In writing about the upcoming midterm elections, pundits have called 2010 “the Year of Women.” They point to the candidacies of Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, Nikki Haley, Michele Bachmann and, closer to home, Linda McMahon.
It’s true, women are pushing their way into the political sphere in ways we have never seen before.
But what’s so striking to pundits is that these women are running as Republicans — some of them radical, Tea Party Republicans.
When asked if she considered herself a feminist, O’Donnell said, “Absolutely, but let me qualify that — I consider myself an authentic feminist. Not as defined by the modern movement. And, let me clarify that a little bit more. I was an English major, so break it down: -ist means one who celebrates. As a feminist, I celebrate my femininity.”
Now that’s beautiful, Christine. Really. Perhaps you are unaware of the words “sexist” and “racist.”
O’Donnell apparently celebrates her own femininity by opposing masturbation, homosexuality, the existence of female soldiers in the army, the legality of contraception and especially the legality of abortion.
If this is “authentic feminism,” Betty Friedan is rolling over in her grave. Yet the Republican Party’s most prominent female candidates are calling themselves “authentic feminists,” led by their sister-from-another-mister, Sarah Palin.
“Feminist” or not, they have authentically undermined working mothers. Michelle Bachmann, the Minnesota House incumbent, voted against a bill to give federal employees four weeks of paid maternal leave. Sarah Palin opposed the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which protects a woman’s right to be paid equally to men for identical work, on the grounds it would be “a boon for trial lawyers.” One would hope so. Women denied equal pay for the same work should be able to sue their employers for discrimination and recoup their lost earnings.
There isn’t a single, uniquely “right” type of feminism. That is like saying there is a right way to make spaghetti sauce. Feminism is a movement that encompasses many different beliefs, experiences and cultures. It means a lot of different things to a lot of people.
But what is not debatable about feminism is that it’s fundamentally geared towards achieving gender equality. Feminism needs to be pro-woman in the same way you need tomatoes to make tomato sauce; otherwise, it’s just salt and oil.
What the Tea Party “feminism” really comes down to is a framing of the abortion issue. “Conservative feminism” is the secret handshake that says, “You can be an ambitious woman, play for the girls’ team and be against abortion.”
Can you be a feminist and be anti-choice? Yes, I say (very) tentatively. I have had conversations with people who truly believe that life begins at conception, and therefore that abortion is equivalent to murder. They say it’s murder, I say it isn’t. But being pro-choice means that whether you would get an abortion yourself is besides the point. The nature of this debate is such that it’s almost beyond argument, and that’s okay.
But if “Mama Grizzlies” are so adamant about the sanctity of life and the power of motherhood, then why do they support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? By using language that pulls on voters’ heartstrings, they’ve made unborn fetuses a more important issue than dead American soldiers in Baghdad.
Sarah Palin, too, remains pro-war, as well as pro-death penalty, and in the meantime touts the “sanctity of life” agenda and uses her daughter Bristol Palin’s mothering skills as evidence that teenage mothers are underestimated. Sharron Angle of Nevada opposes abortion, even in the case of rape or incest.
Candace Straight, the national co-chairwoman for the Republican Majority for Choice, said, “The fact that the new rising stars of the GOP are pushing this platform is not only scary, it could be a fatal blow for our hopes of recapturing the mainstream middle.”
Since the Tea Party erupted in 2009, Democrats have reacted with bemusement. SNL’s new favorite parody is “witchy” O’Donnell. Blogs including Slate, Jezebel and the Huffington Post routinely belittle female Tea Party candidates.
Yet “Mama Grizzlies” connect with voters. To discount them is to underestimate their power with voters, particularly their power as women. And some of them will be elected in November: O’Donnell will likely lose in Delaware, but the latest Rasmussen Reports in Nevada found Angle with 49 percent support to Democrat Harry Reid’s 45 percent.
“Conservative feminism” has nothing to do with empowering women in general, and everything to do with empowering these women in particular. Conservative women have ripped feminist language away from meaning: They say they are pro-woman, but their policies are “authentically” anti-.
If conservative feminists are “Mama Grizzlies,” liberal feminists are “Baby Polars.” We are slowly losing our habitat and political voice as the ice melts around us. We need to refocus what feminism really means — equality — and we need to fight back and stop being scared to “stoop” to their level.
O’Donnell and Palin can celebrate their femininity, but don’t tread on mine.
Kathryn Olivarius is a senior in Branford College.