Tag Archives: Politics

Is the Pantsuit Driving Women…Red?

In response to recent polls showing that female voters may favor Republicans in today’s election, the New York Times features a discussion about why women’s allegiance might be shifting. Most of the discussion is so hair-splittingly safe that the “why” is wholly unaddressed, but one brave commenter actually ventures a guess: There are simply more Republican women on the ballot.

This is a perfectly reasonable explanation (though it suggests that women care more about anatomy than ability). This year, the Republicans have nominated a record number of female candidates and Sarah Palin’s motley crew has gained enormous national attention.

But I’m not sure that sheer numbers could really change our stripes.

I think this actually goes much deeper, to a cultural shift that the Republicans have picked up on while the Democrats refuse to get on board.

So what is this shift all about?

Recently, I’ve seen something in conservative female candidates that I’ve never seen in politics before: femininity.

Two weeks ago, the New York Times featured an article on conservative fashion, including a slide show that highlights the stark difference between the political parties’ styles. Republican women are stepping out in hip-hugging skirts, ruffly blouses, and stylish jackets, while Democratic women are still rocking the boxy pantsuit.

You might think that style choices shouldn’t matter. But whatever your politics, they matter. And this time, I think they should.

I’m reminded of Anna Wintour’s famously scathing letter when Hillary Clinton refused to appear in Vogue during the 2008 election for fear of appearing “too feminine.” Ms. Wintour, never one to mess with, wrote:

“The notion that a contemporary woman must look mannish in order to be taken seriously as a seeker of power is frankly dismaying…I do think Americans have moved on from the power-suit mentality, which served as a bridge for a generation of women to reach boardrooms filled with men. Political campaigns that do not recognize this are making a serious misjudgment.”

That misjudgment goes beyond our style choices and touches on a larger issue that those noxious pantsuits have come to represent.

Femininity, as a whole, has long suffered our collective disrespect. Feminine women are dismissed. Feminine men are scorned. Despite all our strides toward equality, femininity is still distinctly lesser. As a culture, we seem to be under the disturbingly mistaken impression that femininity cannot coexist with intelligence, strength, and power.

It’s time for that to change.

Thankfully, I think it is changing. Slowly, I see my generation starting to respect traditionally feminine traits, and to embody (or hope for) a world where girlie girls can debate economics and heroic hunks can cry when they read Jane Eyre.

So come on, Dems. Shred those pastel pantsuits. This train is leaving, with or without you. It’s time to get on board.

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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”).

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