Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Sarah's Choice

"In the sorrow of having children there is the recognition that one's humanity is reduced to this, and on this one's survival depends." -Andrea Dworkin, Right-Wing Women

This is not a post about whether or not Sarah Palin is a Real Feminist. Indeed that is the wrong question. These days, since apparently any choice is a feminist choice as a long as it's a woman that's making it, slapping the label "feminist" on a person is a most uninformative endeavor.

Thus, it is sufficient to note that the Sarah Palin-birthed conservative feminist revival has been an interesting phenomenon. 2008 brought us the political alignment of self-proclaimed feminist Sarah Palin, a woman who opposed abortion even in cases of rape and incest, with John McCain, a man who opposed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, voted against the Violence Against Women Act, opposed funding for the Office of Violence Against Women, voted against expanding the Family and Medical Leave Act, and voted to terminate funds for family planning.

The complicity of women in movements that are generally unconcerned with the liberation of women is hardly novel. The '70s had Phylis Schlafly's Stop the ERA movement and, even before Palin emerged on the national scene, various groups of ladies against women have been actively working for years to entrench women in essentialist feminine roles. In the world of conservative feminism, men and women work together in complementary cooperation, skipping hand-in-hand through the tulips singing songs of saving male dominance American values, American families, American children, and indeed the very specialness of men and women themselves.

And yet, the subtext of this conservative narrative of male and female relations has never been all that rosy.

Observe. One of the best ways to do all of this American family values saving is, allegedly, heterosexual marriage, that special combination of "both halves of humanity." So, co-opting the liberal language of equality, some conservative feminists- like one at Red State Feminists- opine thusly about why Glenn Beck is wrong to support marriage equality:

"[T]he purpose of marriage is to make true, equal, loving partnerships between the two halves of humanity necessary for humanity to continue: men and women. And in establishing those partnerships and in ensuring equality between men and women in those partnerships, marriage ensures that all new human beings will learn from their earliest days how to live in peace, equality, and love with the other half of humanity and will look forward to forming such loving, equal heterosexual partnerships in the future themselves."

Equality. Peace. Love. Who would oppose such values?

I have addressed this silly revisionist take on what Marriage Really Means before, so I won't re-hash that today. Instead, I want to highlight that undercurrent of intense fear that lies within this conservative feminist message.

As we all know full well that one "half of humanity" has historically tended to make themselves "more equal" than the other half, the implication is this:

If men do not marry women they cannot love women. If men do not love women, the hyper-sexual, aggressive, violent wildebeast that is man will not learn how to relate peacefully and respectfully to women. If men do not know how to relate to women, men will hurt women.

Instead of liberation from being categorically defined as the victim/sex/fetal-incubation class, the conservative feminist clings to that narrow definition of woman, believing that if she lets go of the feminine role she will float away into that dark void of nothingness. This, she calls equality or complementarity or femininity or some other nice-sounding word.

Yet, what she clings to is a substitute of equality and liberation- the promise of safety in a world of men, attained via heterosexual marriage. It is a promise of male protection in exchange for letting men steer the ship. Instead of questioning or fighting against male entitlement to engage in violence and domination (also known as Rape Culture), the conservative feminist accepts it as a fact of life and works within it as a matter of survival.

American family values is code for this conservative culture of gender-based fear and domination that is passed from generation to generation, taught as the "natural" way men and women are and should relate to one another.

With this promise of safety in mind, consider Critical Race Theorist Derek Bell's offering that whites have historically supported progress for racial minorities only when it has also advanced white self-interest. Building off this idea of interest-convergence, I suspect that the men who have erected and maintain the big tent of conservatism will continue to support conservative feminism only to the extent that it also advances male dominance.

Of course, in conservative-speak male dominance is called "equality," and the women give the emperors a pass on that minor detail. Indeed, when we continue reading the anti-same-sex marriage piece at Red State Feminists, we get whiffs of trouble in paradise:

"When male conservative pundits do not understand what female conservative mothers understand about what threatens America, the conservative movement has a real problem."

The men dominating a political movement are not adequately considering the female perspective or the concerns of women. Male pundits are overlooking women's need for safety and focusing on More Important Issues.

Welcome to the club, sisters?

But alas. It would be unbecoming, possibly dangerous, for a conservative feminist lady to suggest that the conservative movement as a whole has a woman problem. Instead, the real problem is outsiders. Gender rebels. Homosexuals.

Andrea Dworkin wrote that conservative women fear male homosexuality because in gay men they see men who have no use for women. Indeed, every time they see a gay man call a woman a bitch, a whore, or some variation of a useless cunt, this fear is reinforced. Gay men, some women believe, can afford to be brutally honest about the Male Opinion Of Women, because gay men are unconcerned with attracting female sex partners. Believing "commonsensical truths" about the inherent differences between men and women, in which women are the tamers of beastly men, the conservative woman's rejection of homosexuality thus rests in the fear of a coming gender-cide. The Red State Feminist continues:

"Consider 'Doogie' Howser [sic, that would be Neil Patrick Harris, the actor who portrayed the fictional "Doogie"] and his same-sex partner, who have bought eggs and rented a womb in order to have twins. They are saying that they are under no obligation to allow their children to have a mother, that it is all right to purposefully and premeditatedly exclude from their children’s lives the love of a mother. Mr. Beck, this is the height of inhumanity. This is erasure of motherhood by men who see no value in women."

It is a simplistic argument, to be sure. Yet, notice how, although she is likely quite unaccepting of lesbians, she has chosen as her example a gay male couple. Because these two men have not married women and will raise their children without a female parent, she claims that these two men "see no value in women." As though the value of a woman rests entirely in whether or not a man wants to make her a mother and wife. Men see no other value in women. The erasure of motherhood means the erasure of women altogether.

When women believe that men value them primarily for motherhood (which they are sometimes correct in believing), the ability to gestate- to "mother"- becomes the most important distinction between men and women. It comes to define womanhood. By conceding the public sphere to men and effectively granting men their own special affirmative action program in every other arena of life, the "private" sphere of motherhood is the one special niche women have that makes women necessary to men. To women afraid or unwilling to compete with men in the public sphere, to women who still believe the myth of female inferiority, to women who believe it is women's primary role in life to mother, could anything in this world be scarier than men co-opting the one realm in this world that decidedly and by definition belongs to women?

I don't care if Sarah Palin calls herself a feminist. What I do wonder is what Sarah Palin is doing to liberate women from being defined by motherhood and sex? What is she doing to liberate women from the fear of male violence and control?

Sarah Palin and her pack of grizzlies seem quite proud of their fierce image, laden as it is with sexy winks, smart-ass comebacks, and the rejection of abortion. Yet, when we pull the curtain down, a more troubling image comes into view- that of a much meeker animal, tip-toeing on eggshells in the pink ghetto of Mamahood First.

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