election returns

When I last posted (quite some time ago, I know), I was preoccupied with the media’s insistence upon splitting the presidential campaign along race and gender lines and, consequently, feeling as if my voice as a black feminist voter remained muted amidst that polarization (see BSOUAB).

To be sure, the sexism and misogyny targeted toward Hillary was obvious and all feminists — black, white, female and male — were right to be outraged by the media’s attacks of her. We feminists should have been just as outraged by the racist smears aimed at Obama: the childish barbs about his name and religion, the slave t-shirts, and the frightening but under-reported incidents Obama’s white and black supporters have encountered while campaigning in some white rural and working class outposts. During a low point in her campaign, however, even Hillary, hearkening back to some of the early suffragettes, tried to use such racist sentiment to her advantage.

Since Obama took the nomination, the racialized sexist rhetoric that was turned on Michelle Obama has received a somewhat duller but still an audible outcry. Perhaps some feminists were so angry over Hillary’s loss that they conveniently forget Michelle is a woman too. But blogs like Michelle Obama Watch have kept the spotlight on this fascinating first black first lady-to-be (“yes she can”). And Michelle’s electrifying keynote address at the Democratic National Covention, proclaiming her place at the “crosscurrents” of the history of the women’s movement and the civil rights movement was as monumental as her husband’s acceptance speech. (Professors Farah Jasmine Griffin and Mark Anthony Neal have elaborated on the impact of Michelle’s speech, especially for black women).

The lights had barely dimmed in Denver’s auditorium before McCain (perchance hoping to woo disaffected Hillary supporters as well as conservative Christians) surprised the nation with his choice for a running-mate, Sarah Palin. Now conservatives are touting Palin as a new kind of feminist: the kind who is against a woman’s right to choose no matter the circumstance, the kind that prefers teaching abstinence over sex ed (despite glaring evidence that abstinence-only education doesn’t work). Sarah’s the kind of “feminist(?!)” that favors war, abhors the earth and its natural resources, is pro-gun and anti-LGBT rights. Um, what kind of feminist is that?

Granted, feminists are different. Working class feminists, feminists of color, and lesbian feminists have long critiqued the universal female subject. Are self-proclaimed “conservative feminists,” like “Feminists for Life,” “Independent Women’s Forum,” and “Concerned Women for America” asserting their same right to define feminism on their own terms? Or are they merely appropriating the language of feminism as a stand-in for pro-capitalist, conservative Christian, individualistic female power?

At the heart of feminism is a belief in women’s social, economic and political equality. For me that includes educating girls and women about reproductive rights and sexual agency and ensuring that women retain legal jurisdiction over our bodies. While I do think that it’s possible for a woman to be against abortion personally or to be in favor of reducing abortions (through sex education and poverty alleviation, among other strategies) and still be a feminist, I do NOT think that a woman who would impinge on another woman’s right to choose for herself is a feminist.

Does that mean that feminists should not critique the sexism that is aimed at Palin? Of course not. But not every criticism of Palin is based on her gender (most of it is based on her policies). And frankly, if you put lipstick on a pig, or even if you put a tie on a pig, it is still a pig.


About jennifer williams

Jennifer D. Williams is a writer and professor of English and Women's and Gender Studies. She has published in academic journals and online at Ms.blog, PopMatters, among other sites. Jennifer is currently working on a book that looks at black women's urban literature between the Depression and the civil rights era.

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