Mytheos Holt doesn’t know the half of Jessica Valenti. Having identified her merely as a “Washington Post writer”’ Mr. Holt proceeds to take apart Ms. Valenti’s attack on Sarah Palin’s “conservative feminism.” But there’s more to it than that. Valenti, the author of multiple books on Generation Y Feminism, is a fairly radical feminist, still clinging to shopworn bromides about patriarchy, institutional sexism, and the ever-looming threat of misogyny. She’s wrong about the history of feminism. And she couldn’t be more off-base when it comes to Sarah Palin.
When I criticized feminist date-rape propaganda two months ago, I was criticized by the feminist blog world — including one of Valenti’s own blogs, “Yes Means Yes” — for not realizing that there were “feminisms,” and not merely “feminism.” Since Valenti claims that Palin opposes “real feminism,” whatever that is, can we finally dispose of this meaningless line? To borrow a line from Simone de Beauvoir on psychoanalysis: when one criticizes the letter of the doctrine, it’s insisted that one must actually just embrace the spirit of the argument, but once one embraces the spirit of the argument, they just want to bind you to the letter of the doctrine! (Of course, Valenti speaks out of both sides of her mouth, since later she claims that there is no true feminism and that it’s actually a highly intellectually diverse movement. So I’m not sure what to argue with.)
I can’t say that I’m a fan of Sarah Palin, but if she doesn’t embody everything that feminism ought to stand for, then what we have on our hands is a manipulative language game. She “has it all”: a college degree, a family, a high-profile career, and a history of taking on powerful, entrenched men in established institutions — and winning. The presidential race of 2008 exposed feminist ideology for the charade that it is. What a riot that Hillary Clinton, who rose to power on her cheating husband’s coattails, was hailed as a feminist hero — while Sarah Palin, a self-made woman, was spat upon!
Of course, feminism originated as a classical liberal movement. Despite an organized effort by radical feminists to bury the true legacy of Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, these women had far more in common with Sarah Palin than with, say, Gloria Steinem — or Jessica Valenti, for that matter. Wollstonecraft and Stanton, especially, were adamant about the primacy of Enlightenment values. Radical feminists pay these women lip service as forerunners but dismiss their actual arguments as quaint or archaic. Stanton, in the famous Seneca Falls Declaration of 1844, purposely borrowed words from the Declaration of Independence. Like her counterpart Frederick Douglass in the early civil rights movement, Stanton did not dismiss the Founding Fathers as part of a ‘hegemonic power discourse’ intent on ‘subjugating women and people of color.’ She believed that America had to move forward because it was not being true to its own standards. The cure for women’s ills was in more Enlightenment values, not a revolutionary program against them.
Valenti cites Betty Friedan as a founding mother of the modern feminism that Sarah Palin is somewhat dismissive of, but Friedan has been somewhat dismissive of recent feminism, as well, saying that it’s gotten too victim-oriented. Susan Faludi decried her as having sold out to the patriarchy, and Friedan’s pro-porn views put her at odds with the now-dominant feminism of Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon, whose anti-pornography standpoint has found admirers in conservative women like Tammy Bruce, as well as much of the religious right. Sarah Palin would probably find a lot to like in Dworkin’s Pornography: Men Possessing Women.
Sarah Palin is typically feminist insofar as she complains about (generally non-existent) “glass ceilings” and “media sexism.” She nauseatingly hails Geraldine Ferraro and Hillary Clinton as people who helped blaze the trail for her. And she has long been a member of Feminists for Life. But she is not drunk on fashionable nonsense such as the kind that came from, say, Kate Millett. She does not believe that feminism must be a “structural analysis of a world that oppresses women, an ideology based on the notion that patriarchy exists and that it needs to end.” When you hear Foucault-esque jargon like “structural analysis [of power relations]” you know you’re dealing with an airhead.
Valenti’s feminism is uncommonly silly, actually. She is the author of a hilariously bad book called He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut, purporting to expose “double-standards” against women. Among the worst is the contention that while “she’s a cougar, he’s dating a younger woman.” Really? I’m twenty years old and I can’t even say that I think that Justin Bieber is cute without being called a pedophile by some people. Since when have men gotten away with being into younger people? Another: “He’s an activist, she’s a pain in the ass.” Most people think they’re all pains in the ass, actually. “He’s hot and heady, she’s brainy or boobilicious.” Really? I think that most guys out there can attest to the jock/nerd dichotomy. “He’s drunk, she’s a victim.” Hey! Now there’s a real double-standard. That might make for a good article.
Feminism as we once knew it is dead. And, as the classical feminist Valenti criticizes, Christina Hoff Sommers, is apt to point out: that’s a good thing. It means that its work is basically done. Now, the focus should shift back to the eternal question facing us all — men and women — the latter no longer merely the ‘second sex’: what does it mean to be a fulfilled member of one’s sex? Sarah Palin’s answer is as worthy of debate as Valenti’s. Let’s have this discussion. It’s one well worth having.