When Sarah Palin took the podium in St. Paul to accept her nomination for the vice presidency in September 2008, calm and collected feminists might have recalled the old saw: Be careful what you wish for. Here she was, an ambitious political woman with the sort of egalitarian marriage that would put the Swedes to shame. Here she was, a charismatic, working-class heroine who oozed folksy provincialism with the naturalness of Lyndon Johnson in the same breath as she cheered her Hillary Clintonesque assault on the “glass ceiling.” Yes, here she was—clinging to her guns, her religion, and her babies, and saying, and apparently believing, all the wrong things.
But “calm and collected” are not the words that come to mind to describe the feminist response to the governor from Alaska. The young feminist Jessica Grose, writing on the popular website Jezebel just after the Republican convention, was—well, we’ll let her describe it: “When Palin spoke on Wednesday night, my head almost exploded from the incandescent anger boiling in my skull. . . . What I feel for her privately could be described as violent, nay, murderous, rage.” Grose’s readers left more than 700 comments, according to the late New York Sun, including one from a reader who wanted to “vomit with rage.” Other haters damned Palin as a traitor to her sex or an “insult to women,” as Judith Warner spat in the New York Times. “Turncoat bitch!” the comedian Sandra Bernhard railed in a performance caught on YouTube. “You whore in your cheap fucking . . . cheap-ass plastic glasses and your hair up!” Writing on a Washington Post blog, Wendy Doniger, a Hinduism specialist at the University of Chicago Divinity School, topped them all: Palin’s “greatest hypocrisy is in her pretense that she is a woman.”
However excessive their frothing, feminists had good reason to be in panic mode. Palin may have lost her bid to become vice president; she may have failed to appeal to such prominent conservatives as Peggy Noonan, George Will, and Karl Rove, as well as to lesser right-of-center mortals like this writer; but by leading a wave of new conservative women into the fray, she has changed feminism forever. In fact, this new generation of conservative politicas—having caught, skinned, and gutted liberal feminism as if it were one of Palin’s Alaskan salmon—is transforming the very meaning of a women’s movement.
Not that the new crowd of right-wing women were ever explicitly hostile to feminism. On the contrary, they often embraced it, and for liberal feminists, that was precisely the problem. Breaking ranks with most of the conservative female political players who had come before, Palin eagerly paid homage to the movement. She gave thanks for being able to “stand . . . on the shoulders of women who had won hard-fought battles for things like equal pay and equal access.” The failed Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell called Gloria Steinem one of her inspirations. Sometimes the Palinistas even indulged in some gentle male-bashing: “For a long time people have seen the parties as good-ole’-boy, male-run institutions,” said Rebecca Wales of Smart Girl Politics, a conservative women’s group, according to Slate’s Hanna Rosin. “In the Tea Party, women have finally found their voice.”
It’s easy to see why liberal feminists were miffed. Because of their efforts, conservative women were now hurrying down congressional corridors. But where were these newcomers back when the struggle was on? They were making Hillary Clinton’s life hell when she declined to discard her maiden name and refused to bake cookies. They were sneering while activists undertook the work, the planning, and the endless organizing to pass antidiscrimination laws and to fight assumptions of female inferiority. Yet now the naysayers and laggards were singing “Kumbaya” with Gloria Steinem. When Rachel Campos-Duffy, wife of Republican congressman-elect Sean Duffy, praised the Capitol’s designated nursing room, where she was able to breast-feed her seven-month-old daughter during new-member festivities, one writer on Slate grumbled that it was “a progressive Democratic woman,” Nancy Pelosi, who “took the initiative to use government funds to better accommodate new mothers and transform Congress into a more family-friendly work environment.” Hypocrisy, thy name is Republican women!
But liberal feminists were troubled by much more than conservative women’s wanting to crash the party. What threatened feminism as we knew it was the Palinites’ fundamental beliefs about the nature of the American social contract.
To understand the gap between the two sides, we need to recall some not-so-distant history. The second-wave feminists of the 1960s and 1970s who revived the moribund suffragette movement came of age during and after World War II, a time when confidence in Washington was high. Modeling their aspirations on the civil rights movement, they saw government as the vehicle they would ride to their liberation. America’s powerful strain of don’t-tread-on-me libertarianism was largely quiescent, and Great Society liberalism was the default mode for the young and educated. Bringing legal complaints before judges and lobbying legislators, bureaucrats, and civil servants to take action on a multitude of “women’s issues”—that is, barriers standing in the way of female advancement—seemed the only way to go.
