Post-Palin Feminism

About Abby Scher

new_post_polinFrom the podium at the Christian Right’s Values Voter Summit in mid-September, National Review Institute’s Kate O’Beirne, 59, pronounced that the “selection of Sarah Palin [as the GOP vice presidential nominee] sounded the death knell of modern American feminism.”

“She’s a prick to the liberal establishment, to the feminists, and to the men who fear them,” she jeered to the audience of Christian Right activists.

And when Phyllis Schlafly, 84, threw anti-feminist red meat to the cheering crowd, a 60-plus woman in the audience turned to me and said proudly she had been with Ms. Schlafly since the campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment in the late 1970s.

But as Palin Power surged through the Washington Hilton’s halls that day and through the Republican party base in later weeks, her vice presidential candidacy revealed a generational cleavage that these elders may not have expected. Because for some young people in the hall, Sarah Palin was bringing women’s rights and feminism to them and their mothers and that’s a good thing. These young people were not running to buy O’Beirne’s recent book, Women Who Make the World Worse: and How Their Radical Feminist Assault Is Ruining Our Schools, Families, Military, and Sports.1 It may have seemed to them like yesterday’s news. Even Phyllis Schlafly, when asked directly how she felt that Sarah Palin identified herself as a beneficiary of feminism, back pedaled and said, well, there are all sorts of feminists.

Sarah Palin’s musings about being a beneficiary of Title IX may be as wobbly as her off-again, on-again support for talking about condoms during sex education. [see box] Certainly progressive feminists who see abortion access as a crucial part of the reproductive autonomy women need for equality publicly cringe at her association with the group Feminists for Life.2 But Palin gives viable political form to a free market feminism that until now was largely championed by a few intellectuals and pundits based in conservative beltway think tanks. As Republicans wrestle to rebuild power in a world where women’s voter turnout is higher than men’s, their identification with the Democratic Party stronger, and the number of Republican women in office dropping [see box], this feminism slightly softens the culture war tone that is so off-putting to moderate Republicans and independents alike. We may be hearing more of it in the future.

It also energizes activists in an unexpected quarter—the Christian Right. Some young activists say they have been waiting for a woman like Palin for a long time.

For David Schmidt, 24, the media director of Live Action Films, which goes “undercover” to investigate abortion providers, “the word feminist has so many different meanings. I don’t think the term in and of itself is a turnoff to conservative voters. It’s a good thing to see women advance. I think it’s a wonderful thing.

“I’m more open than someone who is older about women’s role. But I haven’t seen any push back against it. People may be wrestling a little internally.”

And people were struggling, particularly the conservative evangelicals who believe women’s submission to men is theologically given. The Promise Keepers continues to bring men together in fellowship to assume their God-given role at the head of a marriage. The Southern Baptist Convention banned women from serving as pastors in 2000. And some conservative evangelical Sunday schools still refuse to allow women to teach boys, though men can teach both boys and girls.

Christian nationalist author and lecturer David Barton waged a vigorous defense of Sarah Palin against fundamentalists who saw her candidacy as “un-Biblical.”3

“We don’t need enemies, we have friends,” Barton told interviewer Brannon Howse. “There’s some basis for their concern,…but you can take scripture out of context.” The key Biblical issue, Barton argued, is, “is the wife in rebellion to her husband or are they in accord?”

“If [Sarah’s husband] Todd is supportive, then Sarah is not usurping authority over men,” said Barton. “They’re doing this as a family.”Barton continued that, “Sarah may be like an Esther or a Deborah that God raised up” in extraordinary times when men didn’t step up to the plate.

“You can’t say God didn’t call her to be a Deborah. I don’t think God just calls people. He calls families. If he has told Sarah to be vice president, his children will have an extra measure of grace.”

