After struggling with its definition and connotations, Sarah Palin has apparently made peace with the "F-word." She freely used it in a May 14 speech for the Susan B. Anthony List, a PAC for antiabortion female congressional candidates. And given Palin's extraordinary influence in certain circles, you can bet untold numbers of women who might once have never considered it will now be dropping the F-bomb with alacrity.
The word in question, of course, is "feminist." It may be the most polarizing label on the sociopolitical stage (it makes "environmentalist" or even "gay-rights advocate" seem downright banal), but Palin seems to have stopped dancing around it and finally claimed it as her partner. Granted, this is a conditional relationship; there's a qualifier here as big as Alaska. She's talking not about your mom's or Gloria Steinem's feminism but, as she put it, an "emerging, conservative, feminist identity."
Using grizzly bears as a metaphor, Palin seemed to imply that the tenets of feminism — or at least the word itself — need not apply solely to liberal, abortion-rights supporting (and, by implication, gun-eschewing, gay-marriage-advocating, reusable-eco-bag-toting, dangling-earring-wearing) women. Red-state PTA moms with a love of God and country can get in on the empowerment act too.
"The mama grizzlies, they rise up," Palin said, adding that such women "can give their child life, in addition to pursuing career and education and avocations. Society wants to tell these young women otherwise. These feminist groups want to tell these women that, 'No, you're not capable of doing both.' "
Now, there are a lot of ways in which this logic is contorted, not least of all the suggestion that supporting the right to choose represents a no-confidence vote for the idea of mothers leading fulfilling professional and personal lives. But putting that aside, I feel a duty (a feminist duty, in fact) to say this about Palin's declaration: If she has the guts to call herself a feminist, then she's entitled to be accepted as one.
I say this as someone who's unabashedly called herself a feminist (in public and in print) ever since, years ago, I established my own definition of it. In a nutshell, it goes like this: View men and women as equals; see your gender as neither an obstacle to success nor an excuse for failure; laugh at yourself occasionally; get out of bed in the morning; don't forget to vote.
As you can see, this mission statement applies to men and women, liberals and conservatives, evangelicals and atheists, the freshly shaved and the hairy armpitted. I may have opinions about abortion and other social issues closely associated with women's rights, but I see them as a separate matter from the question of whether I call myself a feminist. Plenty of others will disagree on that.
But from the looks of things, Palin shares this interpretation with me (likely the only thing we share). And to those Palin haters who are probably at this moment firing up their laptops to tell me I'm a disgrace to the sisterhood, I say this: How often do you, and your supposedly like-minded daughters and sisters and friends, call yourselves feminists?
For some (the ones who've already hit "send"), it's a regular occurrence, I'm sure. But based on the countless times I've heard (in e-mails from progressive-minded readers as well as in conversations with peers) the line "I'm not a feminist, but … ," I'm inclined to call your large-scale bluff. Moreover, based on the number of times I've heard feminism's (arguable) chief representative on Earth, Hillary Rodham Clinton, call herself a feminist — not so much, by my count — I'm not surprised Palin has seen fit to seize this dying nomenclature and rehabilitate it to meet her needs.
Granted, the blandishments of the political spin machine make it hard for Clinton, or just about any liberal female politician, to use the "F-word" a lot because it could tar her as a man-hater. But think hard about who or what is to blame for increasingly narrow definitions of feminism, definitions that often have more to do with armpits and their discontents than with policy, pay rates and other matters of substance. Part of the fault lies with those who believe in gender equality but avoid the word, souring its reputation and undermining principles they actually hold quite dear. In other words, too many people are walking the walk without talking the talk.
Is there a place in politics for "conservative feminists"? According to my definition of feminism, it would be hypocritical to say no. More hypocritical, though, is to not drop that F-bomb at every reasonable opportunity. If a grizzly bear can do it, anyone can.