Over time, the list of women’s issues got longer: workplace discrimination, sexual harassment, domestic violence, parental leave, child care, the feminization of poverty, abortion, access to contraception, comprehensive sex education, child support, sexist media representations of women, and—depending on which feminist you asked—sex workers, gay rights, pornography, and the beauty industry. As the list grew, so did the demands for government action. Even as feminists won major congressional reforms like the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title IX, as well as a host of court cases ranging from minor to transformational, it became clear that from their perspective, a woman’s policy work was never done.
Starting in the 1970s, feminists put enormous energy into increasing the number of women in political life, in part because it was only fair—since women represented half of the population—but also because they believed that women would advance their agenda. They built organizations, many still in existence today, for electing female candidates and lobbying for women’s issues. As luck would have it, they also had access to a powerful media bullhorn. In The Feminist Promise, Christine Stansell notes that New York–based activists joined forces with the already large number of Gotham women working in print and television journalism. Female journalists—liberal, educated, and career-minded—were a natural constituency for feminist ideas. And the professional ghettoization that confined them to covering women’s stories made them mad as hell, ironically working to the advantage of the women’s movement.
The combination of a strong media presence and organizational heft gave feminists the power to define women’s issues in the political sphere. Of course, they had conservative female opponents, some of them formidable. In the 1970s, Phyllis Schlafly, a preternaturally energetic mother of six, almost single-handedly blocked the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. “She drove the pro-ERA forces crazy,” Gail Collins writes in When Everything Changed, her history of the women’s movement. “They were used to thinking of themselves as the voice of American women, allied against the enemy: chauvinistic men.” Polls suggested that this presumed feminist mandate was a myth, but that didn’t stop feminists from portraying their conservative opponents as “anti-women” brainwashed by the patriarchy. Feminist media strength ensured that these accusations would not receive the public skepticism that they deserved.
The established feminist infrastructure had begun to sway long before 2008, but the arrival of Palin and friends crystallized the movement’s conflicts. For one thing, the Palinites had little interest in women’s issues, conventionally understood. Feminists like to say that they’re a diverse group, and it’s true that there have been areas of dispute in the past (on the subjects of lesbianism and pornography, for example), but overall, it was usually easy to separate those who supported “women’s issues” from those who didn’t. The newcomers, however, weren’t talking about child care, parental leave, equal-pay initiatives, or any other issue on the familiar agenda. They were talking about government debt and patronage, about TARP and bailouts and excessive regulation. In March 2010, a Quinnipiac poll found that 55 percent of Tea Party members were women—including five of the nine national coordinators of the Tea Party Patriots and 15 of the 25 state coordinators. A few months later, veteran newscaster Lesley Stahl probably spoke for a lot of media women during an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “I wanted to ask all the gurus here why so many of the Tea Partiers are women,” she said. “I find that just intriguing and don’t quite understand why that has happened.” Indeed. For Stahl and her ilk, real women care about day care, not deficits.
Policy aside, the arrivistes were incomprehensible to liberals for cultural reasons. The old guard, consisting mostly of lawyers, writers, journalists, and other media types, tended to cluster on the coasts. The new crowd came from the South, the Midwest, and the West, and a number of them were businesswomen—not surprisingly, given that women are now majority or equal owners in nearly half of American businesses. Some were techies, such as Tea Party organizers Jenny Beth Martin of Georgia, a computer programmer, and Michelle Moore of Missouri, who ran a technology consulting firm. Nikki Haley, South Carolina’s newly elected governor, was an accountant in her previous life. The new congresswoman from South Dakota, Kristi Noem, runs the cattle ranch that she inherited from her family. Tech geeks, businesswomen, and ranchers: not Lesley Stahl feminism, that’s for sure.
Further unsettling the feminist framework was the vigorous maternalism of the newcomers. Many heartland women had seen in feminism’s enthusiastic careerism, as well as its resentment of men and domesticity, an implicit criticism of their own lives. Hence their rejection of the feminist label even as they joined the workforce and lived lives that looked, in many respects, consistent with the movement’s principles. Now there appeared on the scene a new model of female success, one in which maternalism and even housewifery were not at odds with wielding power on the public stage. Palin’s name for the female midterm candidates was telling: “Mama Grizzlies.” Dana Loesch, a homeschooling mother of two, “mommy blogger,” and columnist, cofounded the St. Louis Tea Party. Minnesota congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, who won reelection in November, has taken in 23 foster children over the years. Before the election, some had predicted that 2010 would be another Year of the Woman; it would be closer to the truth to call it the Year of the Mom.
