The XX Factor

Nikki Haley, the Political Riot Grrrl

A couple of weeks ago I asked whether the Tea Party movement was redefining feminism . This debate has continued to rage ; today, our own Amanda Marcotte weighs in with her wry taxonomy of the age-old anti feminist “feminists ,” which she places within a long history of woman-hating types. But if anything convinces me that we are indeed dealing with a brand-new species, it’s the improbable candidacy of Nikki Haley, who is running in the Republican primary for governor of South Carolina. Haley, more than anyone else, is proof that feminism and the Tea Party are converging in a strange and novel place that redefines women’s progress as we think we know it.

Like many other candidates this year, Haley is running as an angry outsider. In her case, though, she likes to echo a rage against the patriarchy. Her stint in state politics taught her that she doesn’t want to be part of the “fraternity party,” she told the Washington Post . “When you turn around and threaten their power and you threaten their money, they turn around and push back,” she said at a rally-something you could imagine coming from the mouths of Bikini Kill .

Haley has been, famously, twice accused of cheating on her husband, by a lobbyist and a blogger who says they had a one-night stand. (The lobbyist named the date and the hotel room, although he did not pass a polygraph test.) Haley has denied the affair and even dragged out her husband to stand by her in a political ad, the same way men who are accused of affairs do. Still, the accusations have lent her an air of sexual intrigue that feminists can’t help but admire. “Weathering a scandal of this magnitude would help conservatives see modern women as we really are: complex, sexually liberated, and free to make our own decisions about what we do with our bodies,” writes Dana Goldstein at the Daily Beast .

Goldstein, of course, wants Haley to lose to the Democrat in the general election. Haley is, after all, pro-life, pro-gun-rights, pro-the-Arizona-immigration-law, and pro-Sarah Palin. She is, in short, pro everything a traditional feminist hates. But you can’t cleanly separate the sexual scandal from the rest of her politics, nor can you so easily wish her away. A pro-woman radical does not always look like we want her to, as Kerry Howley points out. In the early feminist days, “she might well support free love but think condoms are a tool of the sex-mad patriarchy.” Haley could turn out to be a pro-life, sexually liberated, part-Indian, anti-patriarchal powerhouse with a husband in the military. She could hate the word “feminism” and yet turn out to be an inspiration to millions of women whose backgrounds and ideologies similarly don’t really add up, and yet seem to set them on fire. This crew could end up ushering in the Year of the Woman in a way none of us expected or wanted.