Sarah Palin’s Great Feminist Magic Trick

Amie Newman

Sarah Palin is rallying conservative women around the country to unify around her special brand of feminism. But it's feminism's cheap knock-off and it doesn't exactly withstand the test of - well - anything.

Sarah Palin is the latest in a string of conservative women and equally conservative advocacy organizations (“Feminists for Life”) to wrap themselves in the amazing technicolor coat of feminism. In a Washington Post article on Palin’s feminism grab, the writer notes:

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin told a group of women who oppose abortion rights that they are responsible for an “emerging, conservative, feminist identity” and have the power to shape politics and elections around the issue.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing underneath the flashy coat Palin and her fellow “emerging, conservative feminists” are wearing (unfortunately, at least, for the majority of women and girls in this country who are counting on real change in the form of equality. If the idea of Palin baring all under a multi-colored robe excites you, I can offer you nothing more at this point than a farewell). And though the co-opting of “feminism” as a movement is worthy of analysis, why should we be surprised? Sarah Palin is nothing if not a savvy strategist and she’s keyed into a brilliant strategy: her base of supporters is her “Sisterhood” and she’s ready to rally them. As Jessica Valenti writes in her satisfyingly on-point Washington Post article entitled “The fake feminism of Sarah Palin”,

It’s not a realization of the importance of women’s rights that’s inspired the change. It’s strategy. Palin’s sisterly speechifying is part of a larger conservative move to woo women by appropriating feminist language. Just as consumer culture tries to sell “Girls Gone Wild”-style sexism as “empowerment,” conservatives are trying to sell anti-women policies shrouded in pro-women rhetoric.

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There is nothing new about Sarah Palin as a feminist. Not only is it likely that most people see Sarah Palin as a feminist already, she was rockin’ the feminism boat while she campaigned for Vice President. Sure, she’s anti-choice, and has done nothing noteworthy related to actual grassroots or political advocacy for women’s equality and in fact has actively worked to limit women’s choices. But Palin is a strong, independent, extremely successful woman who balances career and family – the world is her oyster and the women’s movement would want this for any and all women.

Obviously, conservative, Republican and independent women can be – and are –  feminists in some senses of the word. Many are successful professionals or are firmly seeded in the outside-the-home working world as the breadwinners in the family, some take advantage of maternity or paternity leave so that they can be both professional and parent, most have access to – and use – contraception that allows them to make choices about their reproductive lives, maybe they even run for Vice President of the United States having walked the path forged by the feminists who came before them.

But here’s where I get tripped up with the “feminism” Sarah Palin and her ilk are peddling. Women in the United States, on the whole, are looking for change in the form of equality and justice, says the National Women’s Law Center:

When women volunteer the most important issues facing American women today, they are most likely to cite: health care issues (including women’s health issues); pay for women and the issue of equal pay; opportunities for women in the work place; education; child care issues; and women’s rights in general.

Regardless of age, income, and education, more than half of women (55%) feel that the government should do more to solve problems and help meet people’s needs.

But how does Palin’s idea of “feminism” address answers to these obvious problems? Feminism, for Palin and her sisterhood, isn’t related to the long line of veteran women who came before them who broke barriers in the workplace, in the military, on the home-front. It isn’t about healthcare for undocumented immigrant women. It isn’t about the women (and men) who work every day to ensure access to the safe contraceptive methods that allow them to plan for their families. It isn’t about the feminists who have (and continue to) work towards pay equity for all women so our hundreds and thousands of women in the workforce, especially those single mothers, are paid fairly for the work they do. It’s not about recognizing how hard the women’s movement has worked to raise awareness of issues around sexual assault, domestic violence and rape. It’s not about the work of women’s rights advocates on behalf of women globally who are dying during pregnancy and childbirth. And, of course, it most certainly is not related to the feminists who have and do work daily to ensure access to safe, legal abortion care. As Valenti writes,

It isn’t a structural analysis of patriarchal norms, power dynamics or systemic inequities. It’s an empty rallying call to women who are disdainful of or apathetic to women’s rights, who want to make abortion and emergency contraception illegal, who would cut funding to the Violence Against Women Act and who fight same-sex marriage rights. As Kate Harding wrote on “What comes next? ‘Phyllis Schlafly feminism?’ ‘Patriarchal feminism?’ ‘He-Man Woman Hater Feminism?’ “

