NPR’s ‘Sarah Palin and Feminism’s Rightward Path’

Amie Newman

Are conservatism and feminism mutually exclusive? NPR's Fresh Air interviews Ronnee Schreiber about her new book, Righting Feminism, particularly relevant during a historical election season for women  - with a conservative woman in the spotlight.

"Sarah Palin’s candidacy has turned our assumptions about women and politics on their head."

So begins Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air this evening as she introduces – via an interview with Ronnee Schreiber, the author of a new book entitled Righting Feminism – a discussion of the ways in which Sarah Palin and mainstream feminism have clashed thus far and what her candidacy might mean for the conservative women’s movement led by such organizations as Concerned Women for American (CWA) and the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF).

Schreiber begins by talking about why feminists have been frustrated by Palin, pointing to the fact that she is conservative as a primary reason. This is likely true although the anger isn’t about the term conservative, of course, but about how her conservativsm has played out in terms of her political priorites over issues specific to women. To provide historical perspective, Schreiber goes on to quote a prominent conservative women’s movement advocate who, when asked why conservative women felt the need to specifically form a women’s organization so many years ago, responded that they felt that feminism/feminists didn’t speak to them or about their interests and so they were going to speak to – and for – the majority of women for whom feminism did not. It’s an old refrain that is always new: feminists are just a small, radical group speaking to a small, radical group of rabid women. 

The interview, as well as exceprts from Schreiber’s book on NPR’s web site, provide a fascinating look into what the conservative women’s movement is trying to do by organizing conservative women in opposition to the policies, rhetoric and overall belief system feminism has pushed for decades. But what I find most interesting is that so many of the hard fought and won battles by feminists against stifling women’s autonomy and restricting equality allow for ultra-conservative women like Sarah Palin to attain the level of success she has. The conflict inherent in a conservative women’s movement is that it’s a backwards looking movement that wants to overturn progressive policies and roll back the tremendous gains made by feminists for all women in this country and beyond. 

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In an excerpt from Schreiber’s book, she writes:

Notwithstanding political losses since the 1970s, feminists have greatly transformed the social, economic, and political landscape for women by helping to increase the number of women in public office, changing beliefs about gender roles, and pushing for legislation aimed at improving women’s lives. For example, in both the legislative and judicial arenas, feminist accomplishments include Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in 1973; the passage of Title IX, which promotes equity for women and girls in federally funded institutions; implementation of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which guarantees unpaid family leave to new parents and caregivers; and the procurement of significant federal funding for women’s health issues, especially breast cancer.

Schreiber also notes that:

CWA and IWF oppose a number of these specific policy achievements, but must acknowledge on some level that many women feel that they have benefited from these efforts. These ardent opponents of feminism are compelled to make sense of their opponents’ accomplishments, while simultaneously discrediting them as representatives of women’s interests. If they fail to carry out this task, they will lose the ability to reach out to women who do not identify with any women’s organization, but who want policy solutions that address the stresses in their lives. Moreover, the organizations must demonstrate why their perspectives differ from and are more credible than those of feminists. This tension must be accounted for when trying to understand the strategies that CWA and IWF employ as they strive to be taken seriously as groups that represent women’s interests.

There is tension not only between these conservative women’s organizations and feminism but between the conservative women’s organizations and the larger conservative movement. In fact, Sarah Palin, as noted above has angered the ever more conservative and ultra-religious movement, members of which do not believe that women should be working outside the home, let alone acting as political leaders. 

And yet. 

Sarah Palin may represent a tremendous step forward for women long term in ways that one might not imagine. As women attain higher levels of leadership and more powerful positions, conservative women or otherwise, it will be more and more difficult for the larger far right, conservative movement to deny women’s equality and autonomy. In turn this can only mean that it will be harder to continue to oppress women in the ways in which women have been oppressed – and this includes denying women’s rights to bodily autonomy, an inherent human right that must be present for women’s true equality.

The conservative women’s movement’s agenda may seem oxymoronic to a degree in that it generally encourages policies and behavior that do nothing to lift up the status of women in this country or balance the scales of equality between men and women. However, Senator McCain did chose a female running mate in order to at least superficially (if one is cynical or not Republican) speak to women voters; to let American women know that he cares about women’s issues. Sarah Palin has allowed this country the opportunity to examine just what it is that women do need and want from our policies and our politicians in order to improve our lives and the lives of our families. 

Ronnee Schreiber says, in the interview with Gross, that Michelle Bernard, the head of the conservative Independent Women’s Forum published an article immediately after Palin was picked as McCain’s running mate. The title of which was, according to Schreiber, something along the lines of "Palin is Everywoman." That may pain some women who consider themselves tried and true feminists. But it also may be that a conservative women’s movement, Sarah Palin, feminism and all women have more in common than we like to think.

Sometimes a woman is just a woman. 

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