Sunday, October 24, 2010

Feminism and the Tea Party

Well, it looks like push came to shove.

The Tea Party is so desperate to remain in the eyes of the media, to monopolize and frame the discussion to fit their agenda (which is, basically, to regain GOP majority in Congress), their female candidates and mouthpieces are increasingly using the term "feminist" to describe themselves.  Now, being a liberal as I am, it should not bother me how a politician self-identifies, but identity politics is as strong now as ever, and I cannot sit tight and shut up when the extreme right-wing co-opts such terms.  (More should have cried bloody murder, too, when George W. Bush described himself as "compassionate conservative," as he famously lacked compassion when he signed more death warrants than any other elected official at that time in America.)

So, let's examine the concept of this "conservative feminism." This term was popularized by Judge Posner, whom I respect for many of his brilliant opinions in the stream of economic analysis of the law.  Alas, I have to disagree with his shortsighted analysis of feminist politics: he lamented that giving women "extra" benefits prima facie discriminated against their male counterparts. Sound familiar? This is precisely the same argument that advocates for a "color-blind" society put forward to defeat affirmative action. Never mind that past discrimination caused severe distortions in the economy of race or gender relations. We don't have to do anything to remedy that, because, you see, we want to treat each person fairly. Amazing what rhetorics can do: equality is now a demand from the conservatives. But what they demand is never actual, substantive equality. The quest for a color-blind and gender-neutral society is always a cry for merely formal equality: emphasis placed on the word treatment in "equal treatment under the law."

Feminists of all stripes agree that formal equality is not sufficient.  I may be happy that I can be addressed as Ms., have my own professional career, and even receive equal pay for equal work, but when most women go home at night, they still put in a second shift.  Child-care, after school programs, and the like are either so expensive, or their quality is so sub-par that waves of professional women have to decide to forgo developing their careers (for at least a significant amount of time) to properly raise and educate their children. Public transportation in huge swaths of this country is almost non-existent, so parents have to ferry their children to extracurricular activities. Guess which parent will "choose" to take that task on?  I could continue, but you got my point.  Thus, conservative feminism, which denies these realities, is no feminism at all. 

Nevertheless, the Tea Party Feminists argue that they are true feminists, because they are women demanding a spot in the spotlight. They are, as they self-identify, stay-at-home moms (don't even get me started on that)  organizing the Tea Party activities while at the soccer field, watching their kids' practice.  They are "out there," having an articulate voice on how this country should be run. Ain't that feminism?

My answer to them: No way.  Feminism is not about having women out there organizing for the GOP. That's Republican Party politics.  Feminism, on the other hand, has a mission to achieve: it was once the vote, the workplace, the sexual harassment laws, and so on.  Today's feminism still has a mission.  But Tea Party "feminism" is simply taking advantage of all the organizing true feminists have done for them.  They are, at best, essentialists, or "cultural feminists," perpetuating the myth of female difference, the idea of different voice.

Cultural feminists believed that women's different voice benefits society, and that's why society should allow women to have a voice: a loud, clear voice of sterling silver, that would balance out the iron-clad male voice.  Cultural feminists advanced the argument that women were better at cooperation, peace negotiations, human resource management, primary education, etc., where "soft skills," or "people skills" are required.  But women, they said, were probably not as good (or not as properly there) as men at combat, military strategies, spatial organization, driving, mining, long distance running, and the like.  Thus, women should have a distinct place in the public sphere, but not the same as men, just not quite.  This quaint vision of feminism still prescribes separate spheres to women, but not along the public/domestic dividing line.  And this strain of thinking still appears ad nauseam today in women's magazines ("Yes! You Can Have It All! Just Not At The Same Time!") while it continues to deny women's substantive equality.

As this blog on states:
If there was ever proof that the feminist movement needs to leave gender essentialism at the door -- this is it. If powerful feminists continue to insist that gender matters above all else, the movement will become meaningless. If any woman can be a feminist simply because of her gender, then the right will continue to use this faux feminism to advance conservative values and roll back women's rights.


Rebecca said...

I commented on another blog post this week about the Tea Party and their use of "female leaders" to push a more patriarchial view of America.

Betsy Reed, in an article in THE NATION titled, How Conservative Women Politicians Make Life Harder for Working Moms," says:
"It's insidious how Republicans are deploying women candidates to pitch government belt-tightening to women as the 'keepers of the family budget,' as if the stresses of working families are increased by childcare, healthcare, eldercare, after-school and other social programs."

They are using conservative think tanks, women's groups and religious pulpits to undermine all of the women's rights that have been hard fought and won over the past 50 years. They want to return us to the days of "barefoot and pregnant" and enslaved to a husband's kitchen and bed.

I am outraged......

Alcestis said...

"The quest for a color-blind and gender-neutral society is always a cry for merely formal equality: emphasis placed on the word treatment in "equal treatment under the law."

Thank you, thank you. For the past few months I have been struggling with this notion that everything is okay and there really is no need for a feminist movement or recognition of different races. I sometimes feel a little left out when gender or race is brought up in discussion because I have an uneasiness of where we are on "equality." Regardless of where the discussion starts it always ends with someone saying we are all equal, so we all have to be treated equally or (something to the extent of) differences are great but they shouldn't matter.

Of course they should matter, especially since we are not equal. Claiming that women finally have everything a man has because we can have a professional career, can receive equal pay for equal work, or can take the "spotlight" ignores the inequalities in our society and allows them to perpetuate on a larger systematic scale. Tea Party Feminist are the perfect example of superficial equality. Sure you are in the spotlight, but what does that really mean? And who really benefits from you being there?

N.P. said...

This post resonates with many things we have discussed about equality, essentialism, and the concept of differences.

These women are women, that is true. However, being a woman does not necessarily equate with feminism. Moreover, these women are a small portion of their republican base and American society. They have "power" in the system and some sense of equality on this basis. This is not essentially the same as other women in the GOP, Tea Party, or any other political party - those women who may have to drive miles to vote, or put their child in the backseat to get to the booth, or those women who immigrated into this country in order to be able to vote at all. The Tea Party does not represent women and it doesn't represent feminism - it merely represents that they found women candidates who have a tendency to say things their party wants them to say.