No. This is the feminism of conservatives – it’s akin to the, “I raised myself up by my own bootstraps and so can you.” The “I didn’t get any help from (chose one): welfare, affirmative action, government funded health care” and so therefore neither should you. It’s the “I decided not to have an abortion when I find out I was carrying a baby with Down’s Syndrome and so you shouldn’t be allowed to have the freedom to make the decision that’s best for you” type of feminism (never mind that Palin had the free choice to decide her fate and the fate of her child- without government interference and with much greater than average resources at her disposal.)

Somehow the statistics that provide us evidence (One in four girls drops out of high school. More than 14 million women live in poverty, and more than 17 million women have no health insurance. Women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar paid to men) that women and girls are in desperate need of an immense overhaul of societal and governmental structures, bypass conservative feminists completely.

What’s more, when the problems are allowed to make it into their line of vision, conservatives blame them squarely on the traditional feminist movement:

Palin, whose teenage daughter Bristol is also a mother, criticized abortion rights advocates for delivering the message to young women that they don’t have the strength to go through with pregnancy and motherhood.

“Our prominent woman sisterhood is telling these young women that they are strong enough to deal with this,” Palin said.

“They can give their child life, in addition to pursuing career and education and avocations. Society wants to tell these young women otherwise. These feminist groups want to tell these women that, ‘No, you’re not capable of doing both.’ . . . It’s very hypocritical.”

With a few well-worded phrases, Palin simply wipes away decades of sweat, toil and hard work and instead reworks feminism as a movement that limits women’s choices instead of expanding them.

Sarah Palin and her supporters choose to ignore, then, the millions of young, teen mothers who have no access to quality prenatal care, no access to quality childbirth services, limited financial resources, limited or no access to public schooling, and limited or no access to a job that would allow them the paid or unpaid maternity leave to care for their babies. But, again, this is a conservatism that falls back on an astounding lack of empathy, believing that the options, choices and opportunities available to oneself are automatically available to others – and if they aren’t, it’s only through the fault of those who do not have them.

Perhaps the most amazing part of Sarah Palin’s feminist rallying cry is related to abortion access. Palin was particularly passionate about her “feminism” at a gathering for the Susan B. Anthony List – a group that works to elect anti-choice politicians. They are so named because some believe that Anthony’s stance on abortion was akin to the anti-choice movement’s political stance today.  It is an unbelievably courageous and arrogant co-opting of one of the most admired women’s rights advocates in U.S. history. Anthony hardly was an anti-abortion advocate and there is, in fact, what amounts to zero evidence that she would be opposed to safe, legal abortion today. Not only is there no evidence to support Anthony’s opposition to legal abortion, there is no evidence to support Anthony’s opposition to abortion, period, in this day and age.

So, then, Sarah Palin’s faux-feminism is what cubic zirconia is to diamonds. It’s cheaply produced, low-quality counterpart. For women who want a feminism peddled by Palin, any sort of concrete advocacy or legislative action eludes them. Will Palin’s feminism translate into support for and action on behalf of the Global MOMS Act to improve maternal health? The International Violence Against Women Act? Action to eliminate environmental hazards for pregnant women and children? Will Sarah Palin and her feminist “sisters” work to ensure expanded access to contraception and high-quality, affordable childcare? Prenatal care for all women? Will they advocate for legislation that would help pull women and their families out of poverty? Will they step up and speak out when the Vatican launches an “investigation into the proliferation of feminism and activism” amongst Nuns? Will Sarah Palin and her conservative, feminist sisterhood respond to Pat Robertson’s claims that “feminism…encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians?” Or is this not quite the type of feminism they were hoping for?

There are some for whom the word feminist means very little – though women of every economic and social strata, ethnicity and race, religion and age align themselves with the idea that (and desperately want to see) women have the right to equity, equality and justice. There is a hesitancy, at times, to embrace the feminist label completely. There are also many who do not see their priorities adequately represented by the more mainstream feminist organizations. What would be most refreshing, then, would be to see Palin’s grab for “feminism” provide the spark to feminists to evaluate just how the women’s movement can become that much more enticing and relevant to the women and men of this country who fall firmly on the side of equity and justice for all– not just those women and girls conservative, Republican women believe “deserve” them. Sarah Palin’s brand of feminism is just that – a branded ploy, behind which there is nothing more than a wink and a smile.

News Politics

Anti-Choice Democrats: ‘Open The Big Tent’ for Us

Christine Grimaldi & Ally Boguhn

“Make room for pro-life Democrats and invite pro-life, progressive independents back to the party to focus on the right to parent and ways to help women in crisis or unplanned pregnancies have more choices than abortion,” the group said in a report unveiled to allies at the event, including Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates and the press.

Democrats for Life of America gathered Wednesday in Philadelphia during the party’s convention to honor Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) for his anti-choice viewpoints, and to strategize ways to incorporate their policies into the party.

The group attributed Democratic losses at the state and federal level to the party’s increasing embrace of pro-choice politics. The best way for Democrats to reclaim seats in state houses, governors’ offices, and the U.S. Congress, they charged, is to “open the big tent” to candidates who oppose legal abortion care.

“Make room for pro-life Democrats and invite pro-life, progressive independents back to the party to focus on the right to parent and ways to help women in crisis or unplanned pregnancies have more choices than abortion,” the group said in a report unveiled to allies at the event, including Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates and the press.

Democrats for Life of America members repeatedly attempted to distance themselves from Republicans, reiterating their support for policies such as Medicaid expansion and paid maternity leave, which they believe could convince people to carry their pregnancies to term.

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Their strategy, however, could have been lifted directly from conservatives’ anti-choice playbook.

The group relies, in part, on data from Marist, a group associated with anti-choice polling, to suggest that many in the party side with them on abortion rights. Executive Director Kristen Day could not explain to Rewire why the group supports a 20-week abortion ban, while Janet Robert, president of the group’s board of directors, trotted out scientifically false claims about fetal pain

Day told Rewire that she is working with pro-choice Democrats, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, both from New York, on paid maternity leave. Day said she met with DeLauro the day before the group’s event.

Day identifies with Democrats despite a platform that for the first time embraces the repeal of restrictions for federal funding of abortion care. 

“Those are my people,” she said.

Day claimed to have been “kicked out of the pro-life movement” for supporting the Affordable Care Act. She said Democrats for Life of America is “not opposed to contraception,” though the group filed an amicus brief in U.S. Supreme Court cases on contraception. 

Democrats for Life of America says it has important allies in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Sens. Joe Donnelly (IN), Joe Manchin (WV), and Rep. Dan Lipinski (IL), along with former Rep. Bart Stupak (MI), serve on the group’s board of advisors, according to literature distributed at the convention.

Another alleged ally, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), came up during Edwards’ speech. Edwards said he had discussed the award, named for Casey’s father, former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey, the defendant in the landmark Supreme Court decision, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which opened up a flood of state-level abortions restrictions as long as those anti-choice policies did not represent an “undue burden.”

“Last night I happened to have the opportunity to speak to Sen. Bob Casey, and I told him … I was in Philadelphia, receiving this award today named after his father,” Edwards said.

The Louisiana governor added that though it may not seem it, there are many more anti-choice Democrats like the two of them who aren’t comfortable coming forward about their views.

“I’m telling you there are many more people out there like us than you might imagine,” Edwards said. “But sometimes it’s easier for those folks who feel like we do on these issues to remain silent because they’re not going to  be questioned, and they’re not going to be receiving any criticism.”

During his speech, Edwards touted the way he has put his views as an anti-choice Democrat into practice in his home state. “I am a proud Democrat, and I am also very proudly pro-life,” Edwards told the small gathering.

Citing his support for Medicaid expansion in Louisiana—which went into effect July 1—Edwards claimed he had run on an otherwise “progressive” platform except for when it came to abortion rights, adding that his policies demonstrate that “there is a difference between being anti-abortion and being pro-life.”

Edwards later made clear that he was disappointed with news that Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock, whose organization works to elect pro-choice women to office, was being considered to fill the position of party chair in light of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation.

