Penny Edgell: The prescient Ms. Palin
You have to hand it to Sarah Palin. She knows how to make a splash.
I was surprised at the fuss that erupted when Ms. Palin started giving speeches calling for “mama grizzly” feminists on the Right to organize and . . . (okay, so the “and” is a bit unclear to me). But to organize, anyway, and take back the feminist label. (A good overview from a range of perspectives is available at The Week’s website.)
I should not have been surprised, though. Elsewhere I have written that religion in the U.S. is fundamentally concerned with gender and the family. Of course, this has been contested. Religious leaders from mainline Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church have fought against the “feminization” of religion, viewing it as a retreat to private life that undermines religion’s public influence and challenges official religious authorities.
The irony is that the feminists were right. The personal is political, and religiously-based cultural ideals of family life have a strong public impact. The different family metaphors affirmed in liberal and conservative discourses provide the basic, structuring cognitive schemas that shape views of the public, the private and the obligations we owe to one another in both arenas.
Which brings me back to Palin, and the recent uproar over her comments. Palin’s remarks were received by religious conservatives, I would argue, as the confirmation of a well-worked out ideology and theological position that takes the complicated terrain of gender, sexuality and procreation and provides a map of how those all fit together. That map is organized around a root metaphor of a family that posits fundamental differences between men and women that provide the basis for sexuality and procreation as well as a division of labor in everyday life. When Palin calls for a conservative feminism, it is a call for public policies predicated on gender difference.
Liberals, too, have a root metaphor of the family. Theirs is based on similarities between men and women. It is flexible enough to accommodate different understandings of sexuality and views the bearing and raising of children as important but not essential. Their family metaphor is based on a view of gender that emphasizes similarity between men and women and entré into the public arena as a de-gendered citizen. When liberals hear Palin claim the label “feminist,” they are offended because feminism means progress towards equality and equality means men and women treated the same.
These two approaches to gender and feminism comprise the two sides of a fundamental duality that has structured feminist thought in the U.S. for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. One strand of feminist thinking has emphasized individual rights regardless of gender (voting and citizenship), while another has emphasized a particular, gender-based imperative to take care of others (feminist ethics and support for pro-mother and pro-child policies).
I am not taking sides on whether Palin is “really” a feminist or not. And I do not think that religious leaders need to take sides, either -- at least not on not on Ms. Palin, per se.
But I do think that believers on the left and the right look to religious leaders to have substantive things to say about the issues that have made Palin’s remarks a source of commentary. People expect to find opportunities to think through these issues in their religious communities. What makes women’s lives better: an emphasis on individual rights and gender-blind ideology, or pro-woman, pro-child, pro-reproduction policies? (One doesn’t need to look to the religious right in the U.S. to find rationales for the latter, which are championed by many European feminists). Where does procreation fit into our understanding of what families are, and what are the implications for how we think of same-sex unions or childless-by-choice unions? How do we confront the evolving technologies that inexorably take procreation farther away from intimate familial relationships and move it toward the laboratory?
One can dismiss Palin, or view her as a sloganeer or an opportunist. But these questions about feminism, sexuality, and the family are far from “over.” They will continue to erupt, and take new forms, as a new generation confronts a reconfigured economic landscape that will shape their options for forming their own families and making claims on public resources. Our cultural understandings of gender and the family have been the tools that we have used to think through these questions.
Palin understands that, and that is why she is angling for the feminist label.
Penny Edgell is a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota.