Sarah Palin And Feminism's Rightward Path Some feminists have had a hard time accepting Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin as a symbol of women's empowerment. But political science professor Ronnee Schreiber argues that conservatism and feminism are not mutually exclusive ideologies.
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Sarah Palin And Feminism's Rightward Path

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Sarah Palin And Feminism's Rightward Path

Sarah Palin And Feminism's Rightward Path

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This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. Sarah Palin's candidacy has turned our assumptions about women and politics on their head, says my guest Ronnee Schreiber. Her new book is about the conservative women's movement and how its goals differ from the feminist movement. Her book, "Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics," focuses on the two most prominent conservative women's groups, Concerned Women for America and Independent Women's Forum. Schreiber is an assistant professor of political science at San Diego State University.

Ronnee Schreiber, welcome to Fresh Air. What are some of the things you think feminists find most confusing about what Sarah Palin represents?

Dr. RONNEE SCHREIBER (Department of Political Science, San Diego State University): I think what feminists find most confusing, or maybe even frustrating is the right term, is that they have called for quite some time for the significance of women in politics, for getting more women elected to public office, and making the argument that that will matter in part because women overall - women in elected office in general tend to support women's rights, women's feminist interest, and so on.

And so, I think, when Sarah Palin came on the scene, the frustrating thing for feminists is that, frankly, she's conservative. They were having a hard time trying to figure out how to deal with this. I think the other thing that was difficult for feminists is that conservatives were using Sarah Palin to basically call attention to sexism in the media and so on, things that feminists have long called for.

GROSS: You've said that, by choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate, John McCain is playing femball. This is a word that was coined by a co-founder of the conservative women's group, the Independent Women's Forum. What does femball mean?

Dr. SCHREIBER: Essentially, femball means using feminist strategies to promote conservative women or conservative causes. So, in this particular case, she was referring to - I asked her a question, why did you form into a women's organization? Why did conservative women think they had to form specifically into a women's organization? And she said, well, feminists for quite some time had been speaking on behalf of women, as women, for women's interests, and they have been promoting feminism through that tactic. And so we're going to do the same thing. We formed a women's group. We speak as women. We frame things in terms of women's interests to basically take feminists on on their own playing field.

GROSS: And how do you see John McCain as playing femball?

Dr. SCHREIBER: Well, I think, essentially, one of the things that John McCain was doing was seeking to show that the Republican Party cares about women, and the Republican Party's interests are ones that can speak to women. And what better way to do that than have a woman be actually making those claims? And so picking Sarah Palin was a perfect example of that. You know, basically, having this woman, you know, talking about Republican issues and conservative issues is basically - and then framing them occasionally in terms of women's interest is basically playing femball.

GROSS: Your new book is all about the fact that there's a conservative women's movement with different values than the feminist movement. I'd like you to give us brief profile sketches of each of the two groups that you write about. Let's start with Concerned Women for America.

Dr. SCHREIBER: Sure. It was founded in 1979 by a woman named Beverly LaHaye, and she was married - she is married to Tim LaHaye, who is very actively involved in the Moral Majority and wrote the "Left Behind" series, which is a very - a bestselling series. And she essentially founded the organization during the Equal Rights Amendment debates, making the argument that - or she said she was frustrated that feminists were talking about the Equal Rights Amendment as something that was in women's interest.

And she opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, so she founded this organization. It's now a national organization that has - claims 500,000 members. It's what I would call a Christian right organization. It's composed of conservative evangelicals. They have groups in every state, so they're pretty large and prominent, and they've been around now for almost 30 years. Essentially, they have, you know, a platform of issues, like opposition to abortion, opposition to same-sex marriage, trying to promote prayer in schools, and so on, things that are consistent with the Christian right agenda.

The Independent Women's Forum, conversely, was founded in 1992, interestingly, by a group of women who came about because they were supporting the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, and they called themselves Women for Judge Thomas. Well, once that ended, and Clarence Thomas was put on to the Supreme Court, they decided that they were still in need for an organization like themselves.

