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Grizzlies, Ducks and Waterfowl – Palin & feminist gatekeeping

Posted on Wednesday, July 21st, 2010 at 12:59 pm

Author: Feature Writer

Gc contributor: Sydette Harry

When is a duck not a duck? Seemingly if it’s a grizzly.

If you paid attention to United States “feminist” writing in May and June you may have noticed a wee bit of activity over the use of the F word. Sarah Palin repeated her election campaign refrain of being a “feminist” at the Susan B. Anthony List gathering, inciting them to form an “emerging conservative ‘feminist’ identity” around opposing abortion rights. “Feminist” editorial writing exploded. Jessica Valenti, Kate Harding, and Rebecca Traister passionately wrote what dire straits this signaled for the future of ”feminism”. Palin claiming “feminism” is presented as dangerous and ridiculous; yet if you are familiar with what “feminists” claim to desire – the right to be as powerful, as compensated as men, with no limitations on gender – it is technically appropriate.

The uproar over Palin claiming “feminism” also misses an important aspect about her political relevance in the movement. When Sarah Palin speaks to her constituency, she aligns, incites them to cohesion, action, and most of all directed focus. Palin and her political team’s ability to identify and commiserate personally with women is a skill professional “feminist” organizations and writers alike have abandoned (if they ever possessed it) in recent years to a nebulousness that focuses on branding and confrontational entitlement. While there is deep concern over Palin’s admittance, a blind eye is turned to many women who have quietly (and not so quietly) sneaked out the door.

The uproar over Palin claiming “feminism” also misses an important aspect about her political relevance in the movement. When Sarah Palin speaks to her constituency, she aligns, incites them to cohesion, action, and most of all directed focus. Palin and her political team’s ability to identify and commiserate personally with women is a skill professional “feminist” organizations and writers alike have abandoned (if they ever possessed it) in recent years to a nebulousness that focuses on branding and confrontational entitlement. While there is deep concern over Palin’s admittance, a blind eye is turned to many women who have quietly (and not so quietly) sneaked out the door.

Online “feminist” writers floundered in attempts to define what does and does not constitute a “feminist” and what positions actually illustrate “feminism” in a way that kept Palin out of the group. Meghan Daum of the Los Angeles Times gave a simple, broad declaration: feminism’s goal is “[to] view men and women as equal.” Jessica Valenti, on the other hand, appears to choose a lengthier, more nuanced route to defining the movement’s goals in the Washington Post:

“Feminism is a social justice movement with values and goals that benefit women. It’s a structural analysis of a world that oppresses women, an ideology based on the notion that patriarchy exists and that it needs to end.”

Valenti’s definition doesn’t actually define anything, even going so far as to undercut itself by describing patriarchy as a “notion” while Daum’s definition is short and trite. Both lack any real guidance for understanding whether someone is a “feminist” or not. Rebecca Traister sidesteps the question of what “feminism” is entirely and frames Palin’s adoption of the term as a war on the movement with language as its weaponry. Amy Siskin of Huffington Post agrees about keeping “feminism” as an amorphous term because it is “historically correct.” In the essay “Sarah Palin and the Arbiters of Feminism” writer s.e smith points out that the need to define “us versus them attitudes are pretty much the mainstay of a lot of movements because they promote ingroup homogeneity.”

“Feminists” need to define Palin as anti-feminist to maintain “feminist” cohesion, which goes unmentioned. But the definitions are lacking anything that would allow people not part of the accepted group to hold them to; ultimately the definitions seem to hinge not on a consensus from women but authorial say-so.

That say-so, the ability to magically shorten and lengthen, to open and close the gates of “feminism” for pre-chosen goals is the actual thing to defend, and the assumption that this is not a bad thing but a necessary thing. Women need to be told who, what, where and how to be “feminist”. They aren’t part of the decision, because “feminists” truly know best.

