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.