“It wouldn’t” help elect anti-choice politicians to office, said Edwards when asked about it by a reporter. “I don’t want to be overly critical, I don’t know the person, I just know that the signal that would send to the country—and to Democrats such as myself—would just be another step in the opposite direction of being a big tent party [on abortion].” 

Edwards made no secret of his anti-choice viewpoints during his run for governor in 2015. While on the campaign trail, he released a 30-second ad highlighting his wife’s decision not to terminate her pregnancy after a doctor told the couple their daughter would have spina bifida.

He received a 100 percent rating from anti-choice organization Louisiana Right to Life while running for governor, based off a scorecard asking him questions such as, “Do you support the reversal of Roe v. Wade?”

Though the Democratic Party platform and nominee have voiced the party’s support for abortion rights, Edwards has forged ahead with signing numerous pieces of anti-choice legislation into law, including a ban on the commonly used dilation and evacuation (D and E) procedure, and an extension of the state’s abortion care waiting period from 24 hours to 72 hours.

Commentary Economic Justice

The Gender Wage Gap Is Not Women’s Fault, and Here’s the Report That Proves It

Kathleen Geier

The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work.

A new report confirms what millions of women already know: that women’s choices are not to blame for the gender wage gap. Instead, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the progressive think tank that issued the report, say that women’s unequal pay is driven by “discrimination, social norms, and other factors beyond women’s control.”

This finding—that the gender pay gap is caused by structural factors rather than women’s occupational choices—is surprisingly controversial. Indeed, in my years as a journalist covering women’s economic issues, the subject that has been most frustrating for me to write about has been the gender gap. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a consultant for EPI, though not on this particular report.) No other economic topic I’ve covered has been more widely misunderstood, or has been so outrageously distorted by misrepresentations, half-truths, and lies.

That’s because, for decades, conservatives have energetically promoted the myth that the gender pay gap does not exist. They’ve done such a bang-up job of it that denying the reality of the gap, like denying the reality of global warming, has become an article of faith on the right. Conservative think tanks like the Independent Women’s Forum and the American Enterprise Institute and right-wing writers at outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Breitbart, and the Daily Caller have denounced the gender pay gap as “a lie,” “not the real story,” “a fairy tale,” “a statistical delusion,” and “the myth that won’t die.” Sadly, it is not only right-wing propagandists who are gender wage gap denialists. Far more moderate types like Slate’s Hanna Rosin and the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson have also claimed that the gender wage gap statistic is misleading and exaggerates disparities in earnings.

According to the most recent figures available from the Census Bureau, for every dollar a man makes, a woman makes only 79 cents, a statistic that has barely budged in a decade. And that’s just the gap for women overall; for most women of color, it’s considerably larger. Black women earn only 61 percent of what non-Hispanic white men make, and Latinas earn only 55 percent as much. In a recent survey, U.S. women identified the pay gap as their biggest workplace concern. Yet gender wage gap denialists of a variety of political stripes contend that gender gap statistic—which measures the difference in median annual earnings between men and women who work full-time, year-round—is inaccurate because it does not compare the pay of men and women doing the same work. They argue that when researchers control for traits like experience, type of work, education, and the like, the gender gap evaporates like breath on a window. In short, the denialists frame the gender pay gap as the product not of sexist discrimination, but of women’s freely made choices.

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The EPI study’s co-author, economist Elise Gould, said in an interview with Rewire that she and her colleagues realized the need for the new report when an earlier paper generated controversy on social media. That study had uncovered an “unadjusted”—meaning that it did not control for differences in workplace and personal characteristics—$4 an hour gender wage gap among recent college graduates. Gould said she found this pay disparity “astounding”: “You’re looking at two groups of people, men and women, with virtually the same amount of experience, and yet their wages are so different.” But critics on Twitter, she said, claimed that the wage gap simply reflected the fact that women were choosing lower-paid jobs. “So we wanted to take out this one idea of occupational choice and look at that,” Gould said.

Gould and her co-author Jessica Schieder highlight two important findings in their EPI report. One is that, even within occupations, and even after controlling for observable factors such as education and work experience, the gender wage gap remains stubbornly persistent. As Gould told me, “If you take a man and a woman sitting side by side in a cubicle, doing the same exact job with the same amount of experience and the same amount of education, on average, the man is still going to be paid more than the woman.”

