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Linda Hirshman Headshot

Is the Woman in the Year of the Woman Sarah Palin?

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I just heard Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC reporting a conversation with a female delegate at the Republican convention last night. Before vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin's speech, the delegate allegedly told Mitchell that she was pro-choice and therefore little inclined to support Palin, who believes that the government should force women to bear children even when raped. But afterward, Mitchell reported, the woman had done a 180. When she saw the Palin family, her pro-choice principles just evaporated. "I'm a mother too," the pro-choice delegate said, "and now I'm completely behind her."

Reproductive solidarity: now there's a political movement. Setting aside for the moment the question of how sincerely pro-choice a delegate to the 2008 Republican National Convention actually is, can it be that the feminist icon in the 2008 presidential race is a beauty queen mother of five who believes girls should carry their rapists' babies to term? Boy, everybody's a feminist these days. And why not? Decades ago, the feminist movement, which started life with a clarion call to women to lose the girly stuff and get a job lost its nerve. Choose whatever you want, the movement said. As long as you're a woman, your choices became feminist choices. Marry a jerk, it's your choice. Quit your job because it's impossible to raise a family with little help from the jerk, private business. Depend on the unhelpful male for material survival, there's a choice. Become defined by the fact of your motherhood, well, that's what women are for, no? It's the act of choice that counts. Feminism gave birth to "choice feminism."

What next? Feminists calling themselves "intersectional" assert that all issues affecting humanity are feminist issues. Some African-Americans are women, so racial justice is a feminist issue, even if the particular person involved happens to be male. Women breathe, so environmentalism is a feminist issue. War. Peace. What a movement! Everything is a feminist issue, and women's choices about those issues are feminist choices by definition.

The good news is that by being so open, feminism was able to grow. It became such a part of American life that much of the next generation of women just assumed their feminist rights, and conservatives like Sarah Palin considered themselves part of the movement. All kinds of groups bearing the label sprang up. The bad news is that feminism grew so large the word seemed to lose its meaning.

Thus, Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's group dedicated to pressing women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term can call itself "Feminists for Life." Not anti-feminist women trying to tie all women to the reproductive cycle with ropes of criminal law, but "feminists." For Life. Because their "choice" that all women should make the same choice they do is a feminist choice.

And Palin running for beauty queen is not perpetuating the stereotype that women are only valuable for their youthful physical beauty, but rather the crucial first step for a woman to become vice president. Well, actually what Comedy Central, in their pitch perfect connection with contemporary culture called TVPILTF. (Hint: The Vice President I'd Like to... ) Choose to exploit your beauty, choose to exploit your brains. Reports from Alaska reflect a serious subset of Palin supporters who just like to look at her legs. Hey there's a leg up for future feminist candidates.

And the would-be mayor, with a degree in journalism would not run for office based on her professional credentials, but as a PTA activist and self-styled "hockey mom." Years in the classroom or hours in the labor room; same difference. Why rack up all that student debt getting a college degree anyway? Choose to rest your identity on motherhood, choose to work at your craft. No wonder Palin is willing to run with the man who voted against enforcing equal pay.

If intersectional feminism takes in all causes that affect women, why exclude Palin's causes? If you believe in universal feminism, you must acknowledge that some fundamentalist believers are women. So Palin's position that evolution is no more credible than the Bible becomes a "feminist" choice. Hey, some SUV drivers are women, so drilling in the ANWAR wildlife refuge would be feminist, some heterosexual married people who feel diminished when gay and lesbian people get married are women, so Palin's opposition to gay marriage would also be a feminist act. And so on.

Republicans hope that Palin will be just the ticket to win over the foolish females who were miffed when the Democrats didn't nominate Hillary. After all, they're both "feminists." On the one hand, Senator Hillary Clinton, former head of the American Bar Association Commission on Women, NARAL pro-choice America record 100%, sponsor of the Lilly Ledbetter bill to restore enforcement of the equal pay law; on the other hand, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

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I don't believe in Andrea Mitchell's female Republican convert. I'm guessing the crucial group of women voters the Republicans are after -- independent white women and right-leaning Democratic white women -- are going to figure out the difference. As Nation columnist Katha Pollitt put it in her inimitable way, McCain "must think we have the collective IQ of a Tampax."

But if voting women reject the Palin gambit, they are going to be saying something much bigger than she's no Hillary Clinton. They are going to be saying that even on a mass basis and among women who never said the word feminist in their life there is meaning and content to feminism. Like anything with meaning and content, there are "choices" and "interests" that are beyond the pale.

In rejecting Palin, the coveted voters will say that women's lives have moral weight, so you cannot be a candidate for their votes and simultaneously want to use the criminal law to compel childbirth.

Women voters will recall that the Enlightenment, with its scientific breakthroughs eventually put an end to widespread deaths in childbirth and enabled women to control their reproductive fate through birth control, so you can't care about women and substitute the Bible for biology.

They will positively assert that meaningful work at fair pay is part of a flourishing life, so they won't vote for someone who voted against enforcing the equal pay laws, even if his running mate happened to find the one dude in Alaska who wanted to stay home from work and raise the kids.

A movement that represents everybody actually represents nobody. Rejecting Sarah Palin could be the beginning of a renewed women's movement, a movement of content and boundaries, that uses its electoral power to achieve its ends, strategically making alliances when necessary but never losing sight of its own interests. Sarah Palin may be the woman in the year of the woman after all.