While Barton defended Palin as an extraordinary woman raised up by God, some conservative evangelical women used the debate to argue that the scriptures do not mandate their subservience to men. After the Los Angeles Times covered this controversy (one of the few mainstream media outlets to notice), the comments section was full of conservative evangelical women supporting this view (as well as Barton’s). Phyllis Nelson wrote:

I am a 20 year veteran of home education, a small home business owner and a leader in my church and community. I am also very conservative. I have spent a great deal of time praying about and studying the role of women and do not believe the Scriptures, especially the New Testament indicate the level of subservience taught by some. My husband of 30+ years is the head of our home and an elder in our fellowship, but thankfully holds me, my gifts and talents in high esteem.We work as a team to bring the Gospel to those who have ears to hear.4

A woman named “Lynn” supported Barton in focusing on Palin’s continued submission to her husband’s authority:

I am a Christian and a stay-at-home mom and a homeschooler. I am under my husbands authority. If Mrs. Palin’s husband supports her in her career and all how can she be wrong to do it?

Feminism is a step too far for these women and for some young people I interviewed at September’s Values Voters Summit. Angelise Anderson, 22, admitted she would have to “look into” Palin’s Feminists for Life membership. Kirsten Dalton, 22, is pregnant with her first child and married to a staffer of Generation Joshua, an initiative training conservative evangelical youth to “reclaim” America through the political process. She had heard about Palin’s membership“ and it does bother me. I don’t know what to think about it.”

But it was only enthusiasm from Emily Buchanan, the young executive director of Susan B. Anthony List, a prolife version of the Democrat’s Emily’s List that focuses on electing prolife women to office and claiming 145,000 supporters.The group’s pink and blue Palin Power stickers were stuck on hundreds of Values Voters conference goers and stacked high at its booth. The group’s Team Palin web site and network was soon to become home for women at the grassroots inspired by the candidate’s politics. From behind the table, Buchanan said about Palin’s claimed feminism, “That’s great. The early feminists were prolife.”

She embodies the American woman. She’s independent. She speaks her mind. But she also embodies the traditional values that are so important to Americans.

For such a long time, the powerful women in Washington were all touting prochoice as prowoman. People like Senator Hillary Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were the role models…To have a traditional woman, it’s something people can relate to.

Another staffer, Justin Aguila, 23, said “There’s a great picture of her with her son in a sling signing a law,” adding, “My mother is not usually involved in the political process and now she is.”

Buchanan agreed, “She’s paved the way for traditional women in office. I hope we see our mothers running for office, that they see the connection starting at the community level.That’s a place in their life you can relate to.”

To these activists, Palin is “normal,” a word heard as often as “traditional.” She wears makeup. She is pretty. She is an evangelical Christian. She is anti-abortion. She is also White. That is normal within the sphere of these conservatives. But “traditional” for these young people is no longer a woman who stays home with the children while the husband works, or who submits to her husband. Todd Palin’s active domestic role is not so unusual—on stage at the Values Voters conference was Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, whose husband, a retired military man, is well known in this community for taking care of their child who was born with Down syndrome.

There has been a surprising transvaluation of ideas revealed by the Palin campaign. Traditional now seems to be someone who embraces the belief in a heterosexual nuclear family and a conservative Christian embrace of “family values,” not a stay at home mom.

The transformation of the definition of “traditional” builds on larger shifts seen among evangelicals including but not limited to the most conservative who are considered part of the Christian Right. Scholar W. Bradford Wilcox says white evangelical Protestants “typically talk right and, often unwittingly, stumble left,” saying they support “traditional” families while living messy family lives with levels of divorce even higher than other groups of Americans.5 They live the same economically challenging lives of the rest of the country,where two-income families are a necessity. The redefinition was inevitable, rendering Reagan-era battles against Title IX irrelevant.

This redefinition was supported by Joy Yearout, Susan B. Anthony List’s legislative and political director, in explaining the continued enthusiasm for Palin a few weeks after the Republican ticket’s defeat. “I’m certain there are going to be more women in the political process.”

If you look at most of the leading women in politics today, they’re older, very liberal. She [Palin] balances work and home, and she embraces conservative family values standing up for human life. She supports traditional marriage. It’s a different paradigm than what we’ve seen at the national level. She doesn’t see gender as something that is victimizing. She doesn’t see it as a barrier.”

