A Problem Like Sarah

Posted on February 16, 2011 by


On Monday, The Daily Caller published two very different columns on Sarah Palin’s feminism—and thus demonstrated why Palin’s maybe-feminism is such a problem for the traditional conservative movement, and, more significantly, for Sarah Palin herself.

Early Monday morning, Daily Caller reporter Caroline May posted: “Are Conservative Women Like Sarah Palin Feminists? Phyllis Schlafly Says ‘No’.” May writes:

[A]ccording to the mother of the conservative women’s movement, Phyllis Schlafly, Palin and her kind are not and never could be feminists.“Palin is not a feminist because she doesn’t adopt the victimology notion of the feminists,” Schlafly told The Daily Caller. “Jessica Valenti defined feminism in the Washington Post a few weeks ago as people who believe the patriarchy oppresses women and women can never succeed.”

Schlafly says that while the new breed of conservative women are strong and empowered they are the opposite of what it means to be a feminist.

“A litmus test for feminists is to agree with abortion and Obamacare and so I think there is really no such thing as a conservative feminist. They are the women of the left,” Schlafly said. “[The feminists] are really spooked by Palin because she’s done everything and she is a success. Besides she is pretty and they cannot stand her.”

Okay. First of all, May starts the passage off on the wrong foot by referring to Schlafly as “the mother of the conservative women’s movement.” Second, Phyllis Schlafly loses any credibility she might otherwise have had on this issue by implying that feminists are ugly girls who hate pretty girls. And third, I’m pretty sure Feministing.com creator Jessica Valenti never defined feminists as people who believe “women can never succeed.” Here’s the only op-ed I found by Valenti in The Washington Post, and here’s where she talks about what it means to be a feminist:

If anyone — even someone who actively fights against women’s rights — can call herself a feminist, the word and the movement lose all meaning. And while part of the power of feminism is its intellectual diversity, certain things are inarguable. 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.

Now, Valenti is certainly a progressive feminist, and she certainly has serious issues with conservative and free-market feminism. But Valenti’s base definition of feminism—at least as it’s laid out in The Washington Post—is nothing like how Schlafly portrays it, and, in fact, it doesn’t foreclose upon the possibility of conservative or free-market feminism. It’s true that Jessica Valenti doesn’t think Sarah Palin is a feminist—but that’s only because Valenti thinks that Sarah Palin isn’t sincerely concerned about empowering women.

But Schlafly’s missteps aside—it seems as though her argument is that Sarah Palin cannot be called a feminist because feminists hold that women are victims of male oppression, and Palin doesn’t believe that.

Or does she?

A few hours after Caroline May posted her article on Schlafly’s reaction to Palin’s so-called feminism, The Daily Caller published another column about Palin by political writer Carey Roberts, titled, “Sarah Palin Needs to Rein in Her Harsh Feminist Rhetoric.” (Seriously.)

Roberts writes:

I applaud Sarah Palin’s passion, her adroit sense of humor, and her you-go-girl! gumption. But the more I learn about Sarah Palin, the more I become perplexed by her over-heated gender-bending rhetoric.


[M]ost eyeball-rolling is this Palinism: “The working women of this country, those who work inside the home and outside of the home, they’re overlooked by politicians in Washington.”

Women overlooked? PULLEEEEAAASE.

So there you have it. Sarah Palin: guilty of over-heated gender-bending rhetoric at its worst!

By publishing May’s article and Roberts’ post on the same day, The Daily Caller has produced a kind of Brechtian demonstration of why Sarah Palin is clumsily balancing between self-declared-feminism and staunch traditionalism. Palin is a woman who wants women to have the opportunity to succeed in public life—but does she really want more than that? The Phyllis Schlaflys of the world seem convinced that Palin is too self-reliant to identify as a feminist; and the Carey Roberts think Palin is too concerned with women’s rights to identify as a good conservative. Meanwhile, liberal feminists like Jessica Valenti (and most of the women interviewed by Slate) are appalled that Palin would even consider calling herself a feminist.  So who is the real Sarah Palin . . . and is she a feminist?

Honestly—I don’t think Palin herself knows.

At CPAC, a Sarah Palin impersonator had crowds fooled for a little while as she sat for media interviews in the lobby of the Marriott Wardman. Though those within yards of her could tell she wasn’t the real Sarah, the throngs of excited onlookers around her (“Is it really her?–I think it’s her!”) gave her the dressings of the real thing.

Reading Sarah Palin’s speeches and listening to her interviews, I consistently feel like I’m watching an impersonator—someone playing a part. She’s like Rosencrantz (or Guildenstern?) from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: like a character who has wandered onto the national stage, slipping in and out of character, still trying to figure out what role she’s supposed to be playing.

There’s a great scene in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead where the lead player scolds Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for deserting the players in the middle of their performance:

The Player: You don’t understand the humiliation of it—to be tricked out of the single assumption that makes our existence viable—that someone is watching . . . […] Don’t you see?! We’re actors—we’re the opposite of people! […] We’re actors . . . We pledged our identities, secure in the conventions of our trade, that someone would be watching.

As liberals and conservatives bicker and wage war over the question of  Sarah Palin’s feminism, Palin herself seems to be standing still at a kind of existential crossroads. She’s happy to be in the spotlight, and she’d be very happy to play the role we script for her. But there isn’t really a ready-made script for a conservative feminist, and Palin seems unfit for ideological improv.

So occasionally Palin employs the F (feminist!) word, and her audience scatters in different directions, trying to figure out who Sarah Palin really is. And that’s just the way it’s going to be, at least for a while. Until Palin assumes control over the nuances of her own character role—until she decides to fill the cracks in her public image with confident, original script—the fractured debate over her true (feminist?) identity will continue bitterly on.

Posted in: Politicians