NPR’s ‘Sarah Palin and Feminism’s Rightward Path’


"Sarah Palin’s candidacy has turned our assumptions about women and politics on their head."

So begins Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air this evening as she introduces – via an interview with Ronnee Schreiber, the author of a new book entitled Righting Feminism – a discussion of the ways in which Sarah Palin and mainstream feminism have clashed thus far and what her candidacy might mean for the conservative women’s movement led by such organizations as Concerned Women for American (CWA) and the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF).

Schreiber begins by talking about why feminists have been frustrated by Palin, pointing to the fact that she is conservative as a primary reason. This is likely true although the anger isn’t about the term conservative, of course, but about how her conservativsm has played out in terms of her political priorites over issues specific to women. To provide historical perspective, Schreiber goes on to quote a prominent conservative women’s movement advocate who, when asked why conservative women felt the need to specifically form a women’s organization so many years ago, responded that they felt that feminism/feminists didn’t speak to them or about their interests and so they were going to speak to – and for – the majority of women for whom feminism did not. It’s an old refrain that is always new: feminists are just a small, radical group speaking to a small, radical group of rabid women. 

The interview, as well as exceprts from Schreiber’s book on NPR’s web site, provide a fascinating look into what the conservative women’s movement is trying to do by organizing conservative women in opposition to the policies, rhetoric and overall belief system feminism has pushed for decades. But what I find most interesting is that so many of the hard fought and won battles by feminists against stifling women’s autonomy and restricting equality allow for ultra-conservative women like Sarah Palin to attain the level of success she has. The conflict inherent in a conservative women’s movement is that it’s a backwards looking movement that wants to overturn progressive policies and roll back the tremendous gains made by feminists for all women in this country and beyond. 

In an excerpt from Schreiber’s book, she writes:

Notwithstanding political losses since the 1970s, feminists have greatly transformed the social, economic, and political landscape for women by helping to increase the number of women in public office, changing beliefs about gender roles, and pushing for legislation aimed at improving women’s lives. For example, in both the legislative and judicial arenas, feminist accomplishments include Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in 1973; the passage of Title IX, which promotes equity for women and girls in federally funded institutions; implementation of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which guarantees unpaid family leave to new parents and caregivers; and the procurement of significant federal funding for women’s health issues, especially breast cancer.

Schreiber also notes that:

CWA and IWF oppose a number of these specific policy achievements, but must acknowledge on some level that many women feel that they have benefited from these efforts. These ardent opponents of feminism are compelled to make sense of their opponents’ accomplishments, while simultaneously discrediting them as representatives of women’s interests. If they fail to carry out this task, they will lose the ability to reach out to women who do not identify with any women’s organization, but who want policy solutions that address the stresses in their lives. Moreover, the organizations must demonstrate why their perspectives differ from and are more credible than those of feminists. This tension must be accounted for when trying to understand the strategies that CWA and IWF employ as they strive to be taken seriously as groups that represent women’s interests.

There is tension not only between these conservative women’s organizations and feminism but between the conservative women’s organizations and the larger conservative movement. In fact, Sarah Palin, as noted above has angered the ever more conservative and ultra-religious movement, members of which do not believe that women should be working outside the home, let alone acting as political leaders. 

And yet. 

Sarah Palin may represent a tremendous step forward for women long term in ways that one might not imagine. As women attain higher levels of leadership and more powerful positions, conservative women or otherwise, it will be more and more difficult for the larger far right, conservative movement to deny women’s equality and autonomy. In turn this can only mean that it will be harder to continue to oppress women in the ways in which women have been oppressed – and this includes denying women’s rights to bodily autonomy, an inherent human right that must be present for women’s true equality.

The conservative women’s movement’s agenda may seem oxymoronic to a degree in that it generally encourages policies and behavior that do nothing to lift up the status of women in this country or balance the scales of equality between men and women. However, Senator McCain did chose a female running mate in order to at least superficially (if one is cynical or not Republican) speak to women voters; to let American women know that he cares about women’s issues. Sarah Palin has allowed this country the opportunity to examine just what it is that women do need and want from our policies and our politicians in order to improve our lives and the lives of our families. 

