Monday, June 14, 2010

You Keep Using That Word

Ross Douthat thinks that because conservative Republican women won races in the primaries last week, feminism is therefore being redefined and is now an acceptable term to be used among the right wing because it pisses off the liberals.

This is a remarkable sea change. It’s been less than two decades since 1992 — dubbed the Year of the Woman because a slew of female Democrats won Senate seats, but also a year when much of conservative America viscerally recoiled from Hillary Clinton’s career-woman persona. Now Clinton has become many conservatives’ favorite liberal, and Republicans are fielding a crop of female candidates that includes working moms like Haley (who has two kids under 13), Kristi Noem (a 38-year-old mother of three running for South Dakota’s House seat) and Kelly Ayotte (the front-runner in the New Hampshire Senate primary, who has a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old).

Yes, female public servants still face a thicket of sex-specific challenges while running for office. (Fiorina walked into one last week, when a live microphone caught her making fun of the hairstyle of her general-election opponent, Barbara Boxer.) But these challenges no longer manifest themselves in predictable ways, as the peculiar left-wing misogyny that greeted Palin’s candidacy emphatically demonstrated. And the models for feminine success in the political arena, from the Tea Party’s Angle to Harvard Law’s Elena Kagan, look almost as diverse as American women themselves.

I don’t think you get to redefine a movement because of the outcome of a few elections any more than saying the election of Barack Obama meant the end of racism in America. (How’d that go, by the way?) I also don’t think you get to redefine feminism because the people that won those elections were conservative women. There was no overriding wave of feminism that swept them in on a tide of equality; in some cases they were the only candidates running or, as is the case in California, they had the most money to spend. Or maybe — and this is probably the real reason — they were the candidates that appealed to the values of the people who elected them, regardless of their gender.

But redefining feminism? I don’t think so, because one of the inescapable qualities of feminism is being progressive. It means you believe in equality in everything, not just a few things here and there that fit the image of feminism on the outside. (Some of the worst enemies of feminism have been women; Phyllis Schlafly being the text-book example.) I’ll give the women who won their elections their due based on their platforms, their experience, and their capacity to do the job they’re elected to, not because they were women. After all, it’s not feminism to vote for a woman based solely on her gender; that’s doing the cause just as much a disservice as it is to vote against her for the same reason.

And you certainly don’t get to redefine feminism because someone steeped in patronizing patriarchal privilege like Ross Douthat is having an Inigo Montoya moment: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” All it proves is that Mr. Douthat didn’t understand the concept of feminism in the first place.