Feminism and the Republican Party: Equating Female with Feminist?

Until very recently, the term “feminist” was used by those on the right only as a negative descriptor of someone who would invariably be a political foe. Devoted feminists have struggled to set the word free from the negative connotations and reclaim the label as a source of pride, with mixed results, especially among younger generations of independent women whose struggles often take new forms that nonetheless build on the successes of their predecessors. So what do longtime feminists do when a right-wing politician proudly identifies herself as a feminist, even while denouncing many of the positions that have defined the feminist movement? On the one hand, yea, thanks, feminism doesn’t have to be a slur! On the other hand, sister, please!

As the tally of Palin-endorsed women candidates has climbed higher and higher this primary season, the future of Republican leadership is certainly going to include more women. But will it be more feminist? Lisa Levenstein, author of A Movement Without Marches: African American Women and the Politics of Poverty in Postwar Philadelphia, takes issue with Russ Douthat’s assertion in the New York Times that the wave of Republican women primary winners means that the Republican party supports “working mothers.”

Says Douthat in his 6/13 column:

The question of whether conservative women get to be feminists is an interesting and important one. But it has obscured a deeper truth: Whether or not Palin or Fiorina or Haley can legitimately claim the label feminist, their rise is a testament to the overall triumph of the women’s movement.

What Tuesday’s results demonstrated, convincingly, is that America is now a country where social conservatives are as comfortable as liberals with the idea of women in high office. More strikingly, they’re comfortable voting for working mothers — for women publicly juggling careers and family obligations in ways that would have been unthinkable for the generations of female leaders, from Elizabeth I’s Virgin Queen down to Margaret Thatcher’s Iron Lady, who were expected to unsex themselves before being entrusted with the responsibilities of state.

Levenstein replied in a letter to the editor published 6/18:

To the Editor:

Electing women who hold jobs to public office by no means signals Republican support for “working mothers.”

A party that refuses to support increases in the minimum wage and opposes paid maternity leave, expansions in health care, and government support for child care, housing and other social welfare programs actively undermines parents’ abilities to combine employment with family responsibilities.

Lisa Levenstein
Greensboro, N.C., June 14, 2010

I, for one, am looking forward to more discussions about feminism, leadership, left/right, and old school/new school in the months and years to come as more and more women step up and speak out. What do you think? What does feminism mean today?