As most people who’ve read any history of the conservative movement know, new permutations of it arise anew, and from the looks of it, Sarah Palin is doing her best to create one. Specifically, she has been peppering her speeches with lines about “conservative feminism,” a term which has Washington Post writer Jessica Valenti up in arms:
But, of course, Palin isn’t a feminist — not in the slightest. What she calls “the emerging conservative feminist identity” isn’t the product of a political movement or a fight for social justice.
It isn’t a structural analysis of patriarchal norms, power dynamics or systemic inequities. It’s an empty rallying call to other women who are as disdainful of or apathetic to women’s rights as Palin herself: women who want to make abortion and emergency contraception illegal and who fight same-sex marriage rights. As Kate Harding wrote on Jezebel.com: “What comes next? ‘Phyllis Schlafly feminism?’ ‘Patriarchal feminism?’ ‘He-Man Woman Hater Feminism?’”
Given that so-called conservative feminists don’t support women’s rights, how can they paint their movement as pro-woman? Why are they not being laughed out of the room?
Now, admittedly, this is a weak argument, seeing as it’s almost completely circular and it begs the question in every conceivable way. I mean, come on, not all feminism has questioned patriarchal norms, or power dynamics, or systemic inequities. That’s just the most recent iteration, and many older feminists like, say, Susan B. Anthony focused entirely on classically liberal arguments. At this point, Valenti assumes what she’s trying to prove – namely, that all feminism has to be oriented toward “women’s rights” (i.e. abortion), and also has to accept intersectionality with gays. Neither of these things is necessarily true, and it’s foolish to pretend that they are.
But this isn’t even the most substantive problem I have with the article. Much as I’m a Palin fan, for instance, I often find it annoying how she blames her problems with the media and with liberal critics on latent sexism, something that comes far more from the feminist playbook than from anything done by, say, Phyllis Schlafly (who celebrated traditional gender roles while crushing her opponents intellectually). In fact, having met Schlafly (albeit briefly), I know she wouldn’t use that strategy, since her response when I said she’d accomplished more than any feminist was that “The only reason they haven’t accomplished that much is because they don’t believe they can.” Admittedly, Palin’s no Catherine MacKinnon, and thank God, but is it really such a stretch to see her using some of the same victimhood-motivated claims?
What’s more, Valenti’s claim that there’s no such thing as conservative feminism, especially with regard to suspicion of men, is just flat out wrong. Exhibit A on that count is the oft-cited conservative argument against porn, especially as exhibited by people who claim that the people who watch porn are participating in “degradation,” without examining the numerous tacit premises involved in such a claim (For instance, that no one ever deserves to be degraded, regardless of the stupidity of their life choices, or that no one can enjoy being degraded, or that the degradation in question actually exists). These premises aren’t necessarily wrong, but to accept them uncritically is par for the course in feminist discourse, especially of the type Valenti celebrates.