Sarah Palin made quite the splash recently with her comments to the anti-abortion group the Susan B. Anthony List about conservative women reclaiming feminism, asserting that anti-choicers were “returning the woman’s movement back to its original roots.” Because no central authority exists to control use of the word feminist, Palin’s cooption of the term caused anxious questions: Is there such thing as conservative feminism? Can you be a feminist who opposes abortion rights? Does the word feminism mean anything at all? Does merely wearing a power suit and smart-girl glasses automatically make you a feminist?
The invocation of the word feminist at a meeting of anti-abortion women can be confusing, but it shouldn’t be. There’s no real reason to consider Sarah Palin a feminist. She’s just the latest incarnation of a long and noble line of feminist anti-feminists: women who call themselves feminist but also object to the existence of the feminist movement and organize in opposition to it. Feminist anti-feminism has evolved in the shadow of feminism since the days when many women adamantly insisted they didn’t want or need the right to vote. And as feminism has morphed rapidly since the early days of the second wave, so has anti-feminism changed arguments and strategies, going through three distinct phases.
Phase I:Plain Ol’ Anti-Feminism
Iconic Leader: Phyllis Schafly of the Eagle Forum
Other examples: Beverly LaHaye and the Concerned Women for America, Connaught C. Marshner of the Heritage Foundation, Judie Brown of the American Life League, Janice Shaw Crouse.
Basic argument: God/nature made women and men different so they could play different roles. Women are well-suited to stay at home, submit to their husbands, and dedicate themselves to the task of supporting a man. Anything other than this is an assault on the family. Those looking out for women’s best interests want to encourage women to adopt sweetness and submission in order to better catch a chivalrous husband.
Classic quote: From Phyllis Schlafly: “It’s very healthy for a young girl to be deterred from promiscuity by fear of contracting a painful, incurable disease, or cervical cancer, or sterility, or the likelihood of giving birth to a dead, blind, or brain-damaged baby (even 10 years later when she may be happily married).”
Motivation: They were alarmed by a rash of feminist victories in the ‘60s and ‘70s that secured the right to equal pay, access birth control and abortion, and no-fault divorce, coupled with a stampede of women into the workplace. Young feminists, who embraced a form of sexy that involved breathable underwear and hair that didn’t take much time to do, were easy to resent. Anti-feminists were able to mobilize by appealing to women who felt left out of the feminist revolution and hinting to housewives that more women in the workplace meant more opportunities for your husband to cheat.
Major victories: Overturning the Equal Rights Amendment; creating the anti-abortion movement; stopping federally subsidized day-care; stalling further action on equal pay; sending the feminist movement into remission.
Why they eventually faded: Economic necessity drove more women to work, which meant that even women who might have been sympathetic to feminist anti-feminist arguments found themselves taking advantage of actual feminist advancements. Susan Faluldi injured the anti-feminist movement in her book Backlash, when she demonstrated that many of the leaders enjoyed both professional careers and husbands who shared domestic responsibilities, even as these leaders argued against these perks for other women.
Phase II:“Independent Feminism” Anti-Feminism
Iconic Leader: Camille Paglia
Other examples: Christina Hoff-Summers, Wendy McElroy, Kathleen Parker, Heather MacDonald.
Basic argument: The important work of feminism is over, and whatever movement is left exists primarily to demonize men and the awe-inspiring male sexual spirit.
Classic quote: From Camille Paglia: “You have to accept the fact that part of the sizzle of sex comes from the danger of sex. You can be overpowered.”
Motivation: In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the feminist movement kicked into high gear to fight sexual and domestic violence. Independent feminists saw touchstones such as the Take Back the Night rallies, the Clarence Thomas hearings, a rash of anti-sexual harassment policies, and the emergence of the phrase “date rape” as nothing more than feminists telling women that they were delicate flowers unable to handle the intimidating ribaldry and exciting hints of violence that mark the true male spirit.
Major victories: Maintaining a cultural and legal framework that made it difficult to prosecute rape; convincing the public that most acquaintance rapes were nothing but bad sex later regretted; turning Andrea Dworkin’s name into a punchline.
Why they eventually faded: The emergence of third-wave feminists, pro-sex feminists, riot grrls singing “I like f*cking,” and, eventually, hip, young feminist-bloggers made it hard for “independent” feminists to maintain the argument that feminism was a hairy-legged, anti-sex monolith that used sexual assault and harassment as a pretext to bash men. The indisputably sex-positive gay rights movement fell more in line with mainstream feminism. Camille Paglia’s increasingly incoherent missives became an embarrassment.
Phase III:Co-opting Feminism Anti-Feminists
Iconic Leader: Sarah Palin
Other examples: Feminists for Life, Patricia Heaton, Caitlin Flanagan, Susan B. Anthony List, Laura Sessions Stepp
Basic argument: 19th century feminists who struggled for the vote and education did a great thing, but modern feminism only exists to trick women into thinking they want abortions, higher taxes, electric cars, and unfettered access to orgasmic experiences.
Classic quote: From Caitlin Flanagan: “[T]he forces of feminism have worked relentlessly to erode the patriarchy—which, despite its manifold evils, held that providing for the sexual safety of young girls was among its primary reasons for existence.”
Motivation: With the exception of Caitlin Flanagan, most of them have wised-up to the fact that it’s hypocrisy to oppose professional careers for women while maintaining a professional career. They like feminist victories that make it possible for them to be taken seriously at their own jobs but object to feminist innovations that make it easier to for all women to delay or even avoid marriage and childbirth. The popularity of Sex and the City, while not written or endorsed by any major feminists, seems to have been what really set many of them off.
Major victories: Pushing abstinence-only education into schools; creating a whole new class of abortion restrictions based on the faulty premise that women who have abortions don’t know what they’re doing; inventing the term “hook-up culture” and convincing the public that young women are having a new, scary kind of sex; sowing confusion about where the suffragists stood on family planning.
Still going strong: Few Americans can remember what it was like in the days when abortion was illegal and shotgun marriages were the norm. It’s easy for anti-feminists to exploit this to paint a rosy picture of how much better life was then, and much harder for feminists to convince the public of the necessity of these hard-won sexual rights.
Should feminists celebrate any aspect of Sarah Palin declaring herself a feminist? In a sense, yes. Every generation of anti-feminists concedes more ground to feminists, and sometimes feminist anti-feminist women switch sides to support policies like Title IX and the Lilly Ledbetter Act. But with women like Palin claiming they’re the real feminists, the public might grow to think of “feminism” as a movement that only supports women if they’re lucky enough to be independently wealthy, married mothers.