Must Modern Feminism Be Dictated By Political Ideology?

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | June 22, 2009 9:07 am

skspdebate1.pngCNN asks ‘Is Feminism Obselete?‘ and Mary Matalin goes so far to suggest:

‘No conservative woman would choose to call herself a feminist as it’s described by liberals today.’

The story begins with David Letterman’s apology to Sarah Palin after a tasteless joke at her daughter’s expense. She accepted, but some conservatives took notice that many ‘feminists‘ didn’t stand beside her in the scuffle. In terms of Palin, I’ve said this before:

[Her] politics are not ‘pro-woman’ simply because she is female..a candidate’s gender should bear no role in his or her ability to take on the responsibilities of president. But our VP-in-waiting must be prepared on day one. In global decision-making, we don’t get a do-over. Sarah Palin’s positions on critical policies seem based on values that many throughout this diverse country do not share and she lacks the experience–especially in foreign relations–to lead…The message I advocate at The Intersection and elsewhere is that men and women should be considered equally for many roles, never that anyone should be afforded preference based on number of X chromosomes. Let our leaders be chosen, not by the composite of their gender, but by their readiness to preside over our great nation.

The CNN piece goes on to explore what feminism means and how it has changed since the movement began. Carol Costello asks who embodies feminism today and considers how ideals have changed. But must modern feminism be dictated by political ideology?

It’s complicated.  On the surface, Merrium-Webster defines ‘feminism‘ as:

1 : the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes
2 : organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests

Quite obviously, women polarized at liberal and conservative extremes do unquestionably hold very different interpretations of women’s rights. However, I sincerely hope that feminism does not become indistinguishable from the left because I fear it would be cast off as radicalism which would undermine the movement. We have so many miles to go toward achieving an equal voice in America and around the world. I may not agree with Ann Coulter or Laura Ingraham, but there are women across the aisle doing tremendously positive work that every ‘real‘ feminist ought to celebrate regardless of affiliation. We must rise above petty partisanship if we are to get anywhere.

No CNN, feminism is most definitely not obsolete.

MORE ABOUT: CNN, feminism, Sarah Palin, women

Comments (13)

Links to this Post

  1. A reflection on the f-word « Dating Jesus | June 23, 2009
  1. pete

    You’re right that it shouldn’t be, but also that it’s complicated.

  2. greg

    Interesting to note that NOW did come down on Palin’s side in the letterboy flap. Also, NOW has elected a new president, and according to a NOW blogger, “The Sarah Palin supporters swung this election. The election was certainly close enough – less than 10 votes separated the two slates. Then again, if Latifa’s supporters had been able to bring just a handful of additional supporters, we’d have an entirely different picture to discuss. The Palin people out organized us, plain and simple.”

    Is this the beginning of a split in NOW

  3. Gadfly

    Um, let’s see, Palin lacked the experiance and foreign policy know-how to be VP? What about Obama who is easily the least experiance person ever to occupy the Whitehouse? With a foreign policy that seems centered on a rousing chorus of “Kumbaya”?
    If Lettermans’s joke had been aimed at one of the Obama children you’d have seen a very different uproar. 99% of the media thought it was just fine directed at a conservative woman, however.

  4. Cathleen Caffrey

    I’m curious what definition of feminism – something different than the Webster’s definition, I assume – the writer thinks liberals hold that conservatives couldn’t agree with. I can’t imagine that a conservative would disagree with being called a feminist as Webster’s defines it. And if some do, I’d like to know what they disagree with.

    I accepted the basic premises of feminism years ago and know that women have benefited from those who fought so hard. If some women felt that feminism required women to deny some feminine goals and interests, I can only be a serious misreading of writing on feminism. Or some feminists really went overboard. But if the latter happened, it still doesn’t negate the basic concept.

    I find it very strange that some women have come to see the term ‘feminism’ as something to be disassociated from. I’m serious in my questions.

  5. Erasmussimo

    While feminism is intrinsically neutral on the left-right spectrum, during the 70s and early 80s, the loudest exponents of feminism were leftists. With the passage of time that imbalance has been much reduced, but not eliminated. Given the right wing’s emphasis on loyalty to the group, I can see how the right is uncomfortable with feminism. This is another example of a common political problem: it’s always the extremists on one side or the other who disincline people on the other side to participate.

  6. Woody Tanaka

    “Palin lacked the experiance and foreign policy know-how to be VP? What about Obama who is easily the least experiance person ever to occupy the Whitehouse?”

    What Obama lacked in experience, he made up to the public with his clear intelligence, thoughtfulness and seriousness of purpose. Palin’s failings were coupled with a views of foreign policy that was in equal parts cartoonish and insane, coupled with the limited gifts one would expect by educating a third-rate mind at a series of fourth-rate institutions.

