Lessons for Feminists from Sarah Palin

I almost heard the crinoline and ruffles crunching as Alice Paul turned over in her grave when Sarah Palin jubilantly shouted, "Life is about choices!" during her resignation speech a couple of weeks ago. It's not that "choice" was a framing device embraced by the suffragists -- really, it was more of a second-wave buzz word -- it's that the feminism Paul propelled with her starvation campaign and years on the picket line seems to have been reincarnated in a very strange form.

When Palin parachuted onto the national scene, she landed smack dab on the fault lines of gender and politics, shaking contemporary feminism to the core. Now that the dust has settled from her oh-so-sudden resignation, it's time for feminists (the alive kind, of course) to pick our jaws up off the floor, take a deep breath and really think through what we've learned from her year or so in the spotlight. (Even though I'm under no delusion that Palin is truly retreating into the Alaskan wilderness.) After some wincing reflection, here are three key feminist lessons from Sarah Palin:

Lesson #1: Women across the country are hungry for their strength to be acknowledged, without sacrificing their femininity.

The image of a pit bull with lipstick will go down as one of the most memorable images in American electoral rhetoric thanks to Sarah Palin's first populist performance at the Republican National Convention ("You know, they say the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick."). Feminists across the country were still recovering from the shock of McCain's pick when Palin made that now-infamous quip, so we may have missed the deeper meaning. She was signifying that, though she's tough, she's still feminine.

She underscored this point during her resignation speech -- in which she successfully used a lot of words, charm and yes, those down-home metaphors to deliver a string of hollow contradictions. (She's not a quitter, but she's quitting? Alaska is the most precious place to her and as a result, she's leaving it? Her leadership was highly successful and that's why Alaskans need freedom to progress without her?) As usual with Palin, what she said -- words, words, words -- wasn't really the point. It was how she said it that was interesting -- that careful mix of tough word choices -- "my independence," "build up and fight" -- mixed with traditional feminine presentation -- she established that "faith and family" were her first priorities right up front.

Sarah Palin appeals to a broad need among contemporary American women who want to be leaders and demonstrate their intellectual strength, but also maintain their allegiance to traditional notions of femininity. Both her RNC address and her resignation speech were filled with this subtle duality and bold permission for women everywhere to flex their muscles while painting their fingernails.

Feminism has never been about limiting anyone's gender identity or expression -- quite the opposite -- but unfortunately the media have been largely successful in spinning it that way. There are women all over the country who believe feminists are anti-femininity, that women who value piety or sell Mary Kay or give their daughters Barbies are automatically disallowed from the "F club." Sarah Palin's feminist flip-flop during campaign season -- first telling Katie Couric that she was a feminist, then telling Brian Williams that she wasn't -- certainly didn't clear things up.

Feminists need to get better at explaining that, in fact, feminism is opposed to anything that narrows human beings' choices around gender identity and expression. Whether you are Sarah Palin and you want to wear a perky ponytail while standing by your "dude," or you're Rachel Maddow and want to wear thick black glasses while standing by your partner, we defend your right to do so. Femininity is not feminism's enemy. What we're against is blinding following traditional gender roles. What we're for is self- and societal analysis that leads to conscious choices about self-expression -- male or female, conservative or progressive, hockey mom or butch dyke. We simply must get better at saying that aloud, in public, and getting women across America to hear us.

Lesson #2: Defending women against sexism means defending all women against sexism.

Admittedly, sometimes the 2008 election felt like the twilight zone; suddenly the same conservative right-wing pundits who eviscerated Anita Hill, mocked Hillary Clinton and unabashedly surrounded themselves with exclusively blonde bombshell pundits were calling sexism. No question -- it burns to suddenly have people who have unfairly judged your own politics on bogus, appearance-based criteria to call foul the moment it happens to "one of their own."

But, just as your mom said back in those hazy days of childhood summer, two wrongs don't make a right. As feminists, we must defend the right of every woman -- progressive or not -- to be judged on the quality of her ideas and the integrity of her experience, not the curve of her figure or the shape of her face. Whether it's a former beauty pageant contestant running for vice president (you know who) or a wise, old woman who has covered the White House since 1961 (Helen Thomas), we must advocate for unbiased treatment in the media.

At Feministing.com, where I am one of the editors, we had a Sarah Palin Sexism Watch right alongside the Hillary Clinton watch-dog column. Did we put as much verve into cataloging the grievances against the anti-choice Republican VP candidate as we did the proudly feminist Democratic hopeful? No. That's just human nature. There's bound to be a little slippage, but our actions have to reflect our baseline principle that all women deserve a fair shake at stepping into power. This butts up against the baseline feminist principle that all women deserve autonomy over their own bodies -- something Sarah Palin opposes. But ultimately, we have to depend on the American people to see that her politics are sexist, while we defend her right to nonsexist coverage in the meantime. It's a weird world, but it's the one we're living in.

Lesson #3: We've succeeded in so many ways!

No, this is not about to devolve into an obituary for feminism. Like the recent spate of fake celebrity death reports on Twitter, the mainstream media have been falsely declaring the movement over for decades. We're not done, but we sure are demonstrably further than we were. Sometimes I fear that feminists are so dedicated to the cause that they forget to celebrate.

Feminism has been so effective in changing the public's perception of gender and power that conservatives are actually using our tactics to curry votes. Sophia A. Nelson wrote on The Root: "Say what you like about this perky mother of five turned mayor turned governor, but she is a pioneer. And like it or not, she is the embodiment of modern feminism." I disagree. Sort of. Sarah Palin doesn't represent feminists, but she surely represents the success of feminism's long, hard-fought battle to get women leading roles on the political stage. McCain's campaign knew that in order to distract the fence-sitters from their intrigue with Barack Obama, they would need to choose someone who symbolized the future and had a fresh, energetic take on politics.

It may have made feminists squirm to see that the movement's fight produced a moment ripe for a soldier like Sarah Palin, but from another vantage point, her candidacy (and more importantly, Hillary Clinton's) prove we've won certain battles. Women are taken seriously as political candidates. Plain and simple.

Who knows where Sarah Palin will pop up next? Maybe she'll have a reality television show. Maybe she'll write a blockbuster book. Maybe she'll gear up for a presidential run in 2012. Whatever she does, I'm grateful to her. I disagree with her politics in almost every way. I think she was woefully unprepared to run for vice president and continues to lack experience, empathy and eloquence. Her take on gender, race and class in this country is about as disjointed as her basketball metaphors (full-court huh?).

Despite all that, I feel thankful that she inadvertently pushed feminists out of complacency. We were obliged to clarify where we've won and where we're falling behind, who we've brought into the fold and who continues to see feminism as an elitist, anti-man, femininity-rejecting posse of miscreants (thanks, mainstream media).

Ultimately, our discomfort with Sarah Palin is more about us than it is about her. No matter who she claims to be, we need to keep pushing ourselves to clarify who we are.