I call them economic conservatives. Another way to think about them is probably Libertarian. So essentially, they don't really take on issues like abortion or same-sex marriage, but they do talk a lot about things like taxes and the role of government and social programs and so on. They're more like a think tank. They don't have grassroots members, but, like other think tanks, they do a lot of research. They are very savvy in getting their members on television and promoting themselves on the media and so on.

GROSS: Well, you mentioned the media. Michelle Bernard, who is the current president of the Independent Womens Forum, is often on the cable news channels, you know, analyzing the news, you know, analyzing the campaign, in fact. Lynne Cheney was a founding board member of the group, and Nancy Pfotenhauer, who is a former president of the group, is a senior policy adviser for John McCain and is also frequently on TV talking about the campaign.

Dr. SCHREIBER: Yes, absolutely. One of the things that I note is that the Independent Women's Forum, even more so than the Concerned Women for America, are very well-connected to the current Bush administration and to other conservative networks, as you mentioned, media networks and so on. And they're, you know, they're very savvy in placing conservative women in the public's eye. And I think, you know, that's part of the agenda, basically, is to have these women speaking about issues that basically are - in a conservative way that challenged feminists interpretations of them.

GROSS: Now, here's one of the things that's so confusing to so many women about the Sarah Palin candidacy and aspects of the conservative women's movement. You take Concerned Women for America, the Christian women's group. They formed in opposition to the ERA, the Equal Rights Amendment, so you have this group that forms an opposition to equal rights for women, and now, they're applauding the fact that there's a woman running for vice president, and, like, isn't that part of equal rights for women?

(Soundbite of laughter)


GROSS: Isn't that part of what the Equal Rights Amendments was for, the opportunities that will allow women to reach that level. So it gets - it just gets a little confusing. Help us understand that.

Dr. SCHREIBER: Sure. It is a little confusing and, I think, in part, because there are moments where these activists are speaking out of both sides of their mouths. So it's justifiably confusing. I'll explain to you, though, how they actually try to, you know, negotiate those kinds of tensions. For the Concerned Women for America, their opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment was essentially that women who - they were concerned about women losing their status as homemakers, as being valued as mothers. They were concerned that women would get thrown into the draft, for example, and, of course, the Equal Rights Amendments was happening around the, you know, the tail end of the Vietnam War. So they played on a lot of anxiety about that.

And so, it wasn't that they necessarily were opposed to women having equal opportunity, but they were opposed to the government - again this is from their point of view - the government essentially saying that, in the Constitution, from their point of view, equality means that men and women behave the same kind of way. And to them, they see that as a challenge to either God's Will or the nature of men and women and so on.

Now, having said that, most of the women that I interviewed from the Concerned Women for America were working women, some of whom had children, so they recognize the importance of having women like themselves out there making claims like Sarah Palin, and they also recognize that there are a lot of women who have chosen to work outside the home for whatever reason. So they have to grapple with that.

They have to recognize that not all women want to be stay-at-home moms. I mean, some do, and this, you know, from their point of view, they're basically saying, women should have choices. If you choose to work outside the home, the best thing to do then would be to make sure that your children are cared for by another family member or perhaps a close friend or something along those lines.

So they would carry the argument out a little further and say, if choose to work outside the home, that's wonderful. Try your best to basically keep the kids within the family, and, of course, we don't support any kind of government funding for day care because that runs in - flies in the face of the other things that they believe in.

GROSS: Yeah, why? What?


GROSS: Why would they oppose government funding for day care?

Dr. SCHREIBER: Well, from the Concerned Women for America's point of view, they basically see it as kind of a way for the government to impose a socialist form of child rearing. For the Independent Women's Forum, it's a little bit of that and a little of - it flies in the face of their economic principles that the government should not be funding these things. We should be encouraging businesses through tax incentives and so on to provide it for families, but that the government should not have role in doing that kind of thing.

GROSS: The Independent Women's Forum doesn't officially take a stand on abortion, but Concerned Women for America, which is the conservative Christian women's group, does. They oppose abortion, which, of course, you'd expect them to do as a Christian group, you know, conservative Christian group, but they have positioned their opposition in a way that is in support of women's health, that abortion is bad for women's health. Would you explain their stand on that?

