by Melody Thomas
I‘m a feminist.
There, I said it. I’m a feminist.
Despite the fact that I have been a passionate advocate for gender equality since I learned what that was, I have not until now ever managed to call myself a feminist. I think in part that’s to do with the stereotype I must associate myself with in adopting the title. In talking to a friend recently about the importance of gender equality this (very intelligent) man told me feminism has no place in modern times and that angry, hairy, anti-men women were bringing about negative repercussions for males (“which is revenge, not equality”). This comment may have made me splutter up my coffee but it did not motivate me to claim the title for myself, which would immediately have gone some distance towards disproving his theory as I am not overly hairy, I love many men and I love to laugh (although if there’s one thing that’ll turn me into an angry feminist it’s being told feminism’s no longer required.)
And if I’m going to be completely honest, the other reason I’ve never said it before is I’m scared there’s going to be some older, wiser, more deeply-entrenched feminist within earshot who will then proceed to point out that I cannot possibly be a feminist considering my many anti-feminist behaviours. For example, I care a lot about how I look (to my own detriment). I sometimes pass time on a site called thesuperficial.com (“because you’re ugly”) where scathing, anti-women rhetoric runs wild next to upskirt images and celebs in their underwear (oh how embarassing). Recently I had a 36-comment facebook argument with a friend when he commented on the announcement of Julia Gillard as Australian Prime Minister that she at least had some masculine traits, such as her entire face. Two days later I committed an act that is potentially as bad, posting a picture of Sarah Palin and John McCain on a stage, taken from an angle where it looks like she’s giving him oral sex (although I’m still adamant that if it’d been George Bush bending over I would have had as much delight in sharing the image, but still). So I’m half scared of being thrown into a box with all the (imaginary) hairy, screeching feminist banshees and half scared of being thrown out of the box by them. You can see how this is an awkward predicament.
So what is it that has caused me to suddenly grab hold of the feminist crown and staple it to my head? It’s the news that the aforementioned Sarah Palin is a feminist. A “conservative feminist.” And not the only one at that.
Although it depends who she’s talking to (with CBS’s Katie Couric she was one, with NBC’s Brian Williams she didn’t want to take the label) Palin recently spoke to conservative pro-life group the Susan B. Anthony List (click for video on youtube)), addressing her “pro-woman sisterhood” with a speech overflowing in feminist rhetoric, using the “f” word and its variations at least a dozen times.
To put this claim into context you should know what the Susan B. Anthony List is. Susan B. Anthony was one of the USA’s Kate Sheppards – a suffragette at the front of the women’s movement in the 19th century. Membership of the group that takes her name consists of over 280, 000 Americans whose central agenda is advancing “pro-life” education and legislation. The following is from their mission list at sba-list.org:
“The Susan B. Anthony List’s mission is at the nerve center of the pro-life movement and political process. Advancing, mobilizing and representing pro-life women directly contradicts the claim that abortion is a woman’s right and the premise that abortion somehow liberates women. To accomplish our ultimate goal of ending abortion in this country, we know that activating more pro-life women in the political and legislative arenas is critical”
One thing that should be noted before we dig deeper is that the term “pro-life” is a controversial one, and a great example of what’s called “political framing”. Politically framed terms (not just “pro-life” but also “pro-choice”) purposefully attempt to define their philosophies in the best possible light while simultaneously describing their opposition in the worst possible light. So the term “pro-life” sets up the alternate viewpoint as “pro-death” or “anti-life”, while “pro-choice” frames the opposition as “anti-choice”.
The implication that those who oppose the “pro-choice” cry are “anti-choice” isn’t too hard for me to stomach. That’s because those who oppose pro-choice feminists are blatantly rooting for anti-abortion legislature, which to me is very much anti-choice. The implication that opposers of “pro-life” philosophies are “pro-death” or “anti-life” however is not so easy to stomach. As Gloria Steinem put it recently to CBS’s Katie Couric “Yes you can be a feminist who doesn’t agree with abortion, would never have an abortion, but you can’t be a feminist who says that other women can’t.”
And yet Palin has managed to take from this dialogue something very different than what I have. In her Susan B. Anthony List address, Palin went as far as to say that “liberal feminist groups … want to try to tell women… that no, you’re not capable of doing both. You can’t give your child life and still pursue career and education. You’re not strong enough. You’re not capable…”
I’m not sure where she got idea from but I’m pretty sure it’s founded in nothing resembling fact. Try as I might I can’t see how legislature legalising abortion as a choice for women who find themselves in unwanted pregnancies equates to telling them they’re not capable of juggling motherhood and a career. The hyperbole gets more confusing when Palin goes on to state that pro-life groups are all about “…empowering women, letting them understand that yeah there’s gonna be some help, some support and resources out there for you in order to give your child life.”
Aside from the fact that Sarah Palin forgot to mention here that in 2008 she used a line-item veto to “ slash funding for a state program benefiting teen mothers in need of a place to live “, Palin’s argument for pro-choice legislation seems to go something like this:
1) Liberal, pro-choice feminists are telling women they’re not capable of having babies while pursuing careers and education.
2) Pro-life, conservative feminists think you are capable of being both mother and career woman.