The EPI report cites the work of Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who looked at the relative weight in the overall wage gap of gender-based pay differences within occupations versus those between occupations. She found that while gender pay disparities between different occupations explain 32 percent of the gap, pay differences within the same occupation account for far more—68 percent, or more than twice as much. In other words, even if we saw equal numbers of men and women in every profession, two-thirds of the gender wage gap would still remain.

And yes, female-dominated professions pay less, but the reasons why are difficult to untangle. It’s a chicken-and-egg phenomenon, the EPI report explains, raising the question: Are women disproportionately nudged into low-status, low-wage occupations, or do these occupations pay low wages simply because it is women who are doing the work?

Historically, “women’s work” has always paid poorly. As scholars such as Paula England have shown, occupations that involve care work, for example, are associated with a wage penalty, even after controlling for other factors. But it’s not only care work that is systematically devalued. So, too, is work in other fields where women workers are a majority—even professions that were not initially dominated by women. The EPI study notes that when more women became park rangers, for example, overall pay in that occupation declined. Conversely, as computer programming became increasingly male-dominated, wages in that sector began to soar.

The second major point that Gould and Schieder emphasize is that a woman’s occupational choice does not occur in a vacuum. It is powerfully shaped by forces like discrimination and social norms. “By the time a woman earns her first dollar, her occupational choice is the culmination of years of education, guidance by mentors, parental expectations, hiring practices, and widespread norms and expectations about work/family balance,” Gould told Rewire. One study cited by Gould and Schieder found that in states where traditional attitudes about gender are more prevalent, girls tend to score higher in reading and lower in math, relative to boys. It’s one of many findings demonstrating that cultural attitudes wield a potent influence on women’s achievement. (Unfortunately, the EPI study does not address racism, xenophobia, or other types of bias that, like sexism, shape individuals’ work choices.)

Parental expectations also play a key role in shaping women’s occupational choices. Research reflected in the EPI study shows that parents are more likely to expect their sons to enter male-dominated science, technology, engineering, and math (often called STEM) fields, as opposed to their daughters. This expectation holds even when their daughters score just as well in math.

Another factor is the culture in male-dominated industries, which can be a huge turn-off to women, especially women of color. In one study of women working in science and technology, Latinas and Black women reported that they were often mistaken for janitors—something that none of the white women in the study had experienced. Another found that 52 percent of highly qualified women working in science and technology ended up leaving those fields, driven out by “hostile work environments and extreme job pressures.”

Among those pressures are excessively long hours, which make it difficult to balance careers with unpaid care work, for which women are disproportionately responsible. Goldin’s research, Gould said, shows that “in jobs that have more temporal flexibility instead of inflexibility and long hours, you do see a smaller gender wage gap.” Women pharmacists, for example, enjoy relatively high pay and a narrow wage gap, which Goldin has linked to flexible work schedules and a professional culture that enables work/life balance. By contrast, the gender pay gap is widest in highest-paying fields such as finance, which disproportionately reward those able to work brutally long hours and be on call 24/7.

Fortunately, remedies for the gender wage gap are at hand. Gould said that strong enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, greater wage transparency (which can be achieved through unions and collective bargaining), and more flexible workplace policies would all help to alleviate gender-based pay inequities. Additional solutions include raising the minimum wage, which would significantly boost the pay of the millions of women disproportionately concentrated in the low-wage sector, and enacting paid family leave, a policy that would be a boon for women struggling to combine work and family. All of these issues are looming increasingly large in our national politics.

But in order to advance these policies, it’s vital to debunk the right’s shameless, decades-long disinformation campaign about the gender gap. The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work. The right alleges that the official gender pay gap figure exaggerates the role of discrimination. But even statistics that adjust for occupation and other factors can, in the words of the EPI study, “radically understate the potential for gender discrimination to suppress women’s earnings.”

Contrary to conservatives’ claims, women did not choose to be paid consistently less than men for work that is every bit as valuable to society. But with the right set of policies, we can reverse the tide and bring about some measure of economic justice to the hard-working women of the United States.