Ronnee Schreiber says, in the interview with Gross, that Michelle Bernard, the head of the conservative Independent Women’s Forum published an article immediately after Palin was picked as McCain’s running mate. The title of which was, according to Schreiber, something along the lines of "Palin is Everywoman." That may pain some women who consider themselves tried and true feminists. But it also may be that a conservative women’s movement, Sarah Palin, feminism and all women have more in common than we like to think.

Sometimes a woman is just a woman. 

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  • anna-clark

    I’m glad you wrote this–I caught this interview on Fresh Air and I was hooked; fascinating conversation, and I’m definitely interested in the book. Schreiber brings a lot of nuance and understanding to a very strange public conversation.

  • invalid-0

    “Sarah Palin may represent a tremendous step forward for women long term in ways that one might not imagine. As women attain higher levels of leadership and more powerful positions, conservative women or otherwise, it will be more and more difficult for the larger far right, conservative movement to deny women’s equality and autonomy.”

    Elevating conservative women to positions of influence in order to deny women equality and autonomy has often been a conservative response. Even the Southern Baptist Convention which has enshrined overt misogyny and made it a spiritual virtue, even the SBC allows women to publically instruct other women in what they consider to be our proper roles.
    When women were organizing for the vote there were Kathleen Parkers and Phyllis Schafleys and Liddy Doles and Condie Rices and Sarah Palins and Karen Hughes and Ann Coulters arguing against it. When women wanted access to contraceptives there were these same sorts of women arguing against it. I don’t believe that present day social conservatives are ever logically consistent or fair in their judgements or moral bleating. I mean they’ve developed a ‘right to life’ movement that seldom even mentions the fact that behind each and every unwanted pregnancy stands a male who is at least equally responsible for that state of affairs. They don’t want fair, they want power and control.
    Likewise, I can’t imagine that using Mrs Palin (or Carley Fiorino for that matter) as role models would be anything but damaging for women and girls.
    If women like this (or the oxymoronic ‘Feminists for Life’) can claim to be feminists than I suppose we need to find another movement and word to describe those of us who actually are feminists.

    Here are a couple of essays about the absurdity of Mrs Palin’s ‘feminism’:

    http://www.alcoff.com/content/palin.html

    http://www.shelfari.com/groups/10084/discussions/67853/Gloria-Steinem-on-Sarah-Palin

  • paul-bradford

    …let’s come to an agreement on what they have said.

    .

    .

    [I]n both the legislative and judicial arenas, feminist accomplishments include Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in 1973; the passage of Title IX, which promotes equity for women and girls in federally funded institutions; implementation of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which guarantees unpaid family leave to new parents and caregivers; and the procurement of significant federal funding for women’s health issues, especially breast cancer.

    Ronnee Schreiber gives us four issues she describes as ‘feminist’:

    1) Roe v. Wade, 2) Title IX, 3) FMLA and 4) Funding for health issues such as breast cancer.  If you were to make no attempt to divide women into sub-groups (progressive, conservative, feminist, anti-feminist, post-feminist) and simply polled registered female voters, you would discover that for three of those issues there is overwhelming support but for one of those issues, the issue she used to head the list, there is both strong support and ardent opposition.

     

    The politician, male or female, who speaks out against domestic violence or inequality in the workplace won’t get much opposition from his/her female constituents; but the politician who speaks out in support of Roe will find many women are critical of her/his position.

     

    It seems to me that a scholar who want to complile a list of "women’s issues" or "feminist concerns" ought to drop abortion rights from the roster — since so many women feel that that is an issue they can’t get behind.  I wish Schreiber would stop trying to assert that it’s feminist to be Pro-Choice (or, for that matter, Pro-Life) and suggest that groups that claim to ‘speak for women’ confine themselves to issues that really do speak for the majority of women.

     

    Paul Bradford

    Pro-Life Catholics for Choice

  • paul-bradford

    …backed up my comments with statistics.

    .

    .

    According to the Pew Research Center, 35% of women want more restrictions on abortion wheras 59% of women oppose more restrictions.  (I suppose the 59% includes women who want fewer restrictions as well those who think we currently have the ‘right amount’ of restriction.)