This suggestion that progressive feminists peddle victimology courses through the Right. It helps distinguish the rightists’ acceptance of women’s equality in the workplace from their opponents’ politics. When I asked Phyllis Schlafly, the leader of the Stop ERA battle and longtime anti-feminist campaigner, a specific question about what she thought of Palin being a member of Feminists for Life, she briefly sidestepped to say the problem is feminist victimology not women’s aspirations to equality. She said, “There’s some good people in Feminists for Life….The big difference is attitude – women are discriminated against. Victimology. She’s not the kind of person who is complaining because she is a woman. I think women can do what they want.”

You also hear this victimhood story line from the neoconservative feminists operating from the Independent Women’s Forum(IWF).The five core program staff of IWF do not all identify as feminists, though its director Michelle Bernard prominently does when she appears on talk shows throughout the country. Until Sarah Palin hit the scene, IWF was the lonely home of the “free market” feminists who say the key issue is choice and women now have choice so why complain? IWF’s staff say the group offers a feminist alternative to the progressives at National Organization for Women who exaggerate their victimhood to support big government policies.

Founded in 1992 after the Clarence Thomas hearings, IWF champions “limited government, equality under the law, property rights, free markets, strong families, and a powerful and effective national defense and foreign policy.”6 With only a $1.5 million annual budget—tiny for a beltway conservative group—its small staff promotes school choice, conservative women’s groups on campuses, and women’s issues in the Muslim world. The group refuses to take a stand on abortion or gay marriage (like its sister organization the Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute which trains young conservative women as leaders). And while O’Beirne, an emerit a IWF board member, trashes feminists in general (while saying she always supported equal opportunity in the workplace), others on the Right criticize the group for continuing to identify with the women’s movement at all.7 Maybe that’s why its staff so vigorously attacks liberal feminists.

“It is not surprising to see feminist organizations like the National Organization for Women dispute the term ‘feminist’ as it applies to Gov. Palin,” Carrie Lukas, IWF’s vice president for policy and economics wrote on a blog the group set up around the Palin candidacy. “After all, groups like NOW have worked for years to redefine ‘feminism’ to fit their liberal agenda. Anyone who exposes conservative views is not welcome in their feminist club.”8

IWF Director Bernard was a popular speaker during the presidential campaign with her message that there can be such a thing as a “limited government feminist,” or a “red state feminist.”9

“We are in the midst of third wave feminism,” she said during a radio discussion with Marie Wilson, director of the White House Project, an explicitly feminist and pro choice group that trains women for public office, and Kim Gandy of National Organization for Women. “Young women look at it very differently than Gloria Steinem. Feminism was about women’s right to choose the way they want to live.”10 When Wilson suggested choices are more circumscribed for women juggling work and home unless public policies make that balance easier, she exposed the divide in their notions of feminism.

“Equity” or free market feminists like Christina Hoff Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute support women’s equal capacity to men and their right to be treated equally in the workplace and schools, while opposing affirmative action, family leave laws and other government programs to ensure that this equal treatment happens. Like other conservatives, they see it as up to the individual to compete in the market, no matter what background or resources they bring to bear. That goes for women, working class people without resources for college, or a group that had faced a history of discrimination. Sommers took up the gauntlet against “gender feminists” who support government action back in 1994 with her book Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women. Interestingly, Sommers broke with her friends at IWF to admit about Palin that she is “not certain about her qualifications,”while adding somewhat contradictorily that “as a role model for women—she’s superb.”11

“Feminists further[s] a leftist agenda,not the rights of all women,” an intern with the conservative Clare Booth Luce Institute wrote in a Washington Times essay posted on the Institute website.12 Women have won power through struggle and now have the power of choice, as do other middle class Americans, is the story line. This feminism mirrors the feminism you will find in modern women’s magazines, such as Self. It is a sort of pop bottom line for more liberated young women. And in its focus on choice, it overlooks the way choices are structured—for low income women or privileged women, for whites and people of color—and how real gender equity could be supported.