Dr. SCHREIBER: Sure. And I think it's an incredibly savvy tactic on their part. So, like other organizations, conservative evangelical organizations, they do oppose abortion, making claims about fetal life and so on, but one of the things that they have done - and again, I think this is incredibly savvy - is to start talking about abortion as a women's health interest.

And what they basically say is, for example, abortions, using some data that, I should say, has been disputed in other areas, that abortions can cause breast cancer, that having an abortion, for a woman, can cause the equivalent of post traumatic stress disorder, that some abortions may actually physically harm a woman, and so they frame abortion and basically say that abortions will harm women's mental and physical health.

And I think it's, you know, an interesting tactic, in part because I think it's an area that the pro-choice movement hasn't really grappled with well. They, you know, abortions are difficult for women to have for a variety of reasons, both social and psychological, and I think, from the pro-choice women's point of view, the movement's point of view, to basically focus on that would seem to be sort of a detriment to them.

So I think the Concerned Women for America has been very smart in saying, it's not just about fetal life; it's a women's issue. They're basically reclaiming from the pro-choice movement, who is saying that abortion is a women's issue, and saying yes, it's a women's issue, but it's a women's issue to oppose abortion. And so they're trying to basically hit the pro-choice movement on their own terms.

GROSS: Do either of the groups that you write about, the conservative women's groups, talk about sexism? Do they use that word much?

Dr. SCHREIBER: They don't very much. Although I have noticed that because I've been doing now lots of reading of conservative women's responses to Sarah Palin, and they've started to use it since Sarah Palin was nominated. But they don't talk much about sexism. When they do, their - essentially, their, you know, line of attack is mostly to critique feminism but - and they have said that, you know, some parts of the feminist movement have been successful in eradicating forms of discrimination against women, but essentially, most of what we know as feminism today has just gone too far.

GROSS: Have you heard conservative women's groups use the word sexism in describing reactions to Sarah Palin?

Dr. SCHREIBER: Well, essentially, they're using it to attack what they call either leftist feminists or the establishment feminism or, you know, there are various ways that they term feminism. But they're essentially using it to attack both the feminist movement and the Democratic Party, to say that critiques of Sarah Palin, both her presence during the debates and her presence on these various interviews that she's done, that those critiques have been sexist, and that she's basically - the language that's used to describe her are, expectations of her being low as sexist and so on.

So they're basically turning feminist critiques of media sexism on their head, you know, their feminist movement, and lots of women were critical of the way the media dealt with Hillary Clinton. And essentially, these women are basically making the same arguments about the way the media have treated Sarah Palin.

GROSS: And you're saying that these conservative groups are also using the feminist critique against feminists?

Dr. SCHREIBER: Yes, absolutely. Which is, if you know, a wonderful tactic. I mean, it's quite interesting, and so they're - a lot of the stuff that I've read now from, particularly from these two groups, but there are few other women who have been posting on the National Review online, which is a conservative website, have been, you know, taking about Sarah Palin to this effect and basically making the argument that, you know, why haven't feminists supported her? They're hypocritical. They're not calling the media on sexism and so on. So they're using Sarah Palin to continue their attacks on what they call feminists or establishment feminism, which are basically groups like the National Organization for Women and nationally organized feminist groups.

GROSS: I want to quote something that Steve Schmidt, John McCain's campaign manager, said when he was asked if Sarah Palin might have trouble juggling the responsibilities of vice president and her family responsibilities, and he said, frankly, I can't imagine that question being asked of a man. I think it's offensive, and I think a lot of women will find it offensive. What was your reaction hearing that?

Dr. SCHREIBER: Well, he's right. First of all, I think he's absolutely right about that. Nobody asked that of Obama. Second of all, my second reaction is, well, I guess he's, you know, been paying attention to the feminist movement for the past 30 years because that's what feminists would say. So, essentially, they have basically co-opted feminist language and strategy to promote Sarah Palin's nomination.

