The fact that Sarah Palin wants to call herself a feminist is astonishing. It’s not that she is conservative—there have been plenty of conservative, eccentric, and outlier feminists in history. It’s that it has been such an unloved, if proud, term for so long that it is odd to watch it being fought over, as though it were a political asset and not something women used to have to pretend not to be so they didn’t upset any voters.
Yet the sight of the pro-life Sister Sarah has outraged many pro-choice women, or those who disagree with her politically. Emily’s List has been running a campaign called “Sarah Doesn’t Speak for Me.” When Palin called her feminist critics a “cackle of rads” who had hijacked the word “feminist” because they “want to crucify other women w/ whom they disagree on a singular issue” (abortion), her phrasing was instantly leapt upon as evidence of her ignorance. It’s a gaggle, not a cackle, some cried, even though this word is usually used for geese. But this phrase may have revealed a certain cleverness: it was a wonderfully visual, condescending putdown, reminiscent of scheming, ugly witches.
Even if feminists are just those who seek a better life for all women. Palin clearly delights in needling leftist women—but her intent is serious: she wants female votes. And this is why the question remains: can Sarah Palin call herself a feminist? Here’s six reasons I think she should be able to:
1. Because, let’s be honest, feminism is a broad church. The history of feminism is a history of conflict, often vitriolic debate, and decades-long feuds over who can wear the mantle of true believer. A brief glance at history shows us that there are many different kinds of feminism—from traditionalists to radical extremists—even though American feminism has been dominated for three decades by the divisive, bitter question of reproductive rights. Yes, the right to control your own body is a key, crucial plank of feminist thought today, underpinned by the independence, autonomy, and rights of women. But it is not the only plank.
2. Because it will force us to properly scrutinize the Mama Grizzlies, the term Palin uses for politically active Republican women, which connotes fierceness, strength, danger—and size. It’s another of her very clever taglines, like pitbulls or hockey moms. As Palin and her supporters continually remind us, these women—and bears—are proudly pro-life. Big, brown female bears, rearing on their hind legs to protect their young, have become symbols for the anger and might of Republican women, ready to crush lily-livered liberals in the midterm elections.
But let’s test this idea against the facts. First, there are many more female Democratic candidates running in the midterm elections than Republican. Of the 20 women candidates for the U.S. Senate, 14 are Democrats; 67 Republican women are running for the house, compared with 101 female Democrats. Only six Republican women have filed for any of the 37 gubernatorial races. It’s not quite the “stampede of pink elephants” Palin has threatened. Second, Republican women hold only 4 percent of the seats in Congress, an appallingly low number. Third, polls show the Tea Party movement is increasingly dominated by middle-aged white men. And fourth, on a technical matter, female grizzly bears are, in fact, models of carefully managed reproduction. Sure, they’ll let a male try to impregnate them—but they won’t have any cubs until the time is right. Once a female grizzly has mated, a fertilized egg can wander in her womb for months until the conditions are right for growing the fetus—usually during hibernation. It’s called delayed implantation. Mama Grizzlies, then, could almost be pinups for (naturally) planned parenthood.
3. Because isn’t it just a little bit cool that suddenly people want to be feminists again?
4. Because Palin is kicking some goals. Yes, many of her policies are dubious, her vision of America is troubling, and her defense of Laura Schlessigner’s use of the N word was inexcusable. Still, can’t we get even a glimmer of satisfaction from the fact that the unapologetic Palin is outshining most of the men in her party, with guts and charisma, if not political depth? How quickly we forget that for decades, women fought the idea that female candidates that were not electable—that men would get more votes simply for being men. Being a mother was considered a liability. In mid-2008 a Pew survey found only one in five Republicans would support a mother of school-age children as a candidate. In 2007, 53 percent of Republicans thought mothers of young kids working outside the home was bad for society. Yes, more than half. And yet Palin, a mother of five, presents being a working mother as a strength: “moms just know when there’s something wrong.” You may disagree with what these moms want to put right, but at least they are skewering outdated views about working moms.
5. Because we are thinking about what feminism is again—and abortion, in the lead up to midterm elections where, according to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, a record number of candidates hold extreme pro-life positions. Maddow called the anti-abortion-rights positions of Republican Senate candidates—such as Nevada’s Sharron Angle, Rand Paul in Kentucky, and Ken Buck in Colorado—the “sleeper issue” in this year’s campaigns. (The official GOP platform is that abortion not be allowed even in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother.) Few think Roe v. Wade is under threat, but perhaps this might make some more vigilant.
6. Because Democrats need to lift their game. The challenge for Democrats is to stop ridiculing Palin and start trying to outsmart her with their own rhetoric. A recent Harris Poll found that 63 percent of Americans think the U.S. has a long way to go before reaching equality. Seven in 10 believe women are paid less than men for equal work. How will Democrats brand their own hordes of politically active women? How will they get more of them elected, and convince female voters they are best equipped to tackle the remaining obstacles to equality? Or the economy? An examination of the way women have voted over the past century tells us they may cheer on female candidates, but when it comes to the ballot box, they’ll be thinking of the economy.
Love or loathe her, Palin has unleashed this debate, so let’s have it—“cackles of rads,” Mama Grizzlies—all those who claim to support the equality of women, not just the appearance of it. Game on.
Baird is a deputy editor of NEWSWEEK. Follow her on Twitter.