Feminism Without Feminism

BY Susan J. Douglas

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As the Republicans were swooning over Sarah Palin, proclaiming “A Star is Born,” we saw something else hatched too. Let’s call it Pit Bull Feminism, drawing from Palin’s own self-characterization.

With Pit Bull Feminism, you have the appearance of feminism–alleged Superwoman, top executive and mother of five–with a repudiation of everything feminism stands for and has fought for. By now most of us know Palin’s resume: adamantly anti-choice even in the case of rape or incest, anti-environment, staunchly pro-gun, for censorship of books, anti-sex education, and, reportedly, a passionate advocate for the aerial hunting of wildlife in Alaska.

Her record in personnel matters–trying to fire her town’s local librarian, trying to get her brother-in-law fired–and her smug, mocking stance in her acceptance speech both suggest a vindictiveness off-putting to millions of women who have sought, and not without success, to bring more empathy and humanity to workplaces around the country.

The hypocrisy of Pit Bull Feminism is quite breathtaking. One of the oddest juxtapositions at the Republican Convention was right wing pundits and politicians denouncing the sexism of anyone who questioned whether the mother of an infant could handle the job of vice-president, while delegates proudly sported buttons that read “Hottest VP” and “Hot Chick.”

For decades–ever since Richard Nixon, in language crafted by Pat Buchanan, vetoed a bi-partisan, comprehensive daycare plan in 1971 (the Senate fell only seven votes short of overriding the veto)–the Republican Party has scorned the needs of working mothers. They denounced daycare as “warehousing” your children, thwarted public policies designed to help working mothers and their kids like paid maternity leave, and have suggested that mothers who work outside the home are negligent.

Gerald Ford, in 1976, following his party’s principles, vetoed the Child Day Care Standards Act. (This time the House and Senate overrode the veto, despite the opposition of right wing Republicans like Jesse Helms, Bob Dole and Strom Thurmond none of whom, I believe, has succeeded at working outside the home for minimum wage while also changing diapers and packing lunches.)

Phyllis Schlafly, who in tone and manner Palin seems keen to emulate, denounced any federal support for child care as “blatant discrimination against the mother who takes care of her own children.” The right wing’s most frequently repeated mantra when attacking working mothers and comprehensive daycare programs has been “If you didn’t want to take care of them, why did you have them?”

Now, all of a sudden, the Republican Party is in love with working mothers, or at least this one. They’re also suddenly tolerant of unwed teenage mothers, a category of female they have also excoriated over the years, especially if the mothers were young African Americans. Charles Murray, a 1990s darling of the right and vehement critic of teenage pregnancy proclaimed, “I want to make the behavior of having a child when you aren’t prepared to care for it extremely punishing again.”

As “The Daily Show” reminded us just the other night, Bill O’Reilly referred to Jamie Lynn Spears’ parents as “pinheads” for not preventing their sixteen-year-old from getting pregnant. Now, however, Bristol Palin’s situation is a private matter, not to be touched, and Sarah Palin is a mother whose predicament we should empathize with because allegedly all of us understand the challenges of raising teenagers today. It is unspeakable to note that Bristol Palin is one of thousands of examples of this fact: Study after study has shown that “abstinence only” sex education programs are failures.

Pit Bull Feminism is about looking stylish and pretty so you can get away with attacking the accomplishments of those who have actually fought for women’s issues, like authoring the Violence against Women Act, as Joe Biden did. It is about using your status as a “hockey mom” (and now they’re better than other mothers?) to immunize you and your party against charges that you are, in fact, deeply anti-family when it comes to public policies.

But most of all, Pit Bull Feminism is about exploiting 40 years of activism, lawsuits, legislative changes, and consciousness-raising–all of which you have benefited from–in the hopes of then undoing them all if you manage to get into office.

Palin may have wowed the delegates at the convention and given the proceedings some needed spark. But for millions of women also juggling family, relationships and work, and without the perks of a governor’s office, the last thing we need is more mean-spirited, anti-family policies brought to us in peep-toe shoes. The last thing we need right now is Pit Bull Feminism.

Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and an In These Times columnist. Her latest book is Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work is Done (2010).

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