3) But not capable of making that decision for yourself.
Typically, the legal right to choose an abortion is very important for feminists. It represents a greater concept – the right to bodily autonomy. Most definitions of autonomy carry words like “independent”, “self-governing” and “self-directed” – so the right to bodily autonomy is basically the right to decide for yourself what you want to do with your self. Inside the feminist frame this also carries comparative connotations – I personally can’t think of any legislation that dictates what men can do with their bodies but anti-abortion legislation is blatantly doing so for women.
In terms of autonomy Palin’s argument is a direct contradiction. I just can’t buy the argument that women who would consider or go through with an abortion aren’t smart enough to make their own decisions, whereas the women who would decide for them that they cannot, are.
The arguments of most pro-lifers are often bulked up with statements about the negative side-effects of abortion – from research that suggests a link between abortion and breast cancer to a general “wounding of the soul” to the symptoms of guilt, hostility and sexual dysfunction related to post-abortion syndrome. The trouble is, there seems to be little scientific evidence that post-abortion syndrome exists. In fact in 2008, the American Psychological Association rejected the term outright, stating that:)
“The most methodologically sound research indicates that among women who have a single, legal, first-trimester abortion of an unplanned pregnancy for nontherapeutic reasons, the relative risks of mental health problems are no greater than the risks among women who deliver an unplanned pregnancy.” (note: “non-therapeutic here means voluntary”)
” The prevalence of mental health problems observed among those women “was consistent with normative rates of comparable mental health problems in the general population of women in the United States.”
The report does acknowledge that of course periods of grief or sadness, sometimes even clinical depression and anxiety, can follow an abortion but that the correlation is unclear – “following” does not equal “caused by.” Factors that seem to predispose women to a greater degree of emotional fallout seem to be termination of a wanted pregnancy, pressure from others to end the pregnancy and a desire to keep the termination secret due to stigma attached to abortion. A study published in 2000 revealed that two years after the procedure, 72 percent of the women surveyed were satisfied with their decision to have an abortion, 69 percent said they would have the abortion again, and 72 percent reported more benefit than harm from their abortion. The small proportion of women who did experience problems also tended to have a prior history of depression.
Aside form the direct effects of the procedure itself, there is abundant research that shows the horrible circumstances women find themselves in when abortion is made illegal. History shows time and time again that women have always tried to terminate unwanted pregnancies. When safe medical procedures are banned by law, women resort to more dangerous methods. Before the Roe v. Wade US Supreme Court Decision in 1973 decriminalised abortion in the US, millions of women were seeking and attaining abortions anyway. A 1932 study estimated that illegal abortions and their complications were responsible for the deaths of 15,000 women each year (although more current, conservative estimates put this number at 5-10,000). The legalisation of abortion following the Roe v. Wade decision led to a near elimination of deaths associated with the procedure – with the mortality rate dropping from 4.1% to 0.6% between 1973 and 1997.
In addition to all this, Palin is one of the extreme pro-lifers who assert that abortion is only acceptable if the pregnancy threatens the mothers life and is not an acceptable option even in cases of unwanted pregnancy from rape and incest. She has refused to answer questions regarding the hypothetical situation where an 11/12/13 year old girl might fall pregnant after being raped by her father, which may be an extreme example but is not completely unrealistic.
The scariest part about all this for me is that Palin is a popular woman in the US, and one who is considering running for US President in 2012. Palin has a whole army of men and women lapping up her “feminist” rhetoric without realising her selection of the term is a political strategy and her “pro-woman” facade hides hefty anti-woman policy. Palin’s fans and endorsers include bloggers (like fellow “conservative feminist” Lori Ziganto, whose motto is, “Walk softly. But carry a big lipstick”, and who has asserted her relief in Palin taking the feminist title because she’s at least easier on the eyes than the “irksome hysterical screeching … already irrelevant and soon to be extinct” liberal feminists , fellow political candidates, “grizzly Moms” and women who’ve wrangled their way to the tops of corporate ladders. Even some self-declared liberal feminists have asserted that Palin’s adoption of the feminist label is ok – L.A. Times journalist Meghan Duam wrote:
“I feel a duty (a feminist duty, in fact) to say this about Palin’s declaration: If she has the guts to call herself a feminist, then she’s entitled to be accepted as one”.
But I just can’t agree with that. As long as I’ve used them I’ve come to understand that words have meanings. If a man walks into a church and tells people he’s Jesus resurrected, the statement (while gutsy) isn’t necessarily true. I’m not saying he’s not, I’m just saying the statement isn’t automatically true because he had the guts to say it.
My instincts tell me that Sarah Palin is not a feminist. As someone who disagrees with abortion personally she could still call herself one without sending up alarm bells, except she’s at the forefront of legislation that would dictate what another woman can do with her own body and this is a contradiction I just can’t get past.
I have Palin to thank for one thing though, because if she hadn’t gone and asserted herself as a feminist it may have been a long while before I went and grabbed that title for myself. I see it this way, while I may be nervous about jumping into the stereotypical box of screeching feminists (and scared of being kicked out), I’ve gotta be IN that box if I’m gonna help in the fight to keep her out.