Actually, maternal feminism is nothing new. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, temperance fighters—and, to a lesser extent, suffragettes—viewed their role as wives and mothers as the source of their moral authority in public debates. But something important sets today’s maternal feminism apart from the earlier strain: it casts budgeting and governance as maternal issues. “From first-hand experience, [women] know you cannot spend your way out of debt at home and they know that philosophy translates to businesses and to the government,” Martin told Politico. Palin put her fiscal conservatism in the homey rhetoric of a PTA president: “I think a whole lot of moms . . . are concerned about government handing our kids the bill.”
The Palinites, then, have introduced an unfamiliar thought into American politics: maybe a trillion-dollar deficit is a woman’s issue. But where does that leave expensive, bureaucracy-heavy initiatives like universal pre-K, child care, and parental leave? Consider a recent feminist initiative, the Paycheck Fairness Act, passed in the House but scuttled in November by a few Republican Senate votes. Feminist supporters, saying that it would close loopholes in previous antidiscrimination legislation, didn’t worry about how redundant or bureaucratically tortured it might be or how many lawsuits it might unleash. But chances are that the Grizzlies, in keeping with their frontiersy individualism and their fears about ballooning deficits, would see in the act government run amok. After all, it would come on top of the 1963 Equal Pay Act; Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans employment discrimination; the 2009 Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act; innumerable state and local laws and regulations; and a crowd of watchdogs at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
How are liberal feminists to understand the kind of soi-disant feminist who would vote against a Paycheck Fairness Act? Gloria Steinem has tried this hoary explanation: “Any group of people that has been subordinate absorbs the idea of their own subordination . . . and comes to think that the only way to survive is to identify with the powerful.” That charge is so thoroughly inadequate for describing women like Michelle Moore and Sarah Palin that it only makes Steinem look clueless. But there were liberal feminists who understood that the Grizzlies’ arrival confronted them with a question that they needed to take seriously: What is feminism?
Some clung to the implicit definition that had evolved over the past 40 years. Here is the novelist Amy Bloom writing in a Slate powwow on the question:
If Sarah Palin explicitly supports equal pay for equal work, subsidized day care, Title IX, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, she’s a feminist. If she understands that she is a product of feminism and is prepared to pursue its goals, I can give her a pass on abortion because there are, apparently, honest-to-God feminists who believe that abortion is murder and even though I think that that’s not true, I have to respect that (I guess). But there is no such thing as free market/anti-legislation/I’ve-got-mine feminism.
That definition, of course, would exclude most of the Palinites, who would surely call themselves free marketeers. Other feminists defined their movement in such meaningless generalities as to surrender to the conservatives at the gate. “Feminism to me means equality for all women and regard for women’s choices,” the legal journalist Dahlia Lithwick ventured in the Slate forum. Elsewhere, phrases like “women’s progress,” “women’s interests,” “policies that move women forward,” and “goals that benefit women” also appeared in the public discussion about the meaning of feminism.
But the Palinites have drawn big question marks around language like this. What does “equality” mean? Is it equal opportunity, as the newcomers would probably say? Or equal results, as many feminists appear to believe? Does it mean women’s choosing how to run their lives, just as men do? (Grizzlies.) Or does it refer to absolute parity between men and women? (Liberals.) How can both sides claim the feminist mantle with such different understandings of government’s function and of women’s progress?
And these divisions don’t begin to address the biggest bone of contention of all: abortion. The writer and movie director Nora Ephron answered the what-is-feminism quiz simply by announcing: “You can’t call yourself a feminist if you don’t believe in the right to abortion.” Many liberals agree. Yet most Grizzlies oppose abortion; Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle, who lost in November, even rejected it in the cases of rape and incest. Palin has praised young women who carry unintended pregnancies to term as “strong,” “smart,” and “capable.” It seems unlikely that the Grizzlies can successfully recast feminism as antiabortion, but surveys suggest that women have been growing less sympathetic to the proabortion position—so who knows?
None of this is proof, of course, that the Palinites “speak for women” any more than feminists do. The midterm election reveals an ambiguous picture about women’s politics. There are a record number of new Republican women in the House of Representatives, in governors’ mansions, and in state legislatures. For the first time since exit polls have been taken, slightly more women voted for Republicans than for Democrats in the congressional election. Nevertheless, according to the Center for American Women in Politics, men were still 7 percentage points likelier than women to vote for a Republican House candidate in 2010. That gender gap is the same size as the one we saw in the 2008 presidential election. To make matters more confusing, a marriage gap also exists: married women were far more likely to vote Republican than single women in 2010. More evidence that feminism is up for grabs.