    (And do we really have nothing better than to argue over your year-old RNC talking points???)

  7. syn

    As a 47 year old woman all I can say is, after watching misogynists who call themselves Feminists destroy the female (even threatening her with ‘hate-f**k’ rape) in order to defend and support the Smooth-Talking-Bad-Boy-in-Chief, Feminism is a fraud.

    It is pathetic to see ‘liberated females’ down on their knees sucking off the Smooth-Talking-Bad-Boy-in-Chief who is currently in the process of looting, pillaging, violating everyone including the children, the grandchildren and their children’s children.

    I am Woman Hear Me Roar, keep the Misogynistic Feminist tyrants away from my door.

    Feminists did not break the glass ceiling, they became the glass ceiling.

    I detest what Feminism did to my gender; we’re all chauvinist pigs NOW, are you happy!

  8. jrobinson

    The right does not have an emphasis on “loyalty to the group”. Leftists, by nature, are collectivist, statist, advocates of group rights and identification. Individualists on the right don’t see people in terms of their genitalia. Because they “don’t play the genital game” they are constantly portrayed as “not being for female genitalia”. See how that game is played? Feminism has always been a pursuit of the left, because only the left pursues group/collective rights.

    “No group can ever have more rights than the individuals in it.” – Ayn Rand

    Feminism was never “intrinsically neutral”. Like most liberals group power plays, the democrats have used the friction between groups to leverage votes and power of their own. So it has always been to their benefit to portray females in a victim mentality. How can it be any more obvious?

    Feminism was never about gender equality, it was about using female angst and victimhood to leverage political power against people on the right. That’s why NOW has always been about LIBERAL women. The mere existence of Sarah Palin has exposed this attitude for what it is: political bigotry. As far as I’m concerned, “feminism” for liberals is no more righteous a cause than “racism” is for the racist… it just gives them a reason to hate, and a place to direct it.

  9. Joe Y

    The question to you as a feminist isn’t whether you thought Palin was the right choice for VP, the question is did you demand that she be treated in a non-sexist manner. If you can’t see that the way she was trashed and slimed–as was Hillary Clinton in the primaries, though to a lesser extent–then you are completely blind.

  10. ffvsartoris

    The problem with the term “feminism” is the same problem with the term “progressive.”

    They have their historical meanings, which have been obscured by their capture by Leftists with all the Orwellian language tricks they so love. No one needs to be fooled by it.

    “Feminism” now refers to a number of very small groups with a lot of media clout which are largely led by lesbian activists who could care less about the issues that seem to interest most women. So they continue to slide in membership and real political impact, but get a free ride from my fellow members of the lazy press. Nothing could have been more ironic than their screaming fits at the criticism of their Godmother, Betty Friedan, except the screams of rage by conservatives who actually think the feminist movement is lead by feminists. ROFL

    “Progressive” no longer means TR type reform, but liberal variations on Marxist socialism. After years of exposure the term “liberal” became so toxic they couldn’t use it anymore.

    They played it beautifully and now we have a socialist president who is a middle of the road “progressive.”

    He is right: “words matter.”

  11. Woody Tanaka

    “The right does not have an emphasis on ‘loyalty to the group’.”

    What planet are you living on? Modern conservatism is NOTHING if not about “loyalty to the group.” Visit any mainstream right-wing website, let alone the nutty ones, like FreeRepublic, and there are endless fights about this very subject, who’s a RINO, who’s a True Conservative, etc. Likwise, the insane ramblings which states that those who are not conservatives are “traitors,” “collectivists,” “statists,” etc. are nothing if not condemnations for failure to be “loyal to the group.”

    Conservatives are amusing in their claims to support “rugged individualism” by reading the same blogs and magazines, listening to the same radio lunatics, buying the same books, thinking the same thoughts, and spouting the same rhetoric, all in unison and all the while damning those who disagree with this collective vision.

  12. andrew

    I disagree that feminism is politically neutral. Feminism is fundamentally left in its philosophy. From reformist feminism which seeks to at least balance the social position of women in terms salaries, division of labor and status, to radical feminism which seeks to overthrow the current patriarchical social structure completely – feminism is about questioning and changing the status-quo. Questioning, not accepting the way things are, challenging traditions; this is what “being left” or “progressive” means, whether it’s about race, economics, or sex.

    Conservatives by definition want to maintain the status-quo, i.e., keep the disparity between women and men in terms of power at the work place, promote “family values” which is nothing more that a ruse to keep women in the home and pregnant, and preserve racist, sexist traditions. This is why it is often said that the phrase “conservative intellectual” is a contradiction.

    Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter are NOT feminists just because they are prominent women. The do not want to change anything about the current structure of society except to make it more hostile to women’s issues by reverting to some imagined past where laws are written directly out of the Bible.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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