In the Club: Who Does Feminism Exclude?

On Sunday, I went to a fantastic panel talk on the current state of feminism at the Brooklyn Book Festival. I’ve been grappling with what it means to be feminist today, and during the discussion, a question came up that helped me find my answer: Who can be a feminist?

Exhibit A: Sarah Palin. A self-proclaimed feminist. Well, she waffles, but lately she’s on the bandwagon. WTF, right? I can’t help feeling some indignation that this pro-life, anti-intellectual, and absurdly uninformed joke of a politician could possibly call herself feminist. If I had any sort of voting power over who is and is not allowed to be feminist, I would happily exclude her from the club. But then I take a deep breath and remind myself that there isn’t really a club, we’re not in third grade anymore, and feminism is not about achieving total homogeny.

Still, Palin begs the question: Are some people ‘not allowed’ to be feminist?

One of the panelists, Salon writer Rebecca Traister, suggested that reproductive rights are the dividing line between feminists and wanna-bes. I certainly see where she’s coming from. Palin is staunchly pro-life and abstinence-only (for the results of this combo, see: Bristol Palin) and supports candidates that would deny women access to legal abortions, even in the case of rape or incest. That flies in the face of major feminist efforts to earn women the right to make informed choices about their own bodies, futures, and readiness to have a child. By supporting anti-choice efforts, Palin aims to undo feminist progress. Shouldn’t that disqualify her from the title? As Traister claims, feminists work with the goals of the feminist movement, not against them.

I think there’s a strong argument there, but I’m not so sure that reproductive rights are my dividing line. While I am an avid supporter of our right to choose, I could also see that, for someone who truly sees abortion as murder, it’s not a matter of women’s rights at all. So I wonder, could there be another place to draw the line that might offer liberals and conservatives room to participate in the feminist movement?

For me, feminism is about being seen as fully and equally human, with all the rights and privileges that status affords. So, what if we say that feminism is about challenging objectification? About striving to be recognized for our humanity, and calling for the power to define and experience ourselves independently.

If I think about it that way, then when I look at Palin and wonder if she’s feminist, I ask myself: Does she willingly participate in her own objectification or does she aim to humanize and equalize herself? She’s a public figure, so it’s a complicated answer, but I challenge you to think about it. Ask yourself the question.

To keep making progress, we need diverse feminist voices. It’s okay (even good!) if some of us wear pantsuits and others wear stilettos, or if some of us are conservatives and others are liberals. But I believe that, if we want to be feminists, we do need to champion our humanity. To explore it, assert it, and own it.

(Click here to read more about Palin, feminism, and the 2008 election in an excerpt from Rebecca Traister’s new book, “Big Girls Don’t Cry”).


1 Comment

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One response to “In the Club: Who Does Feminism Exclude?

  1. liz

    First question? How do you have the time to write all these interesting, probing blog entries, when I hardly have time to read them?

    But my comment is: I think at least a part of being a true feminist is appreciating the value of other women’s judgement about the “murder” question. My experience with women I consider to be true feminists is that they are able be against abortion “personally,” in that they do consider it wrong, and swear they would never have one, but still be open-minded enough to realize that not everyone shares that view. They can make the personal choice not to violate “their covenant” with “their God” (whatever that means–not being religious myself) and still realize that making the procedure illegal would violate the rights of other women who may not share that belief.

    So for me it’s about respecting, and promoting the rights of all women to make the choice for themselves, about their own body, and their own timing for having, or not having, children. I mean really, there’s no shortage of children being born, what’s all the fuss about? And when you ask them about welfare for mothers of dependent children, and food stamps, and government sponsored health care, they’re generally against all that. The old pro-lifer adage: Life begins at conception and ends at birth, still holds true.

    And the pro-lifers want to take my rights away–not that I’m expecting to need an abortion any time soon, since I’m past menopause. But still.

    I still have to think about the whole objectification thing, because I’m definitely a feminist–equal pay for equal work, same rights to jobs and housing and loans and all that, but I still really like it when my guy wants to follow me up the stairs so he can check out my booty. What’s wrong with that?

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