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Tea Party Feminism: An Oxymoron?

marketing@pennpoliticalreview.org March 18, 2011 Soapbox Blog, Uncategorized No Comments on Tea Party Feminism: An Oxymoron?

On November 9, 2010, Tina Fey was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Known for her spot-on impressions of the former Vice Presidential candidate and Alaskan Governor, she made certain to give credit where credit was due, to the woman who provided her with the material that made her a sensation: Sarah Palin. But instead of making a reference to the famous Katie Couric interview wherein the Caribou Barbie couldn’t even name any newspapers or magazines she reads, Tina Fey took a very political (and controversial) swing at her in her acceptance speech:

“Politics aside, the success of Sarah Palin and women like her is good for all women—except, of course, those who will end up paying for their own rape kit and stuff. But for everybody else, it’s a win-win. Unless you’re a gay woman who wants to marry your partner of 20 years. Whatever…”

In fact, Sarah Palin did sign off on an initiative that forced rape victims or their insurance companies to foot the bill for their own rape or post-assault examination kits, which generally cost in excess of $1000.

This fact becomes extremely ironic when taking into consideration the large female presence within the Tea Party Movement in the midterm elections this past November. Indeed, the face of the Tea Party is female. Of the eight Board members of the influential Tea Party Patriots, six are female. Not only that, but females, according to a Quinnipiac Poll, also make up over 55% of the Tea Party Movement in general. This is why it is so confusing that in the months leading up the elections, voters saw Sarah Palin urging her “Mama Grizzlies” like Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, Carly Fiorina, and Michelle Bachmann to claim the cause of feminism as their own. Undoubtedly, the “new, conservative feminist movement” embraced by the Tea Party in the past year is ironic insofar as its [female] political candidates uncompromisingly oppose things like abortion that take away women’s sex rights and ability to choose.

Aren’t, therefore, the political platforms and beliefs of the Tea Party women wholly inconsistent with the true ideals of feminism? Definitely. Not only are the women chosen to represent the Tea Party’s ideals entirely unqualified, but their beliefs are also completely incompatible with promoting women’s rights.

Let’s take a moment to consider some definitions of feminism:

Merriam-Webster: “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes; organized on behalf of women’s rights and interests.”

Feminist, Gloria Steinem: “the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men.”

That’s right—even a feminist, and someone as radical and biased as Gloria Steinem cites dictionary.com’s definition of feminism as her own. It would seem obvious then that from the objective to the very biased ends of the spectrum that feminism is generally accepted around the table as the very simple idea that “women are equal to men.” How on earth then have the Tea Party women failed to acknowledge this in their platforms? Clearly, feminism to Sarah Palin and the other Mama Grizzlies doesn’t mean rights to equal pay, controlling one’s own body, or putting an end to domestic violence. Oh, no. It mean’s something else entirely. When asked, the Tea Party Barbies replied:

Christine O’Donnell: “I consider myself an authentic feminist. Not as defined by the modern movement. And, let me clarify that a little bit more. I was an English major, so break it down: -ist means one who celebrates. As a feminist, I celebrate my femininity.” Christine…what? C’mon…

Sarah Palin: “the new feminism is telling women they are capable and strong. It’s about empowering women to make real choices, not forcing them to accept false ones.” If we remember the initiative in Alaska to make women pay for their own rape kits, we may infer from this that “strong and capable women” simply don’t get raped, according to Sarah Palin. Even in her book, America By Heart, she dismisses liberal feminists like Gloria Steinem and insults Betty Friedan and Hillary Clinton claiming, “they emphasize women as victims because they’re obsessed with rape and domestic violence…they are disdainful of the joys and fulfillment we find in motherhood.”

