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Fierce, Anti-Feminist, and In Your Face

Does Sarah Palin owe anything to the "Women's Movement"?

By 4.4.11

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We could probably blame it all on Shelly Mandell. It was at a Sarah Palin campaign rally on October 4, 2008, that Mandell -- president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) -- endorsed the Republican and proclaimed to a cheering crowd: "America, this is what a feminist looks like!"

Mandell's speech at the rally in Carson, California, produced an immediate and decisive backlash. The president of the California state NOW organization disavowed Mandell's endorsement, saying that it was "apparently intended to mislead the public" because NOW had in fact endorsed the Democratic ticket. "John McCain and Sarah Palin oppose many of the rights and freedoms we have fought for throughout NOW's 42 years," California NOW president Patty Bellasalma said in an official statement, "and we will not be pushed back to the days of back-alley abortions, forced pregnancies, and pay discrimination without remedy." Bellasalma's rebuke to Mandell encapsulated what most conservatives would consider a workable definition of "feminist" -- a liberal woman who habitually votes for Democrats.

Such a definition obviously excludes Sarah Palin from the ranks of feminists. However, the declarations of NOW officials -- including the national organization's president, Kim Gandy, who denounced Palin as "a woman who opposes women's rights" -- have not prevented some of Palin's admirers from insisting that the former Alaska governor is in some sense a feminist. Last month, Canadian columnist Barbara Kay stirred the pot with a pro-Palin column that opened with this historical summary: "The feminist revolution began as a necessary reform movement, but unfortunately evolved into a Marxism-imbued, revolutionary one. Second-wave feminism's focus soon shifted from women's equal rights (which are limited to those defined by law) to women's interests (which are limitless), as perceived through a victim's lens." Regardless of Kay's larger intent -- praising Palin as a pro-life "Mama Grizzly" -- her thumbnail history of the "feminist revolution" is exactly backwards. Rather than beginning with sensible reformers, the so-called "second-wave" feminism of the 1960s was from its very outset rooted in the very Marxism to which Kay incorrectly says it "unfortunately evolved."

If modern feminism has a Founding Mother, it would be the late Betty Friedan, whose 1963 book The Feminine Mystique is widely regarded as the movement's charter and who, in 1966, co-founded NOW. For decades, Friedan portrayed herself as a typical housewife who in 1959 had stumbled onto a troubling discovery. "Gradually I came to realize that the problem that has no name was shared by countless women in America," Friedan wrote of the "quiet desperation" experienced by her fellow women whose suburban lifestyle she condemned as a "comfortable concentration camp."

The author who claimed American women were suffering from oppression analogous to the Holocaust was hardly a typical housewife herself. Friedan was in fact a former member of the Young Communist League who under her maiden name Betty Goldstein had worked for the Federated Press (a news service that "employed many Communist editors and correspondents," as Time magazine noted in 1956) and for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America, one of 11 communist-dominated unions ejected from the CIO in 1949-50. Friedan's Stalinist past, which spanned more than a decade, was carefully concealed for more than three decades until it was revealed in a sympathetic 1998 biography written by a professor at her alma mater, Smith College.

Despite her own hidden radical history, Friedan's brand of feminism was too establishment-oriented for younger activists of the 1960s New Left, who adapted the protest tactics and revolutionary rhetoric of the anti-Vietnam War movement for what they called "women's liberation." It was these younger radicals who famously protested the 1968 Miss America pageant (although contrary to legend they did not burn their brassieres, if only because the police permit for their protest prohibited fires on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J.). One of the founding organizations of the women's liberation movement, New York Radical Women, declared in a 1968 statement of its principles: "We regard our feelings as our most important source of political understanding. We see the key to our liberation in our collective wisdom and our collective strength." One of the movement's leaders, Ti-Grace Atkinson, declared to a Life magazine reporter in 1969: "Marriage means rape and lifelong slavery.… We reject marriage both in theory and in practice.… Love has to be destroyed. It's an illusion.… It may be that sex is a neurotic manifestation of oppression. It's like a mass psychosis." Also in 1969, New York magazine published an article that connected feminism to the cutting edge of what Tom Wolfe subsequently labeled "radical chic." That 2,200-word article, entitled "After Black Power, Women's Liberation," was written by Gloria Steinem.

From the Old Left Stalinism of Friedan's hidden past to the New Left militancy of women's liberation, then, 1960s "second-wave" feminism was firmly rooted in a familiar left-wing politics of grievance. The movement's history is thus at odds with Barbara Kay's assertion that feminism "unfortunately evolved" toward a "Marxism-imbued" radicalism. Yet the meaning of feminism remains very much in dispute, as Mandell's controversial October 2008 attempt to anoint Sarah Palin as a feminist standard-bearer made clear.

Webster's bland dictionary definition of feminism as "the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes" or "organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests" is unhelpful in settling such a dispute. For Kim Gandy and other official feminist spokeswomen, legalized abortion is the sine qua non of women's rights, whereas Palin's conservative supporters generally view abortion as a profound wrong. Many of these pro-life Mama Grizzlies, however, still wish to describe Palin as a "feminist" not so much because of the word's definition (either by Webster's or by NOW), but rather because of the informal connotations it has acquired over the years. To be a "feminist" in this informal sense of the word is to be an intelligent, independent, outspoken, and politically active woman.

Such a non-partisan and non-ideological understanding of what it means to be a feminist quite naturally enrages the left-wing women who claim proprietorship over the label. It also draws dignified protests from an intelligent, independent, outspoken and politically active woman named Phyllis Schlafly. One of the most influential women in American political history, Schlafly led the successful movement to prevent ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, much to the dismay of Friedan, Steinem and other feminists who had supported the ERA. At age 86, Schlafly is still making news and has recently published her 22nd book, The Flipside of Feminism, co-authored with her niece, Susan Venker. And as Mrs. Venker made clear in an interview last month, her aunt has no interest in advancing Friedan and Steinem's left-wing movement: "When I originally went to Phyllis to ask her if she'd be interested in doing this project, she had one stipulation -- that the book completely condemn feminism. If it were to be any other way, she wasn't interested."

As Michelle Malkin once observed, "If Phyllis Schlafly were a liberal, she'd already have buildings and holidays named after her.… But because she is an unapologetic and outspoken conservative, she is demonized instead of lionized." Sarah Palin has certainly experienced her share of the hateful demonization that liberal feminists reserve for conservative women. It is their rejection of the Left's grievance-mongering, their refusal to credit their own successes to an identity-politics movement, which makes conservative women an especial target of feminist leaders. Schlafly cheerfully mocks their collectivist sensibilities.

"Feminists frequently ask me, am I not grateful for all the opportunities that feminism has created for me," she said in a video interview to promote the new book. "That's ridiculous, because I made my way long before the feminist movement got started.… And then I published my first book, A Choice Not an Echo, in 1964 and sold 3 million copies right out of my garage. I didn't need the feminists to do that." No, she didn't need them -- and they'll never forgive her for it, either. Nor are the feminists ever likely to forgive Sarah Palin, who probably needs them even less than Schlafly did.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.