Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Is it only about abortion?

("It," obviously, being many feminists' near-pathological hatred of Sarah Palin.)

Obviously, Palin's anti-abortion views (which don't allow even for the standard rape and incest exceptions) do not endear her to most feminists. And for that, I actually don't blame them. I believe the right to abortion, at least in the early stages of pregnancy, is an important and essential freedom for women.

But the reality is that party-line feminists have not been very kind to pro-choice conservative women, either. They hated Margaret Thatcher (see this 2006 column by David Boaz on the subject). In 1993, Gloria Steinem called pro-choice Republican Senate candidate Kay Bailey Hutchison a "female impersonator" and declared that "Having someone who looks like us but thinks like them is worse than having no one." (Anticipating the feminist sexism of clearly gender-based slurs against Palin -- "It Girl," "pinup queen," etc. -- the late columnist Molly Ivins dubbed Hutchison a "Breck girl.")

One major reason for this, I think, is the one I discussed in my Wall Street Journal article. It's the belief that feminism must support not simply equal rights and opportunities for women and men, not just cultural approval for nontraditional gender roles, but extensive government programs to enable women to combine career and family. See, for the most explicit statement of this view, this article by Katherine Marsh in The New Republic:

Feminism is not just about having the opportunity to do it all. It's also about having the support to do as much as you can. This is why, in the end, feminism needs to be tied to not just an identity, but to an ideology that encourages that support.

Marsh earlier says that Palin "an incredible support system--a husband with flexible jobs rather than a competing career, a close-knit community, and a host of nearby grandparents, aunts, and uncles to lend a hand on the domestic front" -- but apparently none of that counts as "support." Only the government.

It is, in my view, exceptionally bad for feminism to argue that female equality must depend on big government and extensive government involvement in markets and social processes. First of all, such a position automatically turns all proponents of limited government against feminism, associating feminism with the "Nanny State." In a paradoxical way, it also sends the message that women's roles as the primary caregivers in the family are rooted in nature and impervious to change: the only way to lighten the domestic load on women is to get government or government-supported programs to pick up some of it, not to get men more involved. It is also worth noting that in many European countries that have generous social programs and benefits for working mothers (such as extensive paid maternity leave), women's career advancement tends to lag further behind men's than it does in the U.S. The entitlements can make women less desirable employees and turn into a society-wide "Mommy Track."

There is another, more insidious idea at work as well: the idea that conservative ideas on things like free markets, the welfare state, the environment, or gun rights are inherently "unfeminine," because "feminine" values are rooted in compassion, interdependence, peaceful resolution of conflict, caring, sharing, and so on; and that women whose political views are too individualistic, too "harsh," and insufficiently humane, are not "real women." See, for instance, this comment on the Gurdian blog in response to David Boaz:

Thatcher showed only that a woman can survive in politics if she explicitly shows to act nothing like one. I do not believe that she furthered the cause of women in politics, instead she furthered the status quo of the time, and showed that a properly 'de-gendered' woman can do what a man does. So, men can do it well, and women can do it fine too, as long as they forget about what they have in their panties.

See, too, the assumption at that any pro-guns, pro-hunting female politician is merely "playing by the boys' game."

Somehow, according to some feminists, it's sexist to tell women that their job choices or family roles must be shaped by their gender -- but not sexist to tell them their politics must be shaped by their gender, even on issues that have nothing to do with gender. There would be howls of outrage if a woman with a "masculine" career was branded an unwoman -- "de-gendered," a "female impersonator." Yet it's okay, evidently, to do the same to a woman with what some considered to be "masculine" views.


Kevin B. O'Reilly said...

Again, it shouldn't be surprising that women who identify as feminists -- who are as a rule of thumb very liberal -- aren't hot to trot about conservative women politicians. Why would one expect them to be?

This is the point. They are trying to make the meaning of feminism something more substantive than just supporting any woman who does anything outside the bounds of appropriate 1950s gender roles.

You know, I personally I'm puzzled by anyone "conservative" who supports wreckless, unnecessary wars abroad. Yet thats is how conservatives have defined themselves today. Who am I to argue that they should really be admiring Ron Paul's foreign policy vision instead of John McCain's?

Anonymous said...

Back in the days when Clinton was inevitably going to win the Democratic primary and then presidential elections, I saw a couple of articles, apparently by feminists, that argued in favour of Clinton on grounds of her sex.

I imagine that subsequent events have left some people slightly embarrassed. And we all know how people respond in such circumstances...

Anonymous said...

Cathy, have you seen this article?

Anonymous said...

Welcome back!

In the WSJ, you asked why left-wing feminists "have a problem" with Sarah Palin.

Here on the blog, you seem to have walked that back a bit to "some" feminists, which is a little easier for those of us who could quite possibly be circumscribed by the intersection of these two loosely defined groups.

But in all of the analysis, I think you are missing something, and that something can be pretty well tied to this supposition:

...and have refused to acknowledge that, agree or disagree with her politics, she's a great model of female achievement.

In the abstract, as a working mom and mid-level politician, this might be true. She was both a parent, and a successful Alaskan pol.

But reality intrudes, and today she is not best described in either of these terms. Today, the most pertinent information about her is that she is prospective VP, which means she is also prospective President.

My guess is that if you want to look for an emotional backlash to this great model of female achievement, you might start looking at how she went from point A to point B.

Was she an accomplished politician? To the extent that she got elected Governor, sure. To this point, her time in that office has been short (although not short enough to keep her from being embroiled in some good controversies). But, realistically, this should not have been enough to get her the Veep nod. Nor did she shortcut they normal system by going directly in front of a wider electorate and making her case directly.

Instead, she became the hand-picked successor to an older man. Passed over, among the many possible candidates, were women of far, far more depth of experience, women with actual accomplishments to their name. The man who picked her ignored the fact that he had spent months assailing his opponent for a lack of experience, only to turn a blind eye to hers. The man who picked her stood on a stage playing with his wedding ring while she, the former beauty queen, was making her public acceptance speech. As they say, these are bad optics.

So, sure, there is resentment over abortion (and contraception, rape kits, and government support for poor/working mothers). There is honest policy disagreement here (and I think concerns about what her story means to the politics of the social safety net are not necessarily suggestive of deeper personal issues and resentments of her).

But for some, there is obviously a personal, emotional issue. If you want to dig a little further into the nature of resentment of Palin, emotions that go past disagreement and into emotional response, here is my guess about what you will hear:

She didn't earn it. She didn't earn this.

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