by Meredith O'Brien
Mention Sarah Palin and half the people with whom you’re speaking may recoil and the other half may smile, as the working mother of five -- including a toddler -- former vice presidential nominee serves as a living, breathing Rorschach test for what it means to be a powerful woman in politics.
If you tend to lean toward the liberal point of view on the issues, it’s very likely that you despise her. If you tend to lean conservative, there are many amongst your conservative peers who adore her. If you’re somewhere in the middle, you may hold mixed feelings . . . at least that’s the conventional wisdom about how people perceive the former Alaska governor, the first female one in that state.
But combine “Sarah Palin” with the word “feminism” and try not to get hurt in the crossfire when liberals say she’s no feminist for a multitude or reasons (not least of which is her pro-life stance) and conservatives counter by saying that liberals don’t have dibs on the term and that Palin’s one of a new incarnation of the word, a “Mama Grizzly” feminist who doesn’t toe the liberal feminist line on every issue.
On the internet, on talk shows and in media outlets, the chattering class has been vigorously debating several aspects of this issue: Can Sarah Palin – or anyone who’s against abortion rights – be considered a feminist? Does any single political ideology “own” feminism or have the power to say that certain females qualify as feminists but others don’t depending on for which political party they register? Should traditional, Democratic/liberal feminists be working to make sure that Republican/conservative women don’t drag this word away from its current liberal connotation?
Democrats and liberals should fight to take the phrase away from conservatives, says Salon’s Rebecca Traister  who has had concerns that: “. . . Palin and the Republicans' embrace of ‘feminism’ ‘could not only subvert but erase the meaning of what real progress for women means, what real gender bias consists of, what real discrimination looks like’ and worse, that this subversion had been made possible in part because my own party [the Democratic party]’ has not cared enough, or was too scared, to lay its rightful claim to the language of women's rights."
She urges Democrats to lay out the definition of feminism so that its original meaning doesn’t get twisted into something that the 1960s/70s feminists never intended: “There has to be a move toward ownership from other Democrats, from those women and men who have perhaps not yet named themselves feminists . . . but who also do not want to see ‘women's rights’ come to mean the exaltation of fetal life over female life and religion over science, who don't want to see ‘women's liberation’ divorced from notions of equal opportunity and instead reframed as Ayn Rand-ian survival of the richest or most privileged.”
Meanwhile RealClearPolitics’ Cathy Young, writing in the Boston Globe , sees that as a bad move. “If feminism is typecast as a left-wing movement, this automatically limits its appeal in a country with center-right politics,” Young wrote. “Feminist writer Naomi Wolf noted this nearly two decades ago when she urged the movement to drop litmus tests that excluded millions of women because of their positions on environmental policy, guns, gay rights, or abortion. Wolf argued that the beliefs of conservative and Republican women who champion female autonomy and achievement should be ‘respected as a right-wing version of feminism.’” And that’s what Young says people like Palin are offering: A different version of feminism.
Newsweek  recently spotlighted Palin and the feminism issue in a cover story which analyzed Palin’s influence among religious, conservative women. Pointing to a speech Palin gave to a conservative organization, Newsweek reported:
“. . . Palin derided the old feminism as a relic of ‘the faculty lounge at some East Coast women’s college, right?’ – even as she wrapped the label around herself, channeling the pioneer wives who ‘made sacrifices to carve out a living and family out of the wilderness.’ Hers is a ‘mom of faith’ movement, a ‘mom uprising.’ It’s an emotional appeal, unfettered by loyalty to the broader policy agenda of traditional feminism.”
After pondering all of this, I found myself thinking about how people don’t tend to question whether a man is “pro-men” or “pro-men’s rights” based on his political leaning; he’s free to think whatever he likes and not be considered a traitor to his gender, or the larger brotherhood of males. But for women, some folks take umbrage when females of a variety of different political persuasions (or an apolitical one) use the word “feminism” as a general symbol of a woman’s freedom to vigorously promoting policies which she believes would make the country a better place.
Certainly the word “feminism” can be applied in a more utilitarian fashion, allowing it to stretch to enable liberal, conservative and politically ambivalent women to stand beneath its umbrella if they so choose, to be used as a rallying cry so that the likes of everyone from Palin to the first female House Speaker, Rep. Nancy Pelosi – who, like Palin, has five children – can demonstrate that women can raise their kids, win elections, wield power, hold polar opposite opinions and all serve as role models to young girls. In the end, wouldn’t that be good for all women, not simply those who subscribe to liberal/Democratic ideologies?