     

    I do not claim that the majority of women favor more abortion restrictions — but I do assert that 35% represents a sizeable minority.  You certainly won’t get 35% of women to say they oppose more funding for breast cancer! 

     

    Paul Bradford

    Pro-Life Catholics for Choice

  • invalid-0

    It seems to me that a scholar who want to compile a list of “women’s issues” or “feminist concerns” ought to drop abortion rights from the roster — since so many women feel that that is an issue they can’t get behind.

    It seems to me that there’s something both pathetic and creepy about trying to redefine feminism into something Mrs Scalia and her husband would feel comfortable with. It misses the point.
    Besides which, (and even more sadly for your argument) in poll after poll after poll a majority of women do not wish to see Roe overturned.

  • invalid-0

    “You certainly won’t get 35% of women to say they oppose more funding for breast cancer!”

    That’s breast cancer research.
    I expect that you could easily talk republican women into opposing breast cancer research with the proper spin over a period of decades. Like I said we’ve always been saddled with conservative women. They opposed woman’s suffrage, they opposed access to contraceptives. The current Vice Presidential candidate would deny a woman pregnant because she was raped an abortion. Kathleen Parker and Ann Coulter mock and ridicule and condemn women’s equality for a living and are well paid to boot. You can talk that 35% into anything.
    It’s the rest of us you have to worry about.

  • paul-bradford

    Colleen, I’m sure you would be interested to read this article from Feminist.com.  It starts of this way: Domestic violence and sexual assault top the list of women’s concerns, coming way ahead of preserving abortion rights, according to a recent poll. The poll also found growing support for restrictions on abortion rights and decreasing support for affirmative action among white women. At the same time, fewer women are joining organizations concerned with women’s issues. The findings are part of a wide-ranging poll of 3,300 American women by the Center for the Advancement of Women, a New York-based research and advocacy organization led by Faye Wattleton, the former head of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. In a report titled "Progress and Perils: New Agenda for Women" released at the end of June, the center compiled the results of two surveys conducted in 2001 and 2003.

    Wattleton called the findings on abortion "alarming." Fewer than half (41 percent) of the women surveyed cited "keeping abortion legal" as a top priority for a women’s movement, whereas 92 percent listed "reducing domestic violence and sexual assault," with "equal pay for equal work" coming in a close second (90 percent).

     

    Let’s recap:

     

    Reducing domestic violence … 92%

    Equal pay for equal work … 90%

    Keeping abortion legal … 41%

     

    The article, which I trust you will read, goes on to say that fewer women are joining politically active women’s groups.  This is a very sad development.  It is essential that women, and those who care about women, join together to reduce violence, assure equal pay, grant more flexibility to mothers, preserve educational opportunities for girls and women    and so forth.

     

    My belief is that fewer women are joining women’s groups because the women’s groups have been co-opted by abortion rights activists.  If a group says, “Let’s get equal pay” virtually all women approve.  When a group says, “Let’s keep abortion safe and legal” not only do you have less support, but a significant percentage of women will go out of their way to OPPOSE the group.  Who loses out?  The people who want to make things better for women.

     I look forward to your response.  (Did you read my responses to you on the “I had an abortion” thread?)

     

     

    Paul Bradford

    Pro-Life Catholics for Choice

  • invalid-0

    i actually think maybe the fewer women joining politically active women’s groups has more to do with apathy than active resistance to a particular political stance. i’m a woman in my mid 20s, and i see every day women of my generation so used to the freedoms we were born with (thanks to the fighting our mothers and grandmothers did for us) that we just don’t know that we still have more fighting to do. for us, abortion has always been legal, contraception has always been legal, we’ve always had the freedom to go to the schools we want and learn and work in the fields we’re interested in. feminism has taken on something of a negative connotation with women my age: we don’t want to be seen as man-hating, militant women-firsters (which is not at all what the movement is about, but since we were never really part of it, we just see how the media and the right has colored it). i can’t even count how many women and girls my age and younger are basically feminists but don’t want to come out and say it, who don’t think they NEED to. it wasn’t until i started becoming interested in politics that i realized how tenuous our hard won rights really are. a lot of girls my age still don’t, because it takes a lot of work and dedication and research and digging, and they have more important things to worry about (jobs, relationships, etc).

    what we really need to do is reach a wider audience. we need to open young voter’s (especially women) eyes. even for me, as immersed as i am in all of this, i still find it hard to believe that i could lose what i’ve always had. i grew up not just thinking, but KNOWING that i was equal to my brother, my boyfriend, my coworkers and friends. that i could do whatever i wanted with my life, regardless of my genitalia. even though i know, logically, all of that is a mere supreme court ruling or two from going out the window, in my heart of hearts, it’s still hard to overcome the apathy born of contentment.

