those concerned about women’s equality must be pro-choice.
But does this justify saying, as a matter of definition, that feminism requires a pro-choice stance? To many, the answer is obviously and passionately yes. But Sarah Palin and her pro-life message resonate with many American women in a way that liberal feminists find incomprehensible.
Comprehend it. Internal contradictions aside, conservative feminism is not particularly new, and it is a mistake to call it an oxymoron. It is deeply religious, of course, and it views the anti-abortion fight as one of female empowerment. The argument is simply that as women – as the motherly and feminine forces guiding our nation’s ethical compass – it is a feminine duty to defend life at its earliest stages. Women are empowered by the defense itself. This cultural theory may be out of date in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but it is at the heart of Palin’s sizeable and passionate following. And it is, in its own way, a feminist argument.
It may be a horribly misguided feminist argument. I don’t mean to advocate that conservative feminists are right or wrong. My point is not at all about which side is right or wrong.
My point is that the logic of conservative feminism is plain and obvious for anyone who cares to try to comprehend. It’s not new or complicated, and it shouldn’t be baffling. Therefore, it is a colossal mistake for Bennett to simply dismiss the self-described pro-life feminists as an oxymoron, because that’s no way for her to argue her liberal position. Conservative feminism cannot be dismissively defined away.
What Bennett should have written was, “We congratulate the women who have won these high-profile primaries in races across the country. We hope that their obvious and sincere commitment to women’s freedom and equality will force them to re-evaluate their pro-life views.”
It’s not as strong a statement. The rhetoric doesn’t pop. And it’s probably not very good for fundraising. But by dropping the exclusive definition, Bennett could make one small step toward an understanding and a conversation between two hostile camps.
Both sides want to empower women, if in radically different ways.
In the broadest sense, both sides are feminists.
End note: I slipped it in as the hyperlink on “deeply religious,” but the Newsweek Article “Saint Sarah” deserves a second look if you have the time. Palin herself panned it, but it is an insightful look into her world.