I heard something on the radio the other day that really got me thinking. The station, a news organization that some years ago went under new management and is now like a Canadian version of Fox News, was talking about feminism. Oh, no, a Fox-like station talking about feminism? Yeah, I know, right.
So the commentator argued that women like Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman were the "true" feminists, whereas self-proclaimed feminists like Margaret Atwood were wasting their time in a pseudo-progressive hippie colony of the mind. My first reaction was, of course, to shake my fist at the radio and tell the commentator to take a hike, but after thinking it over, I came to realize... he's right. Partially.
The argument goes that, if feminism is really about equal rights for the sexes, then isn't the most feminist thing in the world when a woman can be strong in her convictions and become powerful in living her beliefs? In other words, is Palin the shining beacon of how it's meant to be? Kind of a mindfuck, ain't it?
Having spent four years at a university at which everything was based on opinions based on other people's opinions based on yet other people's opinions about books written in the 1970s, I understand the commentator's frustrations at "hippie feminism." At my school, we went under a flag of progress, but we were anything but progressive. Instead, we spent more time looking for things to be offended about, and then writing more essays for future generations to complain about. I was frustrated as hell. While I believe that we must indeed be vigilant about injustice in society, I am just as adamant that there is no point in complaining unless it is to address the problem and take action.
Of course I believe in equal rights. I can probably be safe in the assumption that just about everyone does, and most political conflicts in the free world have to do differences in how people express it (wait til you see my rant on economics and the political spectrum). My idea of a feminist is someone (guy or girl) who helps to build a world where guys, girls, and everyone in between is free to live as they believe is right and contribute their skills to society without the assumptions that come with gender roles. It's basically the idea of people being free to live without judgement that comes from stereotypes, which is, if you ask me, the essence of any "-ism." If you ask me who a feminist is, I will be less likely to name Betty Friedan or Naomi Wolf, and probably mention Amelia Earhart, Mother Teresa, J.K. Rowling, Lauren Faust, and my grandmother. These are people who are committed to making the world a better place and didn't let anything stop them.
Feminism is the antidote to sexism. It is about the removal of assumptions that men should do This and women should do That. Indeed, ignoring a person's best skills and strongest passions, and making assumptions based on their sex when setting them in their life role is ultimately at the expense of the whole world. People should be free to choose their own paths. We will be happier as individuals if we have that freedom, and we can all benefit because everyone is allowed to contribute in the best way they can.
It is not about aimless anger. It is not about hating on men. It is not about castration, nor metaphorical castration, nor anger about why we even have metaphors about castration (I'm looking at YOU, Freudians. Looking at you with my penis-gaze). And, for heaven's sake, it is not about phytoestrogens.
So how come, when someone says "feminists," do we get this image of a soppy group of lazy or uptight women, subsisting on soy beans and refusing to write capital letters? Well, it's a stereotype. The commentator ranted on and on about how "feminists" were a big waste of time and shame on them for slandering the name of his beloved Palin. In a way, I kind of agree with him. I went to school with soppy (yet angry) hippies and I kind of hate that notion. However, there's a lot about Sarah Palin that he failed to address. And it all comes down to stereotypes, and why the Americanadian public is falling for several misconceptions.
Let's have a look at Palin and Bachman's politics.
They fight dirty. They support the image that all feminists, Democrats, and supporters of racial diversity are the soppy hippie soybean group who just want to hug each other in a Circle of Love. Palin and Bachman seem to have fooled their supporters (including the radio commentator and many of the people who called into his show). By the same notion, I am well aware that THEY are not gun-toting oil fanatics in cowboy hats, firing pistols into the air while shouting "Ah'm rich! Rich, Ah tells ya!" as a newly found oil vein erupts beside them. Okay? Can we stop with that, please? I promise to keep my soybeans away from your gun collection. Can we be friends?
My issue with Palin (and now Bachman, now that she is on the scene), is not at all that they are strong women. It's that, among other things, they are propagating the stereotype that women are stupid. Or that stupidity is somehow a good thing. That's another point about their politics. They are anti-intellectual.
Since when is it elitist to have a post-secondary education? Since when is it elitist to read books, think, debate, and have informed opinions? Especially if you are aiming to run a country, you have to understand culture, economics, and so on. I want my leader to know how a country works for the same reason I want my mechanic to know how a car works. If it really came down to some homespun folk knowledge about rubbing whiskey on the exhaust pipe and saying a few prayers for it, why would I need to go to a mechanic at all if I could just fix the damn car myself? Managing an entire country is not that simple, and since our nation(s) is/are running as a whole, we need a decent government that knows what its doing.
