Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Behold the conservative feminist

Several pieces in the business press today suggest that Sarah Palin is a feminist: indeed, a greater example of a feminist than Hillary Clinton. The reasons cited include the fact that Palin is a working mother, and, on the Hillary score, Palin got where she is today without riding the coattails of some powerful man.

What "feminism" means is never coherently explained, so subsequent arguments turn into a predictable mess, loosely smeared around the formula that women + power = feminism. This is how FT columnist Chrystia Freeland arrives at the conclusion that achieving power without a man is more feminist than the opposite.

My own understanding of feminism is that it stands in opposition to any exercise of authority which denies women the opportunity to decide for themselves on issues which primarily affect them. (This is really just a restating of the classical anarchist position toward all authority -- that power requires the consent of those affected in order to have legitimacy -- in this case as it applies to gender.) So the test of feminism is not merely whether women hold positions of authority, but whether the authority held is legitimate vis-a-vis affected women.

By this measure, it is hard to see how Sarah Palin qualifies as a feminist; certainly not by the criteria that "she works," as there is no serious systemic challenge to American women pursuing this anymore. On the other hand, whether or not women are compensated in an equivalent fashion to their male counterparts when they work is another question entirely. Where Palin falls on this practice, and what she is doing about it (e.g., speaking out, supporting legislation; or, alternatively, keeping quiet to advance her own career at the expense others), would be a much better measure of her commitment to feminism. Unfortunately, all of the efforts to paint Palin a feminist have done so by conflating a conception of "good feminism" with behavior that is in fact already socially-prescribed -- or sanctioned -- for women by others.

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