  • invalid-0

    “My belief is that fewer women are joining women’s groups because the women’s groups have been co-opted by abortion rights activists.”

    Yes, well, you appear to be afflicted with the usual ‘pro-life’ obsessive focus.
    I expect that should Scalia and his friends get their way that 41% would rise rapidly. Perhaps fewer women are joining ‘women’s groups’ because most of us are working. Perhaps our ‘women’s groups’ are more informal.

    “I look forward to your response. (Did you read my responses to you on the “I had an abortion” thread?)”

    I did. Apparently I have less time and interest in an ongoing conversation

  • invalid-0

    And in a Pew Research Poll in 2007 “A plurality of the general population (41%) says the trend toward more mothers working outside the home is a bad thing for society”. When broken down by gender this was also 41% of women who believed this. Feminism is missing these women’s beliefs too.

  • invalid-0

    this 41% also being a sizeable minority.

  • invalid-0

    “this 41% also being a sizeable minority.”

    Two points:

    1.In their US polls Pew always oversamples social conservatives. I don’t believe that anywhere near 41% of adult women in this country believe that women should not work ‘outside the home’. Particularly considering that considerably more than that are currently working ‘outside the home’

    2. So what?

  • invalid-0

    My thoughts on this poll are:
    3300 women represents 0.0022% of the population.(300,000,000 US population split in half to account for women. Then I divided this # by 3300 women polled) I don’t think this is enough of a sample size to accurately reflect the sentiments of American women (if I recall my stats class correctly). A poll should have at least 5% but 10% is best.
    Domestic violence/rape is an epidemic in this country and virtually nothing is being done about it. Rape and DV affect between 1 in 3 and 1 in 5 US women depending on which study one cites. Perhaps since DV is still considered a “family matter” and rape victims are still blamed for being raped and are publically humiliated and stigmatized, women feel that more needs to be done is this area than protecting the right of abortion. Some women might feel that abortion is fairly well protected and is not going anywhere and their passion/zeal/advocacy would be better spent working to help women and children subject to rape and domestic violence.

    With all due respect (and you have been incredibly respectful as compared to other anti-abortion advocates that have commented here previously..cough cough…truth) I don’t think this poll says what you want it to say. Even within the article you linked to, it says that attitudes haven’t changed much in the last 25 years with respect to the legality/access of/to abortion, restrictions on abortion, abortion on demand, etc.

    Abortion means different things to different people and after a generation of debate, attitudes and beliefs haven’t changed much. I think trying to reduce un-intended pregnancies is something both sides can and do agree on and is frankly the only way to address this issue. What bothers me the most about this is the anti-choicers fundamental belief that controlling women and their bodies is somehow a “moral” stance. (what does moral mean anyway? Is says nothing about good or bad, right or wrong. it’s just a set of individual beliefs)
    What also bothers me personally is that at the end of every discussion, it comes down to anti-choicers belief that women aren’t smart enough, informed enough, capable enough to know what going on with our own bodies. Somehow there is this thought that all women that subscribe to a pro-choice view must have skipped every biology and health class throughout their entire academic career, and further, they have avoided society/culture and are living in a cave, because they could not possibly know what happens if a pregnancy is left alone to gestate and what happens when you stop the gestation.

  • http://buy-custom-essay.org/samples/3.php invalid-0

    Absolutely agree with TeeDub on this matter.

  • invalid-0

    Palin represents uneducated, uninformed and a downright embarrassment to all women – conservative or not. Since when does conservatism equate with stupid? That was the largest problem most women who had a problem with her stated. Education, awareness and qualifications are not feminist only values.