Identity politics is an area of social discussion that is often ripe with contradictions and absolutist views. In feminism in particular, many women are inherently at odds when it comes to defining the nature of ‘the feminist’ as an identity, and what being a feminist entails.
For example, an argument that has been occurring for years now is that of whether or not men can be feminists – short answer (in my opinion)? – Yes. If a man believes in equal rights for both genders, then of course he is a feminist. And as a movement, I believe feminism should welcome male feminists with open arms.
Isn’t the purpose of minority movements such as feminism, which are based around specific values and ideologies, to make their viewpoints the norm? Should we be glad for every extra person who believes in the cause, regardless of their gender, or any other facet of their identity?
It gets even murkier, however, when the argument is about other women defining themselves as feminists, when they possess some viewpoints that are considered innately in conflict with the core values of feminism.
Recently, Sarah Palin has been featured in many a culture article after she wrote a rather effusive Facebook note endorsing several female candidates for the state elections in America, during which she also took the time to berate left-wing feminists for their support of abortion, and their more traditional feminist views and actions (you know, little things like women having the right to choose how they treat their own bodies, or when they bear children).
Palin also claims to be bringing feminism ‘back to its roots’, by highlighting the importance of mothers protecting their children, and actively supporting the pro-life movement. Now, Palin and her supporters are free to believe anything they choose, but historically speaking, the ‘roots’ of feminism were certainly not planted in soil fresh from conservative America, where abortion is considered murder and women are locked into the role of mother and wife.
Certainly, second and third wave feminism have been focused on the exact opposite of Palin’s goals – on reproductive and contraceptive rights for women, on creating pay equity and lowering the wage gap between genders, and on widening the fields of employment available to women. There is something troubling about the co-opting of a movement to promote ideas and values that are in conflict with those in which the movement was founded on.
I understand why feminists have rejected Palin’s claims to feminism, and derided her support of the pro-life movement, as it is inherently at odds with what are commonly considered to be feminist values. And yet, as a feminist myself, I find it deeply unsettling whenever anyone uses the phrase, ‘But they’re not a real feminist!’
Who are these ‘real’ feminists? Where are they, and what do they look like? For me, feminism has always been about being at liberty to choose how you express your own gender identity, and not forcing people to conform to labels based around their sex. However, I often feel as though contemporary feminism merely creates an entirely new set of boundaries and rules with which to define gender, and is rigid in the upholding of these new norms. I often get criticized for being a ‘bad feminist’ because I really enjoy baking, wearing floral dresses, and I regularly have to ask someone stronger than me to help with household tasks. However, I still actively campaign for women’s rights, am the editor of a feminist magazine, am the Women’s Officer at my university and have been entrenched in feminist discourse since my tender teenage years.
Does the ‘good’ outweigh the ‘bad’ then?
One of my favourite feminist catchphrases is ‘feminism is the radical notion that women are people’, and I think it deals with the issue of who can adopt the label of ‘feminist’ really well. People are different, and hence they deal with their ideas and viewpoints differently from each other. One person’s freedom of choice is not necessarily the same as another’s.
I would not say that Sarah Palin is necessarily a feminist pioneer, and I certainly think she needs to articulate her views in more depth, and attempt to engage with other feminists on issues rather than ridiculing them for their unorthodox lifestyles. However, I would never claim to be an authority on feminist identity to the point where I could discern the ‘real’ feminists from the nasty ‘fake’ ones.
Feminism is as feminism does – and what feminism does is whatever the hell she wants!