Knowing things is not elitist and using that knowledge is not snooty. It's necessary. There is far more information in this world than any one person can know, which is why we need teamwork. What we do not need is one politician trying to rally people against another because that person has an education and isn't afraid to use it. When I get angry with Sarah Palin, I'm getting angry about someone misguiding people with paranoia and alienation. It is the same paranoia and alienation that makes me angry about the all-style, no-substance "intellectuals" I went to school with. Some of them are still in the Ivory Tower, writing essays about why buttons are sexist. Sarah Palin is right that there is no room for that level of fussiness and disconnect, but what she does not realize is that the anti-intellectual movement of which she is such a fundamental part is guilty of the same. It's not intelligence that bothers me - Actually, I quite like intelligence. What bothers me is when someone is a jackass, and there are jackasses who are dumb as well as those who are smart.
Another reason I have a hard time thinking of Palin and Bachman as feminists is all the work they do against women's rights. Maybe they live as feminists, but they certainly aren't making it easy for anyone to follow the empowered path after they're done with it. What if young Bristol didn't have the Palin fortune to support her, and she was just a single mom trying to finish high school? With her boyfriend heading for the hills and no one else around to help her out, if she wanted to terminate the pregnancy, I wouldn't have blamed her. In fact, if she had gone ahead with having the baby, I'd be worried about it and her - what's going to happen to a family of one parent with no education, no income, and no help? It's not like someone is going to chase the boyfriend down and make him take care of the kid too. This, of course, from a school of thought that supports "traditional marriage." And likes shotguns. I'm just saying.
If you're okay with letting a male escape an unwanted pregnancy for which he is half responsible, then you should be just as supportive of the female. Alternately, if she's stuck, he ought to be there too. The reason that this is overblown is because abortion is also a political topic. For some reason, there's a trinity of Abortion, Gay Marriage, and Marijuana that is either supported or condemned depending on your political beliefs. Why are these three things grouped together? I don't know. But if you want to argue that gay people can't get married because that would ruin everything that marriage has come to stand for, how about making sure that a high-profile straight couple of a political family sets a high standard so we know what "sanctity" you're talking about?
And that's another reason I am having trouble getting my head around the idea of a "traditionally right-wing" feminist. Yes, I know right- and left-wing have to do only with the flow of money within a government system, but there are a lot of opinions on social constructs that tend to group on certain ends of the political spectrum. More on that later.
But while I am on the topic of marriage, I don't understand how you can be a feminist and still be against gay marriage (like Palin and Bachman are). If feminism is the removal of sexism, how can you still be in support of gender roles? The only reason that marriage is traditionally between a man and a woman is for the purpose of baby-making. That kind of implies that a woman's job is to be a human gumball machine. The same rule that says a woman has to be a homemaker, obedient wife, and mother says that a woman has to marry a man. By the same token, it's the same rule that says a man is a breadwinner/hunter and dominant says that a man has to marry a woman. If we're getting rid of the rules that control how people live, marriage should be included in that. The Earth's population is above seven BILLION people. We don't need to "go forth and multiply," and if someone's not up for multiplying, be they queer or just not wanting to have kids, what right does anyone have to force them? Therefore, even if gay rights and women's rights are separate sets of issues, they come from the same beliefs (ie, the removal of gender roles). Moreover, they are both HUMAN rights, which ought to transcend politics. If you support low taxes and small government, that's fine, but then your government certainly shouldn't be big enough to tell people who can and can't get married, what they can and can't do with their bodies, and where they can and can't live within legal jurisdiction.
And so, another issue I have with right-wing politicians is...well... it thankfully doesn't apply to them all. There is a strong notion out there that those on the right are racist and/or disapproving of any religion other than hardcore Christianity. While the notion exists, I am aware that it is not all right-wingers who share it. Many right-wingers are open and accepting of all colours of people, and will only put up a fight when it comes to taxes. That's fine; I can gladly have a good clean argument with these people. Where do the "true feminists" Bachman and Palin stand on this issue? I actually don't know. It's a muddied issue. But while we're on the topic, why is it that stereotypical feminism is mushed in with the let's-all-hug-a-tree mentality, and, moreover, why do people find it so threatening that someone who supports equal rights for women might also support equal rights for all races and religions? My first guess might be Islamophobia, and the fear that if hippie feminists ever took office, they'd ease immigration laws, and therefore make it easier for terrorists to attack the US.
