Bruce Parker

Hillary, Sarah, and Feminism?

Filed By Bruce Parker | September 08, 2008 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics, The Movement
Tags: Barack Obama, election 2008, feminism, Hillary Rodham Clinton, John McCain, pantsuits, Sarah Palin, skirts, women's rights

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.


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I think Gloria Steinem's opinion piece in the September 4th Los Angeles Times summarizes well how I feel about Palin: "Feminism has never been about getting a job for one woman. It's about making life more fair for women everywhere." Palin will not do this. Her stances on the issues that most people who consider themselves feminists care about is disastrous. I see her as a hybrid in many ways -- conservative in her politics yet progressive in her ambitions. Even your choice of words, "fierce softness," points to this. I think because of this, even reasonable people could be swayed by her. I just hope that those people realize the potential consequences before they get to the voting booth.

Thanks, I hadn't seen the Steinem piece. I enjoyed it a lot. You really pulled out and emphasized the part of this that I am incredibly worried about. It is her conservative/progressive hybridity that makes me worry she will end up being incredibly compelling to women.

On a side note I was talking to my friend Lori on the phone and she made the point that Palin was certainly the face of anti-feminism and compared it to when Calista Flockhart appeared on the cover of a magazine with the question is this the face of feminism. Perhaps, those enrolled in women's studies courses, those who read feminist theory, those who engage in feminist direct action work will not succomb to Palin. It seems they consider her totally not a feminist. That said I still think that her version of feminism may more closely reflect the views held by society in our present moment.

One of the issues that I think has been missing from much of the talk about Sarah Palin and her appeal to women, in the mainstream media and in the liberal blogosphere (and, I'd venture, the conservative, but I try to avoid that), is how narrowly this facade of Palin as the "all-American woman and mother" applies.

In talking-point after talking-point, when folks discuss Palin and how her actions, career, politics, and family reflect on her as a woman, as a candidate, as a mother, as a politician, etc, they point out how her actions, experiences, and biography are such that women can relate. Even if someone is a stay-at-home mom, she can relate to the struggle and the choice she made, and perhaps her values are aligned with Palin, so she feels more sympathetic. If someone is a working mother, she can also relate to how hard of a choice it is, prioritizing your work or your family.

What's taken for granted in all of this is that it's a choice. And that is SO. FAR. AWAY. from many women's lived realities.

Palin has been blasted from all sides for going back to work 3 days after giving birth to a child with disabilities. Some say she made the right choice, some say she made the wrong choice, but what very few people are saying is: "Hey look, she had the privilege, freedom, and ability to MAKE A CHOICE."

Megan Ortiz has a great piece up at Racialicious that goes into this in much more depth, which everyone should go read. Suffice it to say, what really has been getting to me about all of this talk about Palin is what ISN'T being said or asked.

There are scores of white feminists who, while they may not agree with all of Palin's policies, can identify with her biography. However, for all of its struggles with racism, as a movement, feminism has never ACTUALLY been an all-white movement. It's been monopolized by white concerns and people, but there have always been women of color working and identifying as feminists. So to ask what kinds of feminism Palin and Clinton represent seems, to me, like you're posing the question too narrowly. Feminism doesn't actually fit into the Palin/Clinton dichotomy. I mean, hell, Cynthia McKinney's even running! (Not that anyone spends more than a hot minute talking about her.)

Both Palin and Clinton represent a mainstream feminism that has consistently neglected the voices of women of color. I'd assert that Clinton's feminism is MORE aligned with a feminist ideology that is inclusive and centered on supporting all women, not just white, wealthy women. However, the extent to which feminism's successes can be measured by Palin or Clinton, and the extent to which they are representative of broader feminist movements or women in the US, is really only relevant insofar as you're talking about white women. The feminism that has served to enable Clinton and Palin to be in the positions they are today has involved countless hours of thankless, often heartbreaking, work on behalf of many many many women, gender variant folks, and some men - but it has, nonetheless, been a feminism which has brought significantly more benefits for women like Palin and Clinton than women of color, queer women, poor women, other groups of marginalized women, and women who are all of those supposedly disparate groups combined.

Jo,

I am happy to hear from you and think your analysis is pretty dead on. I guess my arguement is that you probably spend a lot of your time doing the same things that I do like Reading liberal blogs, talking to like minded individuals, kinda living in the liberal/radical bubble that we can find ourselves in.

I think you are 100% correct. What I am not so sure of is that women (white, of color, queer, straight) like to think of themselves as not having a choice. The American Dream idealogy is prevelant and believed by lots of American's who are denied it by structural inequities.

I keep thinking about my mother and how she would say she choose to go to work in order to raise me and my brother on her own after my father died. She didn't really have a choice, had to sacrifice so much of her life and health working two or three jobs at a time. She would say she made the choice to do that and feel proud of it.

My worry is that women like my mother regardless of their race or social class background will buy into the narrative of Palin as a normal good woman who has worked hard to get where she is in a man's world and also has been a good mother.

DO you think I am overreacting or worrying about nothing? I Hope I am.

Finally, here is a confession - I didn't know who Cynthia McKinney was until you mentioned her and I googled her. I worry that most women won't know her at all.

(Sorry I'm so wordy...0

I don't disagree with you, Bruce, and while I hope you're overreacting or worrying about nothing, I'm not willing to hedge my bets yet.