Far from being inauthentic, the free market feminism of Bernard, Sommers, and some of the conservative evangelicals is part of a lineage of right-wing feminists that goes back to the National Woman’s Party (NWP),which after suffrage became the home of more privileged women who supported a free market and were vigorously anticommunist.13 An NWP member, Vivien Kellems, a small businesswoman from Connecticut, even launched a campaign against the federal income tax in the 1940s, and her anticommunist women’s group took the country by storm in opposing what members saw as the dangerous socialism of the New Deal.14

Such women are entangled not just in feminist politics supporting political and economic inclusion in the system, but in class politics; for them feminism does not lead its adherents to support grander claims for economic justice.

Christian evangelicalism also has deep historical ties to feminism, since the religious movement that gave birth to nineteenth century feminism produced many prominent suffrage campaigners. Championing women’s direct relationship with God, these early evangelicals suggested that men are not their lords and masters.

Sommers reminds us of the feminism of Frances Willard, founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), who argued women had to “increase their civilizing and humane influence on society” in the name of protecting the home.15 Sommers misleadingly champions Willard as a “conservative feminist” because her maternalist politics suggested a conservative sense of women’s role as civilizers of the world. In fact, Willard and the WCTU in its early years promoted progressive social reform through government action and some members were even populist radicals. Jane Addams is another feminist forbearer and progressive champion of maternalism, valorizing women’s role as mothers.

Sommers is correct in reminding us of maternalism, but it is a tendency that weaves through both progressive feminism and right wing feminism.16 On the Left, a former NOW staffer is trying to organize progressive maternalists through a new website.17 On the Right, Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute suggests “Red State Feminists” like Palin embrace motherhood instead of demonizing it, the way progressive feminists supposedly do. “She differs from mainstream feminists in that her sexuality and fecundity are not in tension with her achievement and power.”18

The Sarah Palin phenomenon seems to be enlarging the small crew of women on the Right like those at IWF who accept free market feminism—a minimal, bottom line feminism that women and girls should be treated equally under the law, fully participate in public life, and not be discriminated against in the workplace or in schools because of their gender. Equal “rules of the game” not substantive equality is the goal. This is in keeping with the efforts of both the Heritage Foundation and the Christian Right’s Family Research Council (FRC) in explicitly promoting a free market and “small government” ideology among evangelicals and the Christian Right.19 The tight support conservative Christians now give to tax cuts for the rich, the flat tax (which presidential aspirant Mike Huckabee championed) and other right-wing economic strategies will make these supporters hard to shake from the GOP coalition as some of their old allies want to do in order to win back power.20

For FRC and other “free market” Christians, it is important to shrink the government and institute reforms like creating a system of school vouchers so parents can use the money to pay for Christian schools. You heard this argument from the new generation of conservative Christian women politicians like Michelle Bachmann, the Minnesota Congresswoman who almost lost her seat after suggesting her colleagues should be investigated for their anti-Americanism. She and Sarah Palin both received their political training as conservative prolife evangelicals, balance a demanding public life with a large family, and merge their “family values” ideology with market friendly analysis.

These politicians and a handful of others are, like Willard, asserting new roles in transforming the public realm, and moving beyond a surprisingly egalitarian yet segregated space of women’s power that scholar Barbara Brasher discovered within conservative churches over ten years ago.21

Putting Palin in the political mix is either crystallizing new sentiments, or surfacing ones barely visible before.The young people I spoke with were inspired by her sense of possibility as a liberated woman embracing “traditional” Christian, heterosexual, anti-abortion—and gender egalitarian—values. Where this new energy takes them in a political moment following the greatest defeat for their movement and the Republican Party since the rise of political evangelicalism thirty years ago is anyone’s guess.

Is Sarah a Feminist?

While many progressive feminists do not accept the idea that former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is a feminist, Palin embraced the identity in her interview with CBS News’ Katie Couric and claims membership in Feminists for Life, an organization launched by fairly liberal women that now is home for prominent conservatives championing women’s advancement and the banning of abortion.22 Palin also is steeped in a Pentecostal denomination, Assemblies of God, with a history of women pastors, even if not all present day leaders like the idea.23 This is in contrast to other conservative evangelicals, who often take a patriarchal view towards women’s role in the church.

