A Liberal Feminist’s Critique of Liberal Feminism

Image: “Gov. Sarah Palin in Dover, NH” by Roger H. Goun via Flickr, available under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

Despite a brief reality show and tabloid-making children, Sarah Palin has been keeping a relatively low profile in the political arena since her 2008 Republican vice president ticket. But her reemergence in January alongside Republican front-runner Donald Trump has brought her back onto the political stage as a prominent female figure.

Palin has undoubtedly had her fair share of headlines and quotable moments when speaking on domestic and international policies, and it is certain that her media presence during the 2016 race will provide the same. Yet it is her advocating for “conservative feminism” rather than  typical Republican policy that has brought up a less publicized discussion on what it means to be a feminist within the broader feminist community.

“Conservative feminism” (which has also been called “Sarah Palin Feminism,” “Tea-Party Feminism,” and “Pro-Life Feminism”) was carved out of “second-wave” feminism to refer to those who believe in upholding the social structure of traditional “family values” and anti-abortion laws. For most proponents of the feminist movement, the notion that someone could be anti-abortion yet still label themselves as a “feminist” is an oxymoron.

Palin is perhaps the most public of figures that has latched onto this “conservative feminist” ideology and brought it into mainstream American society. Her promotion of what she calls an “emerging, conservative feminist identity” has given many conservative women the opportunity to claim the “F-word” as their own when they otherwise would have never dared to before. Under the guise that this “new feminism” allows women to raise children and lead fulfilling professional lives, Palin has, in a sense, broadened the scope of feminism, but not without skepticism.

There are many ways in which Palin’s logic is erroneous, namely in her claims that pro-choice advocates undermine a woman’s ability to have a successful professional and family life. In her book “America by Heart,” Palin claims that the second-wave feminists of Gloria Steinem’s ideologies are obsessed with rape and domestic abuse. She counters this by asserting that this “new” feminism should teach women to be “capable” and “strong,” seeming to associate assault with weakness.

As a liberal feminist, I am a strong proponent of the liberal agenda: pro-choice, economic equality, independence, planned parenthood, etc. My visceral reaction upon even hearing the title of “Pro-Life Feminism” made me cringe, doubting there could be any reconciliation between these diametrically opposed ideologies. There is a major problem, however, in my denying the overall legitimacy of conservative feminism as a movement: I was unintentionally limiting the already increasingly narrow definition of what it means to be a “true feminist,” and this is particularly problematic.

To be clear, in absolutely no way do I believe that we should maintain anti-abortion laws in order to refrain from undermining the encompassing nature of the feminist movement. I can’t really find any point for agreement on most of Palin’s seemingly contradictory arguments. That being said, if Sarah Palin wants to endorse herself as a feminist, then by all means she needs no approval to be one.

If feminism, in its most popular summation, is the equality of men and women, then doesn’t the broadest sense of the word come down to a matter of women making their own unabridged choices? Does Sarah Palin, in wanting to pursue and promote a different course of womanhood, not have a right to do so? Her opinions are clearly disagreeable to most, but they also make me question how far the “feminist” label can be stretched.

I’m also not saying we all should rally behind “Sarah Palin Feminism,” nor do I think that “Sarah Palin Feminists” feel that we should either. The debate surrounding the legitimacy of conservative feminism has mainly consisted of an endless circle of relentless devil’s advocates poking holes in the theories of a concept that has no universal definition. We may not think that conservative feminism has a place in politics, but maybe it’s okay for all self-identified feminists have their own definition of what it means to empower women.

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