Tuesday 2 September 2008

Palin and the gender agenda.

I rarely talk about American politics on this blog, and even less so since the hype has ramped up over the November election. Part of this has been becauseI believe that voyeuristic obsession over a political event with which British voters are relatively uninvolved exacerbates British political apathy. Whilst the US shivers with hopeful energy, we're back-pedalling aimlessly towards what might be a new decade of conservatism, inequality and misery. Despite all this, however, we cannot avoid being moved by what's happening in the States. The mood is infectious. Hope. The audacity of it! Hope, and its enemies. One of those is Sarah Palin, newly announced as John McCain's running-mate. And once again, the battleground for this election has been pitched on the much-trampled turf of women's bodies everywhere.

Let me make one thing absolutely and abundantly and categorically clear. There is no such thing as a 'pro-life' feminist. You cannot be a feminist and oppose a woman's right to choose. Let me repeat that for the brainwashed and hard of hearing:

You cannot be a feminist and oppose a woman's right to choose.

You can be a feminist and be uncomfortable with the notion of abortion. You can be a feminist and communicate that discomfort to third parties. You can be a feminist and choose never to have an abortion yourself. You can be a feminist and support greater rights and opportunities for young mothers everywhere so that fewer women will have to choose between pregnancy and their career. You can do all of these things and be a feminist. What you cannot do is stand in the way of any other woman's moral and political right to reproductive self-determination.

There is a world of difference between being against abortion on a personal basis and supporting, or leading, movements to make the practice illegal. There are no good arguments for making abortion illegal, a policy which, where it has been tested in other nations, has been shown to lead directly to hundreds of thousands of adult women dying in horrific pain along with their unborn children following illegal backstreet terminations. Distasteful as you may or may not find it, women will always seek to terminate unwanted pregnancies. The very least we can do in civilised societies is make it safer for them to do so, along with facilitating access to contraception in order to reduce the number of terminations that need to take place - something which, by the way, Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin is also against.

Mrs Palin is anti-contraception, anti-gay rights, identifies as a 'feminist for life', wants to overturn Roe vs. Wade and is an important advocate for the American pro-gun contingent. Mrs Palin is, in fact, about as right-wing as you can get, and has been chosen as a running mate by a presidential candidate who had met her only once as a sop to the American far-right and, potentially, to all those who might have voted for Hilary because she has tits and a cunt. A more cut-and-paste insult to American feminists, and, indeed, to political women worldwide couldn't have featured in the wet dreams of the god-guns-and-tame-pussy lobby.

Thankfully, it's not working. Feminists across the world have condemned Palin's appointment, and none more vocally than British feminists, because we know - having lived through the Thatcher years and been dogged more recently by the apparitions of Widdecombe and Dorries - that a vote for a woman is not always a vote for women. We want women in power because we want politicians who care about women's issues. As Anne Perkins comments in the Guardian today, women on the far right have traditionally been more politically successful because it is right-wing women who omit gender issues from their policymaking. Thatcher 'did not do women's rights'. We all remember the eighties, even if for some of us most of what we remember is The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and some terrible lines in babywear.

It is unacceptable enough to support the 'pro-life' faction in its quest to criminalise women's reproductive choices if you are an ordinary member of the voting public. It is less acceptable if you area woman, and know what it is to fear unwanted pregnancy. It is doubly unacceptable if you are a rich woman who does not know what it is to have to raise a child alone and in poverty., and it is triply unacceptable if you are in political power. Mrs Palin is all these things, and merits no less than the condemnation of real feminists everywhere. A case for post-natal abortion if ever there was one.

There are those on the far right who would see women returned to the status of frantic, downtrodden baby-making machines in a constant state of anxious pre-pregnancy, with no control over when and how they get pregnant or when and how and if they give birth. There are those on the far right who seek to roll back the tide of conservatism to further colonise women's bodies, and the lobby, although small, is so vocal that there are those on the left who find themselves tempted to pander to them. Especially men on the left, who will never experience unwanted pregnancy.

No candidate in the upcoming US elections supports the further legalisation of abortion. Obama has stated that he will restrict late-term abortions with some exceptions. Once again, the battle lines are drawn and the fight is over women's flesh, not just in theory but laid down in our millions under the feet of men wrestling for power. Our precious and hard-won reproductive self-determination is just another pawn in their arsenal. And that's the greatest insult of all.


  1. There is no such thing as a 'pro-life' feminist.

    I disagree with you there. I don't think Palin is one, but I'm pretty sure I am.

  2. Well, if that's how you want to define feminism, fair enough. It's not as though we have any hope of reaching consensus on what such a charged word means, anyway.

    But what term do you use for people who have a feminist position on everything except abortion? It's a coherent position, and one that deserves to be separated from simple misogyny.

    As for Palin: what has most outraged me is the sexism in reactions from nominally progressive pundits.

    But you're right: US politics is a distraction best ignored.

  3. elise - how do you define that?

    If you define that as being personally against the notion of abortion, as I've said, fine by me. But if you'd legislate against it, I'd say that's not feminist.

    On what grounds do you call yourself a feminist if you're 'pro-life'?

  4. "Let me make one thing absolutely and abundantly and categorically clear. There is no such thing as a 'pro-life' feminist."

    Really? How do you explain groups like the below then?


    And yes, they do define themselves as feminist.

  5. I don't think that at the moment legislating against abortion will be an effective measure in reducing it, but there are certainly situations in which I would support it.

    I call myself a feminist because I support equality between all genders wherever possible. The thing about reproductive rights is that it simply isn't possible because (bio)women get pregnant and (bio)men don't. You can't make it so that men have the right to reproduce without a partner either, and yet that's rightly not seen as oppression.

    It's difficult, because the pro-life movement is so rife with misogyny, and you can tell from all the "she should have kept her legs shut" bullshit a lot of the people who claim to care about the lives of the unborn are just out to control women's sexuality. But it is still possible to think that the right to bodily autonomy is really really important, but that the right to life is more so.

  6. is she good enough to be vice president?

    hm....you can tell me...



  7. Sorry, answer me this...
    Aside from the mother who would be forced to have a child she doesn't want, what kind of life would the kid have?
    It's all very well being pro-life, but is a messed-up, unwanted life better to be created than one that is? And I don't mean planned, I mean that when the mother discovers she's pregnant she wants it, and doesn't hate the child and herself forever more because she is forced by some law laid down by the government regardless of individual rights to bring life into this world. She should have the right to say no.
    Your argument is that the bundle of cells has a right to life. It's a bundle of cells that could destroy someone's life and has a very strong chance of growing up knowing it's hated. I'm not, by any means saying that all children who are adopted etc are screwed up. Not by a long shot. But if every woman who got pregnant was forced to have that child, there'd be a lot more unhappiness.
    Think of it this way, everyone has one life which they get to live. In their one chance to live should they be forced to do things they don't want? (If it doesn't damage anyone outside them.)

    What you woud be doing is imposing your beliefs on others and taking away their choice, their life, and their happiness.

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