It’s been five years since Sarah Palin appropriated the feminist label, inserting her own brand of womanhood — the gun-toting, abortion-rights-defying, libertarian kind — into the larger women’s movement, infuriating its leaders on the left. And earlier this week, legions of conservative stay-at-home mothers, the same or similar to those who back then claimed Palin as an ideological mentor, critiqued President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, saying its themes offended their feminist sensibilities.
What Obama did wrong, from their feminist vantage point, was to propose something that feminists on the left have been asking for especially urgently of late: a tax credit (the president suggested $3,000 per child) so that single-parent families and families with two working parents might better be able to afford good child-care. “It’s time,” the president said, “we stop treating child care as a side issue, or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us.” (That the president’s critics and supporters criticized and praised this plan in feminist terms shows just how far we all still need to go to in seeing the care of children as more than a women’s issue.)
Feminism, both the word and the movement, has long suffered from ambiguities over meaning and inclusion — who is a feminist? — and for the right to claim it to further a set of retrograde priorities and social values is an ingenious rhetorical move. Taken in its broadest sense, as “good for women” or “good for families,” feminism is neutered, if you will, of its leftist political power.
Obama’s right-wing feminist critics said his tax proposal discriminated especially against stay-at-home mothers, and so overlooked and condescended to legions of women. A family with two working parents gets $3,000 per kid, they pointed out, but a family that has made the decision to sacrifice one full-time income so that a parent might stay home to raise children gets nada? “The beauty about being a woman in America is we get to make choices,” wrote Dena D. Hobbs, who quit her job at great financial cost to her family in order to be at home raising two young kids, at BlogHer. Hobbs reflects, bitterly, that the president’s priorities seem to support women who have made different choices than the ones she and her husband have made: “When did economic vibrancy become more important than raising our next generation? … When did strengthening the economy become more important than strengthening families?”
And over at the Federalist, Joy Pullmann (who works from home in order to care for her three kids) wrote a more pointed right-wing screed, using vocabulary more often found in the lefty academic journals of the early 1990s.
“I have to hold my head high,” she wrote, “as a woman who sticks to her innate criteria for love and justice while the president of the free world takes to international television to bash me for having criteria that don’t match those of an egotistical, money-focused alpha male. How phallo-centric. And patriarchal.”
It’s funny to think of Obama — raised as he was by women, and committed as he has consistently been to easing the burden on working families — as “an egotistical, money-focused alpha male.” But, hey. From a feminist vantage point, every world leader looks like a phallocentric patriarch.