On The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Chloe Angyal repeats the mistake: women who identify with undefined “feminist views” but don’t identify themselves as “feminists” out of what she cites as fear or lack of willpower. In response, also published by Comment is Free, Womanist Musings writer Renee Martin refocuses this analysis of the welcoming “feminist” fold. Martin reminds Angyal, women are avoiding claiming “feminism” for a myriad of reasons that are not in any way being engaged, except in times of crises to be used against a bigger more important foe. The historic concerns of marginalized women of color, disability, gender spectrum, ability, and sexuality are merely footnotes. Traister inadvertently firmly illustrates the point in her piece, naming Valenti, Harding and others, but using only Martin’s piece to illustrate the contentious dialogue around this piece of “feminist” reality. Martin remains unnamed.

Palin’s actual speech at the Susan B. Anthony gathering is a study of how connecting to your audience can be done well, specifically around the reproductive justice issues. It is an important contrast because of how “feminist” circles made it a study in gatekeeping , poor planning, and alienation. Palin delivers a moving speech about being met with a tough decision regarding her son, listening to her personal power and overcoming. She then takes that desire to overcome to instill her audience with the belief that they can do it as well as letting them know they are needed and integral.

The “feminist” discourse had the president of NARAL declaring women unaware and absent. While young women of color (and an obscene number of active WOC organizations) are shunted off into overflow rooms, because their signs gave “ammo to the right,” the Stupak amendment, much to the sadness of “feminists” (and any woman for reproductive justice) passed. SisterSong, however, which helped stop a similar bill from even reaching the floor, does not identify itself primarily as a feminist group. This seems to bother no one. “Feminists” 0, Non “feminists” 2.

smith points out that what Palin does is the same as what “feminist” writers and organizations have done. Define a selfish, self-interested goal, fight for it at all costs. What Palin and many of these “feminists” share is a belief that they should be in charge, setting the terms and that anyone not meeting them is misguided and incorrect. Palin, however, uses it to strengthen her support base and get them calling, protesting and even running themselves.

Against a common enemy, “feminist” discourse has often been turned on other women, cruelly, dismissively, and hypocritically. Complaining about stagnation and lack of participation, while shunting off undervalued but often more effective participants to siderooms out of the coalitions, actively non-engaging impassioned critique and action, as equals and not sidenotes, instead of convenient window dressing for protecting brand identity. Buy “feminist” books, network at “feminist” camps, actually move? The assertion that this just a war of words starts to look depressingly real in a world where our issues are often just war.

Palin is a gifted connector and this situates her to be a force in American electoral politics, for what that’s worth. “Feminists” in trying to defend “feminism” work extremely hard to sever connections and reform them, protecting their right to gatekeep “feminist” politics. Actively listening to the charges brought by the women you claim to be “looking for,” concentrating on who you call a colleague and how those colleagues affect other women would be a first step.

“Feminists” are very concerned with whether Sarah Palin is a “Feminist” but for a group of women long tired of being ignored, in an increasingly desperate landscape, paraphrasing s.e smith, if it quacks, waddles, and can navigate the waters, it may be all the waterfowl some people need. And whether or not you extend the privilege of calling it a duck will not address the dangers posed by the force of its gathering flock.

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  1. Excellent article, Sydette. Especially this: When Sarah Palin speaks to her constituency, she aligns, incites them to cohesion, action, and most of all directed focus. Palin and her political team’s ability to identify and commiserate personally with women is a skill professional “feminist” organizations and writers alike have abandoned

    and this: but for a group of women long tired of being ignored, in an increasingly desperate landscape….

    Very insightful. “Feminism” in this day and age is mostly (from what I can see from my isolated Rust Belt environs) about the blogosphere. About talking. In a circle. It makes my head hurt. The gaps in understanding between the folks getting all the press, all the attention, and all the book deals……and the lives of everyday working women…..is so large. Yet big-time feminists wonder why more women don’t identify as such.

    I’ll tell you why. Take a look at all the big feminist blogsites that had articles up making fun of the term “mama grizzly”. Some of them even likened it specifically to being anti-abortion, which is not how I read the term—but then, how I read the term has to do with my hearing it my whole life, and not how a politician has appropriated it.

