The Washington Post has an article up today entitled "Ideology Aside, This Has Been the Year of the Woman." Normally, I might brush that kind of a title off as insulting. Haven’t women always been here? But this time, I’d say they couldn’t be more right.
Hillary Clinton became the first female in the history of the United States to make it as far as she did in a U.S. presidential campaign. Sarah Palin has the potential to shatter the glass ceiling for women should she become the first female Vice President.
And whether one supported Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama on the Democratic side prior to the nomination, most understood and were energized by the revolutionary nature of the moment: an African American male and a Caucasian female were running against each other for the Democratic nomination.
I’ve said this before but I feel strongly that regardless of whether Sarah Palin labels herself a feminist or not, her presence on the Republican ticket is a tremendous step forward for feminism and for all women. Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women agrees:
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Although she finds the Alaska governor’s views on issues critical to women "a disappointment," Gandy said in an interview that she believes it’s important for her own teenage daughters "to see women competing at the highest levels of American politics."
Governor Palin has been on record over the last several weeks alternately claiming the feminist label and shrugging it off. And that may be understandable. Even within the sphere of progressive women activists, there is debate about what feminism is, what it stands for and whether or not the term "feminist" is one to claim or throw away. Why should Governor Palin be any different?
Interestingly, though, the central debate about feminism in The Washington Post article focuses on access to legal abortion. And this is where the sand in the line is being drawn. For many progressive women, it seems inconceivable that women can stand up proudly and loudly for women’s rights while simultaneously actively working to curb reproductive rights for women.
I’m not talking about personally taking a stance that you would never choose to have an abortion nor would you counsel others to do so either. I’m talking about groups like "Feminists for Life" who actively champion an anti-choice agendas that includes increasing services for female college students who are mothers while campaigning to take away other womens’ rights to access legal abortion.
The president of the Independent Women’s Forum, one of the conservative women’s organization mentioned in the article that among other things: opposes gay rights, argues that Title IX has been wrongly applied, and opposes universal pre-K education for children, has asked, "Is there a big enough tent — can we all find the common ground in the push for women’s rights regardless of women’s position on abortion?"
According to the Post article:
In recent years, vocal groups such as IWF and Feminists for Life have stepped forward to fight the perception that only liberal women can be in favor of equality and independence. By calling herself a feminist — once considered a dirty word by the religious right — Palin proclaimed that feminism is no longer synonymous with liberalism but something that could be shared and celebrated by all women.
The problem with the above is that many women question the credentials of such groups and individuals like Governor Palin when, in addition to working to restrict access to reproductive health services said organizations and individuals strive to retain a certain status quo that does not acknowledge the multi-layered, in-depth levels of oppression for women in this country.
Governor Palin is running as VP to a man who opposes legislation to equalize pay for women and men engaged in comparable jobs. The Independent Women’s Forum calls the gender gap in salaries "fiction." Governor Palin has not acknowledged why the town of Wasilla continued to charge women for their rape kits nor why Senator McCain voted two times against Senator Biden’s Violence Against Women Act, the single most comprehensive piece of legislation in the area of violence against women ever enacted in this country. The Independent Women’s Forum has also voiced opposition to VAWA saying "it is not helpful to assault victims, gives too much authority to the government, is based on exaggerated claims of domestic violence and is being used by feminists as part of an ideological war against men."
On the other hand, Feminists for Life, despite their strong anti-choice mission and activities, takes a supportive view on equal pay and actively opposing violence against women.
The question then is not "what is feminist"? But "what is good for women"? Clearly, even among the conservative women’s movement there is diversity of thought and opinion. For progressive women, access to a full range of reproductive health care including abortion, contraception, family planning, comprehensive sex ed, affordable preventative care including HIV and other STI prevention, are critical not just to attain equality for women but to save women’s lives.
Ultimately, while the article sets up a dichotomy between conservative women and feminists and grounds the differences in where we stand on abortion access, the article fails to acknowledge that abortion access is not a "feminist" political football – it’s a medical necessity with the full support of almost every single global and domestic health and rights organization in the world. With the World Health Organization and every major mainstream medical organization in this country and globally in support of legal abortion access, family planning and contraception, and HIV prevention education and tools for women (and men) as critical public health tools, the argument is not about whether or not we can all be feminists and simply agree to disagree but whether we value womens’ health and lives enough to free them from government control over their bodies and listen to the medical community.
Despite Governor Palin’s presence yielding hundreds, if not thousands, of articles in some of the world’s most well known publications including The Washington Post article, the most persuasive evidence for me, for why Palin’s campaign has been beneficial for women is that we finally see a fascinating woman being parodied on Saturday Night Live that isn’t the wife of a candidate or a background figure. It may sound ridiculous but, truly, you know women have attained a level of equality in this country when we are made fun of just like the guys.