These interpretations of feminism from both Christine O’Donnell and Sarah Palin epitomize what I find to be the two overarching problems with calling the Tea Party Movement a Feminist Movement. First, despite the fact that the overarching grassroots goals of the Tea Party are at times legitimate, the people representing them are eight bizzilion different kinds of unqualified. Second, in the words of New York Times columnist Gail Collins, “if feminism means supporting equal rights and equal opportunities for women, I don’t see how a feminist can be opposed to government programs that provide poor working mothers with quality child care…[or to giving young girls options].” To sum it up in plain and simple English, there is nothing remotely feminist about the Tea Party that would allow someone to dignify it as such.

There are certainly merits to the Tea Party’s concerns with the government, and there are definitely grounds to explain the women who have become active in it. According to the Center for History and News Media, there are several reasons why the Tea Party Movement would appeal to women. For example, Professor Kathleen Blee at the University of Wisconsin, has suggested that there are potentially more religious right-wing women than men, and as a result, the Tea Party rallies attract more women who are not working. The rallies pander to these women’s concerns about excessive government spending that makes families (and baby cubs) vulnerable to a wide array of threats. Furthermore, in a recent Slate article, Hanna Rosin argues, “much of the leadership and grassroots energy comes from women.” In fact, one of the main sponsors that launched the movement is a group called Smart Girl Politics, which went from being a mommy blog to a mobilizing campaign operating as a feminist cooperative. In the end, the Tea Party Movement would have never gained traction without its grassroots female supporters, who organized initially to appeal to voters who were worried about economic insecurity, threats to moral purity, and the disappearance of white Christian culture.

The sometimes legitimate concerns and the passion with which Tea Party members have surged into the American electorate are admirable. Hey, even Bluewater Productions which made headlines in 2008 for its comic book biography on Sarah Palin, has decided to release a sequel called Female Force: Sarah Palin, Act 2. The comic book, according to Forbes, will focus on “the reaction she received from her big Tea Party speech and the passion that she ignites in her fans.” Sarah Palin may not be the next Superwoman (or is she?), but the comic book gets something right—there is a passion that she and these other Tea Party women have inspired tons of people.

So if that’s the case, what’s the problem?

In the past few years, we’ve seen the rise of women in politics. Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton were pushed to the forefront of the 2008 presidential elections and some even claimed that the midterms this past November might have marked “the year of the woman.” Indeed, the Tea Party sought out women candidates wherever possible, and in this way, it was good for feminism insofar as the movement demonstrated that women could be “viable” political candidates, even in very conservative ranks.

As explained by Broad Recognition, a feminist magazine at Yale, the problem is that the women representing these concerns are completely under-qualified. At the point where your leaders invent words like “refudiated,” can’t name the newspapers they read, confuse Hispanic children for Asian (really, Sharron?), and deny evolution on the basis that monkeys still exist, you know you have a problem. Indeed, as the scholar Lonna Rae Atkeson emphasizes, female candidates must be “viable” in order to increase political engagement among women, a trend that David Campbell and Christina Wolbrecht of the University of Notre Dame found in their paper “See Jane Run: Women Candidates and Office Holders as Political Role Models for Adolescents.” Despite the fact that female candidates have the potential to increase political engagement among adult women, female candidates affect women’s political engagement only in competitive contests, meaning that candidates like Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle never really stood a chance.

Therefore, is it really a good thing that the Tea Party has aimed to seek out women candidates? Maybe and maybe not. But it seems that the Tea Party missed one thing—perhaps that day in political science where they should have learned about substantive representation. It’s all fine and dandy when your minority candidate gets elected, but if that minority candidate doesn’t actually stand on a platform that aims to pass legislation for that minority, then it doesn’t even matter that the candidate got elected in the first place.

An article about feminism and the Tea Party hit the nail on the head when the writer asked the million dollar question: “Does being a feminist mean having more women than men in office, or does it mean voting for people who will further a feminist agenda even if they are not women?” Obviously, being feminist would entail introducing and passing legislation that aims to help women. Women care about women candidates’ stance on women’s issues. Which Tea Party women, whether or not they won their races, do not. The Tea Party at its roots does not aim to empower women, give young girls options, increase tolerance, or create egalitarian policies.