GROSS: You know, I think it's interesting that two conservative women's groups that you've studied, the Concerned Women for America and the Independent Women's Forum, neither of them have the word conservative in their title, and Concerned Women for America, which is the Christian group, doesn't have the word Christian in its title. So when you see their name on the crawl when a speaker from that group is on television...


GROSS: You wouldn't know from the title that it's a conservative group, or, in the case of Concerned Women for America, that it's a Christian group.

Dr. SCHREIBER: Absolutely, and I think that's clearly intentional on their part. Basically, when they talk about representing women, what they make their argument is that, we represent the majority of women. That feminists have claimed for years and years that they represent women, but feminists only represents some kind of radical minority of women, and we're really the people who are in touch with what most women believe.

So, in fact, right after Sarah Palin was nominated, Michelle Bernard, again, the head of the Independent Women's Forum, published an article, and the title was something to the effect that Sarah Palin is every woman and then sort of making the connection between her and what the Independent Women's Forum does. So, you know, absolutely right that they don't identify themselves as conservative because they want to be speaking to a broader audience, and that they're also wanting to connect women and men to other conservative causes.

GROSS: My guest is Ronnee Schreiber, author of the new book, "Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

My guest is Ronnee Schreiber, she's the author of the new book, "Righting Feminism," and that's righting as in the R-I-G-H-T, and it's subtitled, "Conservative Women and American Politics." On the very first page of your book, there's a poster from 2001 that was - it's actually an advertisement from 2001 that was taken up by the Independent Women's Forum, and it's headlined, "Take Back the Campus. Combat the Radical Feminist Assault on the Truth." And it reads, campus feminism is a kind of cult. Students are inculcated with bizarre conspiracy theories about the, quote, "capitalist patriarchal hegemony." As early as freshmen orientation, gender scholars begin dispensing false and reckless propaganda. Join the Independent Women's Forum and our efforts to restore reason, common sense, and sanity to the campus. Is that kind of language still used by the Independent Women's Forum?

Dr. SCHREIBER: Essentially yes. They - yes, it is still used by the Independent Women's Forum to other means and into other ends. Although one of the things that the Independent Women's Forum has been doing, and I think is smart strategically for an organization like themselves, is to try and work more with women on college campuses, so they have a college essay writing contest, for example, and so on. And so, this kind of language is absolutely consistent with what they're doing now and consistent with other conservative groups who have tried to make the claim that, you know, in the university environment, most of the professors are liberal; they're trying to indoctrinate students. Students - people aren't getting a fair education. Critical thinking isn't being taught and so on.

So one of the points that I make in the book, and I think this advertisement is a great example of that, is that these two women's organizations that I talk about are also very closely connected to and work closely with other conservative organizations. And in that way, they can help bridge women to conservative issues, generally speaking. Essentially, they're trying to make these arguments that feminism has basically permeated all institutions of our life in a way that's negative, and the university environment is one of those institutions where feminism has been able to take a stronghold. However, now, we're here, and we can help you basically combat that.

GROSS: You end your book by saying that women shouldn't dismiss these conservative women's groups as pawns and victims of false consciousness or pawn of men.

Dr. SCHREIBER: Absolutely, that we recognize them on their own terms and recognize that they have agency. Now, they also recognize that it's important to have women speaking on behalf of conservative issues, but that doesn't mean that they are pawns of women who - of men who would agree with that tactic. It means that they think that that's an essential tactic, too. And I think it does the feminist movement a disservice to also dismiss them as pawns because then we don't recognize, you know, as a fan, I say we because I identify as a feminist, that we don't recognize, for example, where women may oppose certain issues.

We don't recognize the success of feminism in some ways because what these groups are doing is speaking for women, is framing things as women's health interest, for example, is showing that the feminist movement has been very successful in making women matter to politics, in making women's issues matter to politics, and so they've been successful in doing that. And now, these conservative women want to do that as well.

GROSS: Ronnee Schreiber, thank you so much for talking with us.

Dr. SCHREIBER: Thank you so much for having me on.

GROSS: Ronnee Schreiber is the author of the new book, "Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics." She's an assistant professor of political science at San Diego State University. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air. ..COST: $00.00

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