I'm having a bit of trouble with the logic here. Firstly, the big issue with immigration is ILLEGAL immigrants, which are not bad in and of themselves. The problem is that it is so hard to legitimately move into to the US, that many desperate people are forced to involve shady dealings, thereby strengthening gangs, crime lords, and the black market. Therefore, making the immigration system LESS racist would only make things better. Would it mean more Muslims coming into the US? Maybe, maybe not. But that doesn't increase the risk of terrorism, because, contrary to what the news organizations would have you believe, not all Muslims are terrorists. I know, right? But let's say that you really really really worried that there were terrorists coming to live next door. Wouldn't that kind of make it safer? I mean, let's say the guy who replaced Bin Laden moved in next door to you. Doesn't that mean your neighbourhood is the least likely to be a target because they have their own guy living there? In that case, you'd want a good defence force, only you wouldn't have it because that strict immigration law you wanted so much would have kicked everyone else out. Anyway...
Racism is a fairly old issue. It predates 9/11 by a longshot, so I'm thinking Islamophobia isn't the crux of it. I think it comes down to another stereotype, namely, that feminists are in some secret collusion with racial minorities. This instead makes me wonder where it came from that anyone who is not a white man is somehow evil, and the very presence of such a stranger is threatening. This is the basis of our politics, the basis of our cultural studies, and the basis of many cultural fears. I seriously do not know where this comes from. Yeah, you could say rich white guys invented it, but that doesn't explain why it stuck and no one else ever said, "No, WE are good and YOU are evil." Or maybe they did but we just don't hear it as much.
Anyway, the possible link between feminists and other minority groups is that they got their start at a similar time. If you compare feminism with, say, Civil Rights, they both had a boost in the 1920s and early 1960s, times when the economy was relatively healthy and people weren't distracted with fighting a war. These were also occurring in time with labour movements, for the same reasons - there was an opportunity to get people's attention. Also, times were good for, well, white men, and so women and minorities wanted a fair chance at opportunity as well. It only seems fair, so why is this a threat? I can think of two reasons.
One, it came from a completely different mindset from anything that had existed before. Namely, collectivism. Women and minorities were isolated and kept powerless, so it is only by woking together that they had enough power to change anything. This is also the mindset behind unions. Group that in with the fact that these are all occurring at the same time, and it can look like a giant cluster of "Rawr, we are Borg." It's a sudden power that came, seemingly, out of nowhere. Yes, there was inequality, but no one really questioned it, and then the questioning came as a flood. Moreso, it was a flood of collectivism, which can be quite scary. Also going on in the 20s was the emergence of the Soviet Union (and then in the early 60s, it was the height of the Cold War), so collectivism seemed to automatically equal dictatorship. And really, who wants to give up their rights as an individual? This notion is scary enough to make you forget the part I mentioned earlier about equal rights being the only way to protect individuals. Until this time in history, individualism was the only way to protect one's rights. In medieval times, if you were successful enough as a merchant (capitalist), you could break away from the dictatorial rule by the King (government) and be free. That had always been the dream. It was the American dream that sparked the formation of the United States itself. All of a sudden, the tables were turned. By the 1920s, corporations (which were generally old money anyway) had gotten so powerful that they WERE the new monarchy, but the old belief system was still in place. Therefore, the very people who were trying to free themselves (and you as well) seemed like the enemy. This is echoed in politics today. We all want freedom. We just have different ideas about how to get there, and therefore it's very easy to slip into a goodguy-badguy mentality. Ironically, this prevents the (scary, collectivist) teamwork we need to make things fair for everyone.
The other reason why the notion of equality can seem like a threat is the idiot backlash. There is always someone who shows up just to scream and holler and wave a sign around. There are people who, in their fight, get so disconnected from everything but their mantra, that they forget the real issues. I myself have experienced this. I have been the victim, being accused of racism solely because I'm white and homophobia solely because I'm straight. I have also been the backlash to this backlash, rolling my eyes at measures taken to ensure diversity, out of the fear that I'd be accused of something again, or resentment that I was the wrong ethnicity to apply for an otherwise available scholarship. (Yes, this was all at the university. I'm not proud of it). In high school, I was even the perpetrator of the idiot backlash, albeit a lazy one. I hated the US because it was so "Walmart" and militaristic (this is when George W Bush first got into office). For a short time, I even thought of myself as "special" for being female, as if there were something magically pacifist about me and I could easily solve the problems caused by Those Stupid Boys "just because." I'm not magical. I'm a real flesh-and-blood person, with hopes and dreams and ideas and flaws and guilt and pride and talents - just like everyone else. Guys, girls, and anyone in between. It's time to drop the pride about being something or not being something. Just be yourself, and realize that other people around you are just that - people.
So, does this help explain why right-wingers such as Bachman and Palin are anti-labour, anti-feminist, and possibly a little racist? You betcha.
Is it hard to reframe your mindset when it's time for the world to undergo a revolution? Is it even harder when there are people who don't change their minds as quickly and will still find something to hold against you? Goshdarnit, you betcha. But it's time.
In short, are Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman feminists? Technically, yes. But they support a world in which there is no place for all the hard-won victories that feminism has brought about.