And that’s just the thing, Sarah Palin and her Mama Grizzlies simply do not support any policies that favor women. To start with, they want to completely eliminate reproductive rights, starting with overturning Roe v. Wade. Sharron Angle even went as far to say that that “a thirteen-year old girl who became pregnant as a result of rape or incest should turn a lemon situation into lemonade, rather than consider a possible abortion.” Simply put, these women would rather put a girl’s entire life and health at stake than consider the right to an abortion. That’s definitely a pro-women stance if I ever heard one. Nope, not the slightest bit contradictory to the basic definition of feminism at all. Gloria Steinem sums this up perfectly, “you can be a feminist who doesn’t agree with abortion, but you can’t be a feminist who says that other women can’t…to make it criminal and dangerous is not a feminist act.”

What’s important is that women are aware of this. There are women who do not like Sarah Palin’s rhetoric and there are women that are completely disenchanted with the way that she and the rest of the Tea Party women refer to and insist on the ways in which women should be treated. In a poll that asked female voters whom they trust more to represent their views on abortion, birth control, and sex education—Sarah Palin or Planned Parenthood—women overwhelmingly chose Planned Parenthood. Thankfully, the vast majority of Americans, women especially, support taking steps to prevent teenage pregnancy and making birth control affordable and available.

But a lack of interest in helping women gain rights doesn’t stop at abortion or sex education, it even extends into the workplace too. Remember that Glass Ceiling women broke about fifty years ago? Well, if Sarah Palin and her cronies had their way they’d have all you gals out sweeping up that shattered glass and repairing the ceiling in your pearls and high heels for cents on the dollar that men would make doing the same job.

That’s not a joke. In 2008, Barack Obama passed (as his first piece of major legislation, might I add) the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which would allow women to sue for equal pay after a six-month statute of limitation. Sarah Palin opposed the bill. Why? Because apparently the burden on trial lawyers would be more of a pain than the fact that thousands of women in this nation are still suffering from discrimination in the workplace—getting paid far less than the lesser-qualified and more recently hired male holding the same position. Going back to Sarah Palin’s definition of “strong and capable women,” it’s obvious that you should be willing to sacrifice your pay for men in order to further the cause of feminism—economic, social, and political equality for women.

To all the champion’s of women’s rights, Sarah Palin and the Tea Party’s women’s message rings clear: equal pay, controlling your own body, putting an end to rape and domestic violence: that’s all a bunch of real ridiculous gobbledygook.

In the end, how do these pseudo-feminist Tea Party candidates and recent winners stand to impact the American electorate in the future? Well for one, we have to worry that Sarah Palin now has support bases in crucial states come the 2012 elections. Remember Kelly Ayotte? That’s right, she’s one of Sarah’s and she’s a senator in a key presidential primary state –New Hampshire. Then, there’s the governors. Nikki Haley, governor elect of South Carolina, owes Sarah Palin big time for pushing her from obscurity to being a national figure in politics. And don’t forget Susana Martinez of New Mexico, who will definitely help her when she’s battling Barack Obama over the Hispanic vote. Undoubtedly, Sarah Palin has set herself up quite well by endorsing so many candidates, especially those in high profile races.

All we can hope at this point is that the Democrats come around and open their eyes to the absurdity of the Republican Party branding itself as the “Party of Women,” as Rebecca Traister points out in her book Democrats: Remember the Ladies. It’s not clear, she argues, why the democrats haven’t done anything to combat the weak and implausible claim that the Tea Party is a party for women. The Democrats have truth on their side –they’ve been the “mommy party” for years and the party consists of over 57% women. The Democrats have to pay attention to the fact that Republicans are marketing themselves to women and take back the group that has always consistently been on their side.

If Democrats wake up and smell the anti-feminism, then hopefully we won’t have to worry about a woman who can see Russia from her house and who chooses to display her “family values” by putting her kids behind cameras every week become the next President of the United States.

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