I think one of the things that Palin has going for her is precisely what a lot of feminists (myself included) are criticizing. Palin is the "model working mother" who is *proof* that we don't NEED silly government programs like WIC or childcare or welfare or healthcare, because OBVIOUSLY, women CAN do it all. Utilising social welfare programs has such a stigma these days, what woman struggling with working multiple jobs and taking care of kids, potentially on her own, wouldn't want to believe that she too can do it all and doesn't need anyone else's help? That's a hell of an enticing model and narrative to identify with, because the alternative - needing social welfare programs to get by, has been labeled as a sign of laziness or ineptitude.

And seriously, poor and working-class mothers who work who knows how many jobs and raise their kids should feel proud and be commended by society - regardless of whether they were able to benefit from social services or not. I can't even imagine how absolutely exhausting and hard that must be, and your mother and others like her SHOULD be able to take pride in the choices they made. But we're in a society that doesn't give them that validation unless they reject "help." Thank you Ronald Reagan and your damn "welfare queens." (Really, I think mothers as a whole group should receive more praise and support, but that's a different conversation.)

There is so much social pressure to pass as a higher class, it makes a lot of sense to me that plenty of folks who would be directly, negatively impacted if Sarah Palin's policies are implemented want to identify with the kind of woman who wouldn't. Because the women who are screwed over are poor women and women of color, and the women who *can* do it all are rich white women... and we're all supposed to want to be rich and white, right?

And I'm not saying it's about some sort of false consciousness either, or that people just don't get that they are "voting against their interests," because successful passing does bring benefits. Identifying with, and potentially being identified as, the "right" kind of person means the possibility of better treatment, and a "better" lot in life. (I mean, I grew up upper-middle class and figured out right quick that if I could pass as upper class, I was more readily accepted, supported, and affirmed by my peers and larger community - that I'd have more power. I'm pretty certain that's not a unique experience, by any means.)

However, even though I couldn't give you any numbers or verifiable information, my intuition says that there are far fewer folks who'll be helped along the way because they get 'mistakenly' grouped in with the "right kind of people," and far more people who would benefit by enacting more comprehensive social services. But, that's why I vote Democrat.

So, I do think you've touched on something important, and threatening about Sarah Palin. I also think that there are a lot of women in the US who will see through the facade. I'm optimistic, but I think it's on all of us who contribute to these discourses to keep talking about these issues in thoughtful, deep ways, and to poke holes in that facade.

...And to talk about Cynthia McKinney more. Because I'm sure you're not alone in not knowing who she is. Someone asked me recently if I was voting Green, for Nader, and I had to correct them, let them know that, actually the Green party's nominee was McKinney. (Who, btw, spoke at Antioch's 2007 graduation.)

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | September 8, 2008 9:08 PM

Bruce, very interesting discussion, both your post and the comments.

Personally, I don't think of Palin as a feminist because, like Steinem and Carlos, I believe what defines feminism is the commitment to achieve true equality for women in all areas of life, something I don't believe Palin stands for. Take just one (key) issue: choice. In my opinion, it is absolutely essential to feminism. If a woman does not have the final say-so over her body and reproductive function, she can never be equal. Especially if contraception is also restricted or forbidden.

Being a hard-working, high achieving woman does not a feminist make you.

"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."
Well, you can lay a lion's share of the blame on the MSM, especially the he-man woman-hater's club frat boys at MSNBC, as well as Howard Dean and the DNC's hell-bent-for-an-Obama-nomination-at-any- price-policy for the fact that the Democrats are looking at the possibility of getting creamed in an election which they should have had sewn up by now. Of course, there is nothing unusual about the Dems blowing it come crunch time, they've been doing it in almost every election since 1968. And this year the Republican's October Surprise came a little early, but anyone who was paying attention to PUMA and other Hillary supporters incensed by the smug misogyny displayed by both the anointed one and his cheerleaders should have been able to see that there was resentment brewing among women voters. If only Hillary had gotten the nomination, if only Barack had given her the VP slot, if only...well, it's too damn late now, because John McCain was certainly paying attention, and he pretty much hoisted the Democrats on their own petard, shaming them for their short-sighted arrogance and actually making the Republicans (Think of it, the Republicans!)look more progressive and anti-sexist. Of course it's all sham, and Palin is a combination of Ted Nugent and the Church Lady, but in politics as in advertising, perception is everything.

I think part of Palin's appeal to women is her down-to-earth, one-of-us style. She says "Dude." Her speech isn't perfect and polished. She throws in "like" and "well" and her voice has that pitch and tone of so many middle American housewives that many female politicians ditch as soon as possible to make themselves seem smarter.

Hillary was a polished professional. Palin seems to be "the luckiest woman in America." Palin is a rags to riches story that any woman can pretend could happen to her. Hillary's story is one of working hard and climbing your way to the top, a story that most Americans - male or female - respect, but know they'll never emulate.

Palin appeals to the basest common denominator. That's her appeal with both sexes. Hillary is a role model. Palin is being portrayed, successfully, as an "everywoman."

Yeah, the rags-to-riches part is particularly annoying, especially in a culture that idolizes people who make it to the top through almost no work of their own (as in American Idol).

On feminism, though, I'd die of shock if Palin used the word without an "I'm not a..." in front of it. But she's still going to have to face a lot of the derogatory crap that other women politicians face and benefit from the work feminists did before her.