Still ruining everything: Palin paved the way for Obama to kill “feminist”

The death of the word “feminist” was broadcast on the evening news. In September 2008, at the height of the presidential campaign, Katie Couric boarded John McCain’s airplane, took a seat with vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, and lobbed the first in a series of softballs: Did Palin consider herself a feminist? Palin’s response:

I do. A feminist who believes in equal rights, and I believe that women certainly today have every opportunity that a man has to succeed, and to try to do it all, anyway. And I’m very, very thankful that I’ve been brought up in a family where gender hasn’t been an issue. You know, I’ve been expected to do everything growing up that the boys were doing. We were out chopping wood and we were out hunting and fishing and filling our freezer with good wild Alaskan game to feed our family.

“Feminist” isn’t the only English-language word that suffered from Palin’s candidacy, of course (see “maverick,” “terrorist”). But while other terms employed by the Alaska governor withered from twisted meanings, “feminist” experienced a more symbolic death. Palin killed “feminist” not by altering the meaning of the word—-its meaning has never remained consistent in a century of use—-but by eliminating its taboo.

Whatever “feminist” meant, it was a strong, scary term, one often prefaced with “man-hating” and followed by “bitch” and/or “Nazi.” Its power as insult was matched only by its usefulness as a community-shaping litmus test. If you would self-identify as a feminist, with all its negative connotations, you proved your commitment to the women’s movement; if not, you were part of the problem. In some respects, feminism was justified by its vile reputation: If the very name of the movement scared people, it meant that it was still relevant.

“Feminist” was not always the dirtiest term. Self-proclaimed “feminist” author Amy Richards writes that “women’s liberationist was actually the preferred term” in the 1960s and ’70s. Then, it “started to get a bad name, so it was abandoned for feminism. Now, that has a bad name.”

Palin’s nonthreatening version of feminism, gender-neutral aerial wolf-hunting aside, is in many ways a product of the feminist’s reviled reputation. Take a close look at how Palin phrases her feminist self-identity. She calls herself a “feminist who believes in equal rights.” That’s spin most feminists are accustomed to unloading on when they’re branded “Feminazis” or “man-hating lesbians.” “Feminism is just about equal rights with men,” they reply. “This is a mainstream position that any reasonable person would support.”

In truth, feminists don’t want “feminist” to be accepted as a mainstream position supported by any reasonable person—and they certainly don’t want it to be accepted by a rogue conservative who does not support abortion rights or contraceptive access for rape victims. Feminists were misguided when they criticized Palin for professing to align with a movement she so clearly did not support. They should have been shaking their heads that the word “feminist” had become so safe that even a Republican vice presidential candidate is comfortable invoking it in a televised interview. The term “feminist” has resisted a lasting definition in order to maintain its radical attitude. That way, when feminist agenda items are accomplished—voting rights, contraception access, pay equity—they can be deposited into the mainstream as feminists move on to newer, more controversial issues. The threatening connotation of “feminist” works to keep the movement relevant and box out the traditionalists.

Now, Palin has made it acceptable for anyone who’s simply dipped into the movement’s archives to identify as “feminist.” Thanks to her, “feminist” may now refer to those who believe the women’s movement has already accomplished its goals—or worse, that feminism was stronger in the distant past. Even as Palin’s presence has faded from the national scene—and with it, her gosh-darn brand of feminism—a deeper threat to “feminist” remains.

When Michelle Obama refused in 2007 to identify as a “feminist” in an interview with the Washington Post, the dirty-word status was alive and well. “You know, I’m not that into labels,” Obama said. “So probably, if you laid out a feminist agenda, I would probably agree with a large portion of it.…I wouldn’t identify as a feminist just like I probably wouldn’t identify as a liberal or a progressive.”

But later in the campaign that would kill “feminist,” her husband privately self-identified as feminist to Ms. publisher Eleanor Smeal. This month, Smeal had Obama’s feminism illustrated on the cover of her magazine; in a bodice-ripping superhero shot, Obama pulls away his button-down to reveal a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase, this is what a feminist looks like. The cover set off a firestorm of debate among self-identified feminists—does Obama have true feminist credentials, or doesn’t he? Whatever: Once the most popular guy in the world identifies with your movement, you are swimming in the mainstream. Sarah Palin, at least, was scary.

Now, instead of a conservative feminist vice president, we have a moderate liberal feminist president. Could this perhaps be worse—not for feminism, of course, but for “feminist”? It’s no longer a bad word, and that’s a bad thing for feminism.

Photo by buddhakiwi