    “Mama grizzly” is a term that resonates with working class women. It’s reflective of our ability to survive in a hostile environment, with no one looking out for us or giving a damn, protecting out own children because no one else gives a damn about them either….and being got.damn.tough. Fierce. Tenacious. Resilient. And….scary when provoked.

    But more importantly, powerful. Sorry, but invoking the term “mama grizzly” is political genius and should be recognized as such. Especially at a time when the Democratic party is trying so desperately to wash the working-class dirt off its old hands as fast as the industrial cleaner will work. Working people don’t have a political party in the U.S. We said that at the union hall the other night.

    The feminist blogosphere is: young, but not too young (25-35); mostly white (and of northern european extraction); middle to upper-middle class; highly educated (always degreed, usually grad school or law degree); able-bodied and healthy; non-religious (but typically with a Protestant or Jewish background); childfree by choice (also not a caretaker of an elderly or disabled adult); body size from thin to very thin; cisgender; heterosexual; conventionally feminine/pretty; fashionable; not employed in a nontraditional (>25% female participation) workforce; native English speaking (family of origin usually native English speaking also); non-indigenous and several generations removed from immigrant ancestors; raised in a nuclear family (either intact or divorced—but not “unwed” or extended family); lives in a large metropolis; favors capitalism; unmarried/unpartnered (meaning: no formal or legal ties of responsibility to a partner); never incarcerated (no family incarcerated either); and has plenty of personal contact with people in positions of actual power (gets invited to policymaking meetings/summits).

    And that is a rather narrow band of spectrum, there. Look, I strongly dislike Sarah Palin’s political views. But she reaches women in the U.S. that feminists don’t, because she has points of familiarity with them (us—I’m one of the throwaway women that feminist major leaguers would assume isn’t a feminist, and therefore not worth speaking to).

    This ain’t no dress-rehearsal. This is Life. And there isn’t any movement in *F*eminism anymore. They have abandoned women like me, and now someone else is picking up the pieces and *F*eminists are mad? HA. You get what you play for.

    Assabenedica, Sydette. Be well. Blessings to you and your mother.

  2. yet if you are familiar with what “feminists” claim to desire – the right to be as powerful, as compensated as men, with no limitations on gender – it is technically appropriate.

    So, in your view, is this the limit of feminism – the desire to make as much money and hold as much political power as men? I find that troubling. Obviously economic and political equality is a huge part of it. But if working yourself into a position to make that money and have that power requires you to embrace, reinforce, and recreate oppressive patriarchal social structures and practices, can you really call yourself a feminist? Can you withhold equal rights from women and support public policies that harm them and still call yourself a feminist simply because you have acquired “male” money and power? That seems awfully reductionist.

    I agree that professional feminist organizations have often done a terrible job of connecting with women. But it’s odd that you would equate them with the whole of feminism. NARAL isn’t feminism. NOW isn’t feminism. And anyone who thinks it’s appropriate to charge women for their own rape kits and take away their reproductive freedom is no more feminist than segregationists were anti-racist.

  3. La LUBU!!! Oh you are always in my thoughts you have no idea none ho w much your comments on salon meant at the time.

    Palin gives me actually nightmares but she is masterful at seeing value in people that can be exploited .

    People are actively struggling , for food shelter and lively hood and she acknowledges that.

    The grizzly metaphor isn’t funny , when the factories close, the shipyards are done in and the farm is being repossesed you are fighting you are holding on to it by whatever means. and to have someone SEE that desperation acknowledge it and say it can be harnessed to change the world so that this doesn’t have to happen anymore. That is powerful and it’s something that get’s so quickly dismissed by these writers. and

    in teh rush to be ” relevant” rather than a movement it’s laughed off for what ? Brand trinkets?

    Rachel I don’t equate them with all feminism . but they are quick to do so themselves and the scary part isn’t that they do it or that they don’t see why this is destructive . But the do and that the think the people lost are not necessary.

    Palin is dangerous but she’s not the BIGGEST problem

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