More directly, Palin prefers the honorific “Ms.” She credits Title IX for her opportunities, telling Charles Gibson of ABC News, “I’m lucky to have been brought up in a family where gender has never been an issue. I’m a product of Title IX, also, where we had equality in schools that was just being ushered in with sports and with equality opportunity for education, all of my life. I’m part of that generation, where that question is kind of irrelevant because it’s accepted. Of course you can be the vice president and you can raise a family.”24

Flanked by Elaine Lafferty, a former editor of Ms. magazine, who was a paid campaign consultant, and Shelly Mandell, the president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women, Palin vowed on the stump to a Nevada crowd in late October that she would break the glass ceiling in government, adding, “Working mothers need an advocate, and they will have one when this working mother is working for all of you.”25

Doubts about Palin’s self-professed feminism may be linked to Palin’s larger credibility problem with women outside the core of the Republican base.

Does Post-Palin Feminism Have a Future?

During the Republican convention, the National Journal asked, “Can Palin’s Rise Lift the Boats for GOP Women?” Even before the 2008 election the number of Republican women officeholders dropped in the House and at the state level as moderate Republican women were ousted in the primaries.The newspaper found Republicans already promoting Palin’s background as a PTA president and city council member to recruit women to run.26

But one lesson of the 2008 election is that women as right-wing as Palin could have a hard time in the general election. Susan B. Anthony List, or SBA List, which promotes prolife women for office, suggests a majority of women want to ban abortion but recent election results don’t bear this out. SBA List reports almost 40 percent of the candidates it endorsed in 2008 (both male and female) suffered defeat in the November elections (it is hard to verify this figure based on available information).This includes two important incumbents: Elizabeth Dole, the North Carolina senator and the only pro life woman in the Senate, and Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave of Colorado who helped launch and cochaired the House Prolife Woman’s Caucus in the last session. Musgrave was defeated by Betsy Markey, who was supported by the pro choice Emily’s List.

“We will be bereft of the prolife, prowoman perspective when and if the first Supreme Court President Obama nominee arises. This is an important and necessary perspective to counter the Boxer/Feinstein/Mikulski feminist axis, ”Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the SBA List, told National Review Online.28

“The prolife movement has indeed suffered a great political setback and is on the defensive. Almost 4000 children will continue to die every single day the sun does come up.”

The SBA List does not support ballot initiatives, but its cause suffered severe defeats in that arena as well. All three ballot initiatives striving to restrict abortions failed. In South Dakota, an abortion ban was defeated 55 percent to 45 percent, even while the state swung for John McCain as president. Colorado defeated its ban 73 percent to 27 percent, and the state went for Barack Obama. California voters defeated a parental notification requirement for abortions.

At the state level, the number of Republican women legislators in the next session will drop to a level not seen since 1988, even while the overall number of women serving sets records because of the rise in Democrats.29 On the other hand, Republican women have nowhere to go but up since the Southern states that backed John McCain rank lowest for women in elective office, according to the Center for American Women in Politics.

Dannenfelser and Joy Yearout, SBA List’s political director, are two of many prolife campaigners who suggest their candidates lost because of the tsunami of the economic crisis, and it is important to continue to promote prolife legislators who will ban the procedure or support justices who will. But others, particularly Roman Catholics, suggest the defeat of the ballot initiatives and the increase in abortions by low-income women during the administration of George W. Bush mean the movement should refocus on improving social and economic conditions as a way of reducing the number of abortions.30

