It recently came to my attention that the US republican politician Sarah Palin has identified herself as being feminist. In a May anti-abortion speech she compared herself to being a ‘Grizzly Momma bear’ rising up to protect its young, and spoke directly to her ‘sisters’ in the audience. She also used that phrase I have heard so much over the last few years. The one about choice. Palin’s argument seems to be that feminism is not incompatible with her political views and practices. That it is a term that does not directly correspond with a particular political stance, and can be used by conservative women as well as liberal, because being a feminist is essentially about being a woman and making choices. In theory, this seems like an appealing idea. Feminism being induced by women of varying political backgrounds, all ultimately rallying for the rights of female kind. To analyse this idea more deeply however, several niggling questions arise that I wonder how Palin would respond to. Can feminism really be described as a politically neutral force? Have we reached the point in feminist practice where the term ‘feminism’ can be used as a blanket term for any actions taken by a woman, regardless as to her political and social beliefs? Is being a woman, and making choices, enough reason to call oneself a feminist? I think to truly face these questions, we need a quick reminding as to what’s being going in feminism for the last 40 odd years. Then, maybe, we can gain some insight as to how we’ve reached this point, and what it means for the future of feminism.
Let’s start with the second wave.
In the 70s, second wave feminism was beginning to have a direct effect upon policies and cultural consciousness, and women across the western world became aware more than ever before of the restrictions placed upon them. Second wave feminism was also characterized a belief in patriarchy, which links all women beneath its oppressive power. The spirit of unity is important in understanding the second wave, as a priority for the movement was the creation of groups and networks that could practically aid women in different ways. In 1972, the first refuge for battered women was established, and other such enterprises were soon undertaken.Second wave feminism took on much of the politics held by contemporary Socialist and Marxist activists and turned their attention to subjects that had until then been neglected by academia and political activism, such as the home. For this reason, much of second wave politicizing is influenced by socialist and Marxist conceptions of capitalism and consumerist society with the belief that a unified approach is required to tackle the inequalities of power it creates. It was also criticised however, for being a point in which women felt they had to conform to a strictly formed ideals to be accepted as being truly feminist. Manifestos had to be observed, clothes and sexual partners were scrutinized. These criticisms helped form what is now termed as being third wave, or post feminism. The intention was to breathe life back into feminism, by allowing it to become more accessible. The third wave understanding of feminism is crucially individualistic in nature. It does not base itself upon the meeting of women as a political force, but as individual units that tackle inequalities separately. This is a reflection not only of the distaste towards the tendency of second wave feminism to homogenize the experiences of women, but a reflection of the neo-liberal flavour of 90s politics.
With the increased presence of neo-liberalism across the world stage, came the individualistic, capitalistic, post-feminist agenda of third wave feminism. This capitalistic form of feminism embraced the Western culture of consumerism through the visibility of the media. Feminists such as Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards believed that feminism needed to be re-invigorated, through making it accessible within mainstream mediums such as television, advertising and film. Placing feminism within the media was the best way to remove feminism from the peripheral position of subculture. Identity politics taught that if the portrayal of certain marginalised groups (in this case, women) within society changed within the media, then this would lead to the subsequent change of society as a whole. In theory, this all sounds great. Things changed when the ideals of third wave feminism ran into the realities of the capitalism. Because, at the same time, mainstream corporate culture became aware of the need to approach female consumers in a new ‘modern’ manner, and the individualistic values of third wave feminism tuned in nicely with the consumerist ideology of freedom through freedom of choice (between products). Advertisers managed to reduce the complexities of feminist politics into a style, which was manageable, saleable, and supportive of consumerist culture. Groups like the Spice Girls promoted the idea that YES you can be sexy, feminine, and working in the mainstream media, whilst embracing the idea of female power (or girl power). Through the paradigm of ‘choice’ It became possible to be a stay at home mother, and also call yourself feminist. You could run around town with your three 30 something buddies in ridiculously expensive Manolo Blahniks and call yourself feminist. A word that was initially used to tackle the inadequacies percieved in the second wave, came to embody a completely empty understanding of feminism. In the desire to allow all women to feel empowered, not just a select feminist elite, feminism has managed to derail itself. Now, any action taken by a woman, from pole dancing to cavorting around Hugh Hefner’s mansion as a playboy bunny, can be called emancipation. We have seen everything become muddled under the term ‘choice’.
And this is where we return to Palin. When the term choice is thrown around to excuse and explain all manner of actions and beliefs, it’s little wonder that someone such as Palin is able to adopt the term for her own agenda. If it can be used to explain a tit job, surely then it can also be used to explain the use of fire arms. Ultimately, where’s the line being drawn? It seems to me that feminism’s eagerness to embrace mainstream culture has destroyed it’s political barb. The nature of our consumerist culture, is that anything can become a commodity, used and manipulated for purposes beyond its original conception. In this case, feminism is being induced as a way in which the Republican party can tap into female voters. Which is quite understandable, as feminism’s seemingly sensible desire to become mainstream, has come round to bite it in the ass. Anyone who calls themselves a feminist needs to start to question what that word now means in our current place in history. The didactic mentality of the second wave managed to alienate a generation of young women, who set out to reform the ways in which feminism is viewed. To try to make it less stuffy, more fun, and sexy. But we have now moved to another extreme, where permissiveness is the order of the day, and ‘feminism’ is such a loose term that near about anyone, or any political party can adopt it. Choice is an important element to feminist thought, and to attempt understanding of different ways of being female is crucial. But we need to reinvigorate all the other things feminism has been, and can be, or I fear we are going to lose it to those such as Palin.