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Where are the Progressive (Political) Riot Grrrls?

11/29/2010 12:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Elizabeth Wurtzel nails some important points in her recent article in The Atlantic, titled, Sarah Palin, Riot Grrrl.

Much of the online debate around this article is about how Palin isn't a feminist and thus shouldn't be called a Riot Grrrl. I'm not even going to spend any mental time on that. That Palin is not a feminist is beyond debate -- as a feminist believes in equal pay and equal rights and the ability to make decisions about her own body.

But moving beyond that, I want to focus on the other question at hand, which is: Really, where are all the progressive outspoken untamed women on the left?! I know they're out there, but from looking at who the Democratic Party and the general progressive infrastructure holds up, it could be hard to believe.

Although I don't agree with all of what Wurtzel argues -- namely that progressives need to just foist forward hot "policy babes" as a part of their image -- she is definitely on to something. In part led by Palin madness, the Republican Party and the "right" have more or less been forced to embrace female spokeswomen who will not purely take their talking points from the RNC Headquarters, thank you. And you know what, it's largely worked, at least by the measure of getting the public's interest and attention.

Democrats most definitely have Secretary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, who I am most grateful for. But their roles are ones of speaking on behalf of what The Party wants to say, even if they have key roles in crafting that vision. But I also want to see Democrats, or at least progressives, give platforms for outspoken women who are also smart and feisty and have the freedom to speak to ideas beyond the policies presently being negotiated in fine detail.

With the ghost of Elizabeth Cady Stanton as my witness, let me make clear, I'm not saying we clone the hateful endless soundbite that is Ann Coulter and just reprogram her with progressive talking points. But what I am saying is that Democrats and the left have better realize that one key to success is to give more platforms to women who are not afraid to speak their minds.

Of course there will be differences, as I am arguing for smart women who believe in policies that would better this nation to be given more face time in our national discourse. One area where I disagree with Wurtzel is that we not only need, "policy babes," although I myself have no aversion to increasing the number of policy babes on the left. But it's not just babes we need, we need women of the likes of Molly Ivins and Ann Richards, who always told it like it was, spoke from their true beliefs, were not afraid to have a little fun while doing so, and weren't vying in anyway for the title "babe."

The Republicans have realized the success of putting an off-talking-point woman into the spotlight. They've gotten the attention of many Americans by doing so. But where they're not winning is that they're not matching the outspoken womanness with equal smarts.

The progressive left has no deficit in smart, engaging and fun women who could fill this role. Trust me, I know them. But when I flip on the cable channels at night to see what's up, it is rarely if ever that I see these women on the screen. No, it's the progressive dudes I also respect. All suited up and talking to each other on the screen. They replicate what looks like a progressive discussion over drinks on any Thursday, expect that they removed all the women and all the people of color.

This is a losing strategy if we don't fix the problem.

This election was supposed to be one of the "Mama Grizzlies." Oh, we heard that meme over and over and over. Indeed, none of those mamas won in the polling booth. You know who did? A fierce and brilliant and young Democratic contender who ran in a race that was largely ignored by the progressive infrastructure and circuit of talking heads, Kamala Harris. Kamala is smart and strategic and is now the to-be Attorney General of the state of California. She reworked the discussion over justice to highlight being "smart on crime," rather than just being "hard on crime." And you know what, it worked. Here's a clip of her telling Texas Oil companies what they can expect from her in response to their attempt to buy out California on a recent, failing, proposition"

As much as she wasn't held up by the progressive infrastructure as a key face in this last election, the Republicans saw what Kamala Harris could represent. Karl Rove didn't need the progressive infrastructure to realize it in order for him to throw over 1.4 Million dollars against Kamala's race. Why in the world would Karl Rove be so afraid of a brilliant, young, fierce, bi-racial woman who is on an electoral rise? Maybe for the same reason the left should more so embrace and highlight such women. They resonate with the populace, and they represent a face and a voice we need to see and hear. They fill a gap that remains open on the progressive left.

Wertzel argues that Palin serves as a Riot Grrrrl of sort. In the sense of a Riot Grrrl eschewing authoritarian granted access to power and a platform, perhaps. In the sense of being fiercely progressive and feminist, no. Men control the parties. Men control the cable networks. So for any woman to break through on those levels based upon her own ideas of how to get attention, yes, that is rebellious. But if we're looking for real political Riot Grrrls, we're going to have to look to the left. (And we can most definitely look to Rachel Maddow, but she often looks too lonely as the only woman who can be pointed to for playing such a role.)

I remember being a graduate student at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Having been a resident of a homeless shelter just a few years before, in many ways I was aware of how I was not the "standard" idea of a political woman. And, honestly, I grew eventually to be a bit proud of that fact, if only in rebellion to the fact of my differentness being constantly pointed out. One of those organizations that train women to run for public office came to do a training on campus, and told us all about needing to cut our hair and our need to wear nylons. In my standard cowgirl boots and leather jacket, I wondered if such cookie-cutter taming was the only way for me to truly gain political power in this country. But at heart I knew it wasn't.

We've seen that such cookie-cutter models are not the only way. We don't even have to look that far back in time to see that Ann Richards had some other ideas about how a woman in politics should present.

2010-11-27-annerichards.jpgBut for every Meghan McCain the right has -- born into power and access, with no real knowledge of anything, but with a platform due to who her daddy is -- the left isn't rising to the occasion with a smart and outspoken feminist who believes in progressive policies and actually knows what she's talking about. The country is changing, and the faces of political power we put out there better start to match it. Sarah Palin definitely is not a true Riot Grrrl. But she has at least proven that talking points and poll driven messaging are not the only ways to get people to listen. I can only hope the progressive side of this country eventually realizes the lesson and more so highlights their own outspoken, off talking point script, female voices. The American public is clearly eager to see an Ann Richards born in modern form. Those progressive women are out there. Now the question is whether we'll get to hear their voices.