In the first class of the advanced seminar in Feminist Theories that I am taking this term, the Professor asked students in the course to introduce themselves by offering their definition of feminism. I was amazed as the eleven people in the room defined feminism either entirely without mentioning women or diluting that mention with the environment, more general human rights, and pop culture watered down notions of accepting diversity. While I was pleased with my definition that included mentions of both academia and activism as well as gender identity and expression, I also did not specifically mention women.
The class is evenly split between male and female students and the only notable difference in the responses as broken down by sex was that two of the men refused to offer a definition saying, "They had no idea."
After following Hillary so closely since she became first lady and watching the coverage of Sarah Palin so closely for the past week, I am left wondering what sorts of feminism each of them represent. Are they both feminists? Is one more in touch with current understandings of feminism than the other? Who speaks more directly to the experiences of American women?
Any serious conversation about contemporary feminism must acknowledge that it is profoundly different than it was as women initially organized for suffrage, access to birth control and equal opportunity. Separatist lesbian feminism, resistance to conventional notions of marriage and the trappings that it includes, and other forms of "radical" feminism have been replaced as prominent discourses in the discussion of the American social and political landscape.
Of course there is a danger in over generalizing, but Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin seem to represent two very different common contemporary feminist strands. Somewhere in the coverage of the last few days I have seen Hillary described as pantsuits and Palin described as skirts. Rather than letting myself get distracted with how unfortunate it is that the media is still willing to classify women based on their clothing choices, I am going to stay focused on the larger question:
Why is it that Sarah Palin can wear skirts and still enjoy immense political popularity within the Republican Party and Hillary Clinton feels stuck in "the sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits?"
While Hillary has without question relied on the legacy of her husband, she emphasizes her own successes as an independent intellectual, politician, lawyer and author. If you follow her career closely she has moved from her initial image of a bookish, intellectual, more feminine woman to a short-haired, pantsuit-clad, more androgynous in appearance business image. None of us should be so naïve to believe that her transition was a personal journey. It has clearly been intentional, calculated, and, I would argue, essential for her political career.
On the other hand, Sarah Palin represents a sort of rural femininity that I am accustomed to having grown up in Pikeville, KY. When Fred Thompson made a point of declaring that she could skin a moose, he was appealing to women like those in my family. My mom and my aunts can change their own oil, do some minor plumbing, and make their hair stand taller than anyone could ever ask. Sarah Palin's image as a rural country girl is appealing and - in so many ways - more in touch with the ways that rural American women understand feminism.
While she holds extremely conservative (and deadly) views on many women's issues such as abortion, she is also a good mother, wife, and Christian. My mother told me today that it seemed like Sarah Palin would be as comfortable at our family reunion as she was at the Republican National Convention. The fierce softness and more feminine appearance of Palin may represent what feminism looks like these days as women don't want to viewed as victims, but still want women in power who are also good traditional family women.
Why is Hillary's independence, presence, and accomplishments anathema to many men and Sarah Palin appears to be non-threatening to them?
Most of the women I know and, without question, the majority of self-identified feminists I encounter would never vote for Palin. They are afraid of what her potential vice-presidency will mean for women's rights and the entire nation. These women keep telling me that I shouldn't be worried about her because women aren't going to vote for someone with her conservative political stances. I keep thinking that more women wear skirts, go to church on Sundays, and like the fact that Sarah Palin can wear a skirt while appearing tough enough to raise a family while running for national office than read feminist theory.
Maybe the first woman President will look more like Sarah Palin than Hillary Clinton as generations of women come of age in the current feminist climate. I would never vote for John McCain or Sarah Palin. I am more afraid of her than him, but I don't think that women who choose to vote for them can be thought of as stupid. It is more complicated than that. Through it all I keep thinking that if Bill Clinton had acted right, Hillary Clinton had been a bit more strategic, and Obama had had more courage, we would not be having these conversations.
The next 58 days and the four years after will prove to be a telling time for the feminist movement. While we wait and see what happens, I for one hope that young feminists and old work aggressively against the election of Sarah Palin. She scares me.
In the meantime, I may start a website dedicated to drafting Chelsea Clinton to run for President in 2016.