Wednesday, September 3, 2008
Anti-choice Feminist? Whoa.
An article in the New York Times this morning and the repeated use of the term “Pro-Life Feminist” on NPR’s morning edition reminded me of my on-going struggle to understand conservative women like Sarah Palin. There are so many contradictions between her actions and ideologies! Conservatives oppose a woman’s right to abortion while at the same time claim to want to reduce the government’s reach into the personal lives of Americans. What could be more personal than a woman’s right to choose? Conservatives also oppose sex education in public schools, despite evidence that rates of teenage pregnancy are never reduced by abstinence-only sex education. Conservatives want to reduce welfare to single mothers while at the same time claiming to champion family values. How can a single mother be a super-mom while working two or three jobs to make ends meet? Conservative female politicians believe it is important for a woman to stay home with her children, but they have chosen to work outside the home by running for office. How do conservative women reconcile all these contradictions? To answer these questions let’s do what I always do—look to our nation’s history to explain our current predicaments.
The oxymoronic term “Pro-life Feminist” reminded me of a book I read for a graduate course on feminist theory. Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against America Women exposes the concerted efforts of conservatives to undo the work of 1960s and 70s feminists. Although written in the 1990s, her book helps me put my mind around the always-confusing ideologies of the politically conservative women who baffle me—Sara Palin being a case in point.
Faludi, writing in the early 1990s, recounts the many political and cultural ramifications of the American backlash against feminism. She examines backlash as it occurred in government, politics, pop culture, advertising, fashion, academia, and pop psychology. She goes on to examine the toll the backlash has taken on working women, women’s bodies, and women’s rights. Pointing to women’s dissatisfaction with their lives—something that is never based in fact but is merely supposition—anti-feminists point to women’s lives outside the home and denial of traditional familial roles as the source of this unhappiness. Rather than looking to the social and cultural factors that may have been frustrating women—things like the glass ceiling, continued sexual harassment, and mixed cultural messages that women should achieve all that they can yet never abandon the home—the backlash blamed women for their own unhappiness. If women just stayed at home and embraced their “natural” role of wife and mother they would finally be fulfilled. Faludi never argues that there was a coherent, organized movement against feminism, but that backlash popped up all over the place because changes were taking place in American families and the threat to patriarchy was real. Those who would lose power if patriarchy disappeared fought back—and the fight continues on today and is embodied in the confusing ideologies of politicians like Sarah Palin.