Rebecca Traister wrote last week about Sarah Palin’s recent use of the F-word and the feminist response. Traister points out that as feminism has no clear platform, it “does not make for great sound bites” and is therefore up for grabs—even (or especially) by the right, which loves to lay claim to empty signifiers in order to rally the faithful.
“What we are talking about is a battle over language. And the left — perhaps because of a commitment to expressing a considered, thoughtful take on issues or perhaps because we are pansies — does not have a winning history when it comes to battles over language.”
It’s true that progressives’ appreciation of complexity, uncertainty, and nuance makes us thoughtful people but poor soldiers in the language war. I’m particularly interested in Traister’s critique of the word, “choice”—and I find myself agreeing with her:
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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“Years ago, women’s rights activists ceded words that tied reproductive freedom to life and morality and were left with the limp language of”choice” – a word so fungible that it is now used to stamp everything from getting an abortion to getting a boob job as a “feminist” act. It’s the very word that is being used as a weapon by conservative women who not unreasonably wonder why, according to the language to which feminists cling, their “choices” to support gun rights and religious teaching in schools are less valid than the “choices” of their feminist counterparts.”
If “choice” is problematic, then perhaps a better place to start is “freedom.” Because, indeed, Sarah Palin has touted her own kind of choice: the choice to pursue an ambitious career in politics while raising children, the choice to give birth late in life, the choice to extract oil at the expense of her home state’s ecology. Her most famous daughter then made her own choices: the choice to be a single mom, and the very interesting and perhaps half-thought-out choice to make at least an overture towards comprehensive sex education. Bristol’s messaging was quickly retooled after February 2009, and we heard not a word more from her against abstinence. But that moment of mild chaos illustrates the power in the idea of choice, as feminists have traditionally used the word: the right to do what you believe to be best for yourself, and to define yourself how you wish, even if it’s not how your mother defined herself or if it doesn’t jive with what your mother believes. This kind of choice is always in line with freedom, with flexibility and adaptability, which make wisdom possible.
Imposing a minority-held religious belief on children in public schools (because the people who tend to push religion in schools are not “mainstream” Christians at all), or claiming that respect for life must include bans on abortion but exclude social welfare programs or health care—these “choices” compromise freedom. It is Sarah Palin’s choice to have as many children as she wants; it is not her choice to tell other women whether or not they can.
I’d also like to zero in on Traister’s claim that the feminist movement long ago “ceded” the language of morality. I’m not sure if she’s right, but I do know that right-wingers seem to think they own this language. But I think this might be changing (particularly with the passage of health care reform, which at least began to link moral rhetoric with progressive legislation). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the left can take back morality, and it should, and soon. Before Sarah Palin steals our NOW buttons.