I will never forget the conversation I had with my mother during the 2008 presidential election. My mother instilled in me a love of politics. She took me with her whenever she went to vote. Every night, she and my grandfather would debate current affairs. I come from a family of Republicans, perhaps strange considering that I myself am a staunch liberal Democrat. Yet my mother has always supported liberal causes like the environment and abortion. But my mother’s words during the presidential election haunted me.
While I was delighted with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as candidates during the primary, my mother was enamored with Sarah Palin. After shaking my head in disgust I asked, “How could you like her? She’s opposed to everything you hold dear?” To which my mom replied, “Well she’s just like me, a hard-working mom.” To which I replied, “But so is Hillary Clinton!” Funny how quickly people forget that…it’s enough to make me scream. Now our dichotomous conversation is currently playing out on a larger stage.
With the November elections rapidly approaching, there are some game-changing elections that could affect all of our lives (this is not drama-queen talk, people, this is for realsies!). A few weeks ago, one of my fave feminist icons, Princeton Professor Melissa Harris-Perry, formerly Harris-Lacewell, went on The Rachel Maddow Show (another fab fem icon!) to discuss the 5 GOP Senate candidates, including 2 women, who are against abortion even in cases of rape and incest. These include Sharron Angle (Nevada), Rand Paul (Kentucky), Ken Buck (Colorado), Joe Miller (Alaska) and Christine O’Donnell (Delaware).
Professor Harris-Perry talked about how 1 in 4 women and girls is sexually assaulted in her lifetime, affecting hundreds of thousands of people. She calls the GOP’s opposition to abortion a “war on American girls and women.” She says,
“There is no place in the world and no time in history where restricting women’s reproductive rights makes a people or a nation more free or more equal…It has always been true and incredibly important that we recognize that despite the fact that we can be very proud of these women as women and as politicians, that the question is: how do women as citizens fare on the other side of them either elected or not elected?…And I do believe, because I’m a person of faith, in an interceding God that can help people through difficult circumstances. But, I’m also an American who believes that the point of government isn’t to make life so hard for half of our citizens that the only force there to help them is God. We as a government and as a people deserve and should do better.”
Hearing this made me want to leap through my computer screen and hug her! A force of nature, Professor Harris-Perry is so insightful, articulate and passionate, I would marry this woman…well, if she wasn’t already married! Now I know people possess vastly different, emotionally charged views when it comes to abortion. But even those opposed to abortion often concede that women should have access in cases such as rape or incest, as they shouldn’t be punished for their choices. But these ultra-conservative candidates want to strip those rights away.
We’re dealing with the aftermath of the Sarah Palin-ization of politics. Palin jumped on the feminism bandwagon and started declaring herself a feminist too. WTF?! Yes, the same woman who opposed abortion and policies for women now wears the feminist mantle. So what the frak is going on here?? In her new book Big Girls Don’t Cry, Rebecca Traister examines the 2008 presidential election and its impact on feminism and women candidates. She writes,
“The word “feminism” itself had not exactly inspired a ferocious defense by its own adherents. For decades the right had successfully demonized women who embraced the label as hirsute succubi, family-scorning and erotically disadvantaged old bags…Something had been stirred up, not simply in the Republican Party, but within feminism. It seemed to me that it was a mistake to ignore it. Palin’s candidacy had empowered Republican women eager to claim their share of the feminist legacy and transform its institutions by making them more amenable to their antiabortion positions and conservative policy positions.”
Jessica Valenti wrote a fabulously insightful article “Who Stole Feminism?” in which she discusses how feminism has been hijacked by GOP women candidates. Valenti argues that we can’t use gender essentialism as a rationalization for being a feminist: just because Sarah Palin is a woman, does not make her a feminist. Valenti writes,
“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.”
I agree with Valenti…not all women are automatically feminists just because of their gender while some men also call themselves feminists. But I always involuntarily cringe when a feminist tells other women that they can’t call themselves feminist, as there are myriad feminisms. Yet I refer to one of my idols bell hooks who states that feminism is being against oppression and sexism; if you are, well then you’re a feminist. This succinct description cuts through the bullshit of any elaborate explanations.
So would Sarah Palin, Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle or Carly Fiorina (who also opposes abortion) be considered a feminist then? Of course some may say yes as successful women they would…but I say absolutely not. If you are stripping women of their rights, then sorry Ladies, you are no feminists. Teaching abstinence-only curriculum in sex education or telling other women that they must bear their rapists’ children and trust in god’s plan, that they no longer have an option if they become pregnant is offensive and ridiculous. If you don’t advocate for equal pay, reproductive freedom, domestic violence legislation…then I’m sorry, you must turn in your feminist card…do not pass go, do not collect $200. Christine O’Donnell went on Hannity, blaming the media for portraying her as an extremist. Nope, you did that all by yourself sister.
Many in my generation and younger don’t call themselves a feminist, even if they actively support women’s rights. Feminists have gotten a bad rap for being humorless man-hating hippies. Professor Susan J. Douglas, in her book Enlightened Sexism, argues that while the women’s movement put a focus on strong, independent women and overt sexism, society simultaneously embraces subtly sexist images in movies and TV. Douglas points out that feminists face constant derision in the media. But when you boil it down, feminism is about freedom; we just want to protect everyone’s civil liberties…and get rid of sexism in the media too. This includes freedom of speech. Conservative women have every right to hold the opinions they hold…even if every fiber of my being disagrees with them. But they shouldn’t have the right to go around pretending they are supporting women when in reality they’re just tearing them down.
In Betsy Reed’s article “Sex and the GOP,” she asserts that women lead more towards voting Democratic and men more towards Republican. She says it’s men who are drawn to the ultra-conservative female candidates as they are hyper-critical of government, something more men than women respond to as women are more often the recipients of government programs or funding. Maddow questioned why more media wasn’t focusing on the conservative GOP stances on reproductive rights. Luckily, it looks like some democratic candidates are finally putting the focus on it.
When abortion providers face the threat of bombs chucked in their windows and women walking into clinics for abortions or other services (many clinics offer multiple healthcare services like birth control or gynecological exams) are harassed and women in the military can’t get access to the full-range of healthcare services…something has got to change. You yourself may not agree with abortion, I’m okay with that. But put yourself in the shoes of a young scared pregnant teen, or a woman who’s already survived the trauma of rape or incest and now has to face a pregnancy, or even someone who just can’t bear to go through a pregnancy as they don’t have the financial or emotional capacity to raise a child. Whenever people are poised to point their finger and declare what is or isn’t morally just, I find it’s usually at those times when people have never felt what it’s like to be in that person’s situation.
“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.”
My mother and I may never agree on the same candidate. But we do both agree that reproductive freedom should be protected. Women shouldn’t vote for other women merely because of their gender. They should vote based on the issues and voting records of political candidates. For a party that claims it wants smaller government, some in the Republican Party want the government, not you or your doctor, to decide (or rather force) you to give birth. Women should control what happens to their bodies, not politicians. Whether you call yourself a feminist or not, if you believe in protecting women’s rights, be sure to go out and vote November 2nd. And tell politicians (as my good friend Dede might say) to stay the hell out of your womb.