  1. Kate O’Beirne, Women Who Make the World Worse: and How Their Radical Feminist Assault Is Ruining Our Schools, Families, Military, and Sports (New York: Sentinel HC, 2005).
  2. Or cringe for other reasons. Susan Douglas, “Feminism without Feminism,” In These Times, September 10, 2008.
  3. “David Barton Takes on Those Who Say It is Unbiblical For Sarah Palin to be Vice-President,”, October 6, 2008.
  4. Phyllis Nelson, comment submitted October 2, 2008. Teresa Watanabe, “To some evangelicals, Palin’s career violates Biblical teachings,” Los Angeles Times, October 1, 2008.
  5. W. Bradford Wilcox, “Talking Right, Stumbling Left,” The Immanent Frame, Social Science Research Council, September 24, 2008.
  6. Also see Ronnee Schreiber, Righting Feminism: Conservative Women & American Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
  7. For an example of criticism, see Lisa Schiffren, Book Review, “Who Stole Feminism,” American Spectator, v. 27, no.10, 69.
  8. “Is Sarah Palina Feminist? ”Female Factor #6, Independent Women’s Forum, September 26, 2008.
  9. After the election, Bernard wrote, “Gov. Palin has dramatically busted another stereotype: the presumption that a feminist and career-oriented woman must be a political liberal. Indeed, much of the venom spewed at candidate Palin reflected liberal frustration that this woman running for vice president was-gasp!-a conservative, free market feminist.” “The Sarah Palin Effect: Shattering America’s Political Glass Ceiling,” November 10, 2008.
  10. Mid morning with Kerri Miller, Minnesota Public Radio, September 22, 2008.
  11. Sridhar Pappu, “This is Something New…”
  12. Danielle Sturgis, “Foibles of Feminism,” The Washington Times, August 21, 2005.
  13. Historian Nancy F. Cott untangled this complex history in The Grounding of Modern Feminism, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987). Historian Susan Levine reminded us of that history this election season in “McCain’s Feminist Mistake,” In These Times, September 7, 2008.
  14. Abby Scher, Cold War on the Home Front: Middle Class Women in Community Conflict in the Age of McCarthy, Ph.D dissertation, New School for Social Research, June 1996.
  15. Christina Hoff Sommers, “Feminism and Freedom,” On the Issues, August 2008, (Washington,D.C.: American Enterprise Institute).
  16. Since Sommers is a philosopher, she might be interested in philosopher Sarah Ruddick’s defense of progressive maternalism, Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace (New York: Ballantine, 1990).
  17. Mothers Movement.
  18. Kay S.Hymowitz, “Red State Feminism,” City Journal, September 8, 2008.
  19. Abby Scher, “Who Would Jesus Tax?” Making Contact radio,April 11, 2007. Richard Meagher, “Tax Revolt as a Family Value: How the Christian Right Is Becoming A Free Market Champion,” Public Eye, Winter 2006.; Pam Chamberlain, “Heritage is Hip to Culture: Think Tank Turns to Family Values,” Public Eye, Winter 2007.
  20. Kathleen Parker, “Giving Up on God,” Washington Post, November 19, 2008.
  21. For more on Brasher, see my review “Political Chapter, Bible Verse,” The Nation, April 26, 1999.
  22. Dion Lefler, “Nominee’s wife aided local anti-abortion group,” The Wichita Eagle, posted July 22, 2005.
  23. “The Role of Women in Ministry as Described in Holy Scripture” adopted as the official statement by the General Presbytery of the Assemblies of God on August 14- 16, 1990.
  24. “Excerpts: Charlie Gibson Interviews GOP Vice Presidential Candidate Sarah Palin,” ABC News.
  25. Juliet Eilperin, “Palin Displays Her Feminist Side,, October, 21, 2008.; Elaine Lafferty, “Sarah Palin’s a Brainiac,The Daily Beast, October 27, 2008.
  26. Brian Freil, “Can Palin’s Rise Lift the Boats for GOP Women?” National Journal Online, September 16, 2008.
  27. “2008 at a Glance: Preliminary Congressional Results,” NARAL Prochoice America.
  28. “Pro-Life Causes Live On: An NRO Q&A,” National Review Online, November 7, 2008.
  29. “Women Achieve Record Numbers in State Legislatures,” press release, Center for American Women and Politics, November 11, 2008. PDF
  30. Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo, “Bishops Must Rethink Anti-Abortion Strategy,”On Faith, Newsweek/Washington Post, November 11, 2008.

Abby Scher is a sociologist and former editorial director of PRA. She also served as PRA’s interim research director.