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11.26.10

How Palin Flunks Feminism

The governor-turned-reality-TV-star’s new book dives into feminist history—distorting and misunderstanding it every step of the way.

In some ways, it’s a good thing that Sarah Palin calls herself a feminist. It means that, even among conservatives, women’s equality has become a normative position, the starting point for debate. It means that feminism has gone from something that the right wants to destroy to something it wants to appropriate. That’s progress, of a sort.

But reading Palin’s new book, America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith and Flag, it’s clear that in order to claim feminism as her own, she’s had to radically distort its history. In a chapter on feminism that’s sure to be widely discussed, she mischaracterizes the views of nearly every historical feminist she mentions.

Sometimes she does it to defame them, other times to make it seem as if they shared her ideology. As so often with Palin, it’s hard to tell whether ignorance or dishonesty is at work. Perhaps neither she nor her ghostwriter had time to read up on women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, presented here as a pious Christian conservative. But couldn’t one of them at least have perused her Wikipedia entry?

In typically Manichean fashion, Palin divides the feminist movement into the hardy, maternalist foremothers who fought, justly, for the right to the vote, and the whining, anti-family radicals who came along in the 1960s and '70s. With a rather stunning lack of self-awareness, she rehashes Dan Quayle’s attack on the TV show Murphy Brown for glorifying single motherhood. She takes a swipe at what she calls Hillary Clinton’s former appearance of “1960s-era bra-burning militancy.” Against such viragos, she sets earlier feminist heroines, who she seems to imagine were a lot like Sarah Palin. “What is hardest to take about liberals calling the emerging conservative feminist identity anti-feminist or even anti-woman is that this new crop of female leaders represents a return to what the women’s movement originally was,” she writes.

The historical revisionism here recalls that of Christian conservatives who try to paint our deistic Founding Fathers as devout evangelicals. At one point, Palin refers to Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “ Declaration of Sentiments,” which came out of the historic 1848 women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York. Stanton deliberately echoed the language of the Declaration of Independence, referring to the rights that women are entitled to “by the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” To Palin, this mention of God proves that Stanton shared her faith: “Can you imagine a contemporary feminist invoking ‘the laws of nature and of nature’s God?’ These courageous women spoke of our God-given rights because they believed they were given equally, by God, to men and women.”

Not really. Stanton was a famous freethinker, eventually shunned by more conservative elements of the women’s movement for her attacks on religion. In one 1885 speech, she declared, “You may go over the world and you will find that every form of religion which has breathed upon this earth has degraded women.” Ten years later, she published the first volume of The Woman’s Bible, her mammoth dissection of biblical misogyny. Stanton was particularly scathing on the notion of the virgin birth: “Out of this doctrine, and that which is akin to it, have sprung all the monasteries and nunneries of the world, which have disgraced and distorted and demoralized manhood and womanhood for a thousand years.”

America by Heart packs a lot of deceit into a small package. Indeed, it’s an object lesson in the power of right-wing propaganda to create imaginary histories.

Palin also tries to claim Susan B. Anthony for her side. The idea that Anthony was anti-abortion is a cherished one on the right; one anti-abortion political action committee calls itself the “Susan B. Anthony List.” “Susan B. Anthony saw the fight for the rights of the unborn as part of the broader fight for women’s rights,” writes Palin.

Again, not really. As Ann Gordon, the editor of Anthony’s papers, and Lynn Sherr, one of her biographers, wrote earlier this year, “We have read every single word that this very voluble—and endlessly political—woman left behind. Our conclusion: Anthony spent no time on the politics of abortion. It was of no interest to her, despite living in a society (and a family) where women aborted unwanted pregnancies.“

Those who claim that that Anthony was anti-abortion usually cite an article published in a newspaper that she owned deploring “the horrible crime of child-murder.” There’s no evidence that Anthony wrote it—it’s simply signed “A,” which is not a shorthand Anthony was known to use. But if she did write it, it’s actually evidence that she didn’t share Palin’s politics.

The article in Anthony’s newspaper was a response to an article published elsewhere that called for abortion to be criminalized. While agreeing that abortion is horrible, A. opposed “a law for its suppression,” which the writer said would not “have the desired effect.” What women needed, said A., was the power to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies: “Women are educated to think that with marriage their individuality ceases or is transferred to their husbands. The wife has thenceforth no right over her own body. This is also the husband’s belief, and upon which he acts.” The one thing we know definitively about Anthony and abortion is that she published an article opposing the sort of ban that Palin supports.

America by Heart is as wrong about the feminists Palin despises as it is about those she admires. She relies on the historical expertise of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism for her attack on Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger. Paraphrasing Goldberg, she writes that Sanger was an advocate of “Nazi-style eugenics” who advocated birth control “to keep the ‘unfit’ from reproducing—particularly blacks.”

Sanger was a flawed woman who transcended some of the prejudices of her time and not others. There is no doubt that she said things that sound abhorrent to modern ears. (As did Stanton and Anthony.) She operated at a time when eugenic arguments were very much in vogue, harnessed by both sides of the birth-control debate. (Opponents of contraception claimed it would lead to a dangerous drop in the white birth rate). But Sanger, who got her last name from her Jewish husband, was no racist; she believed that intelligence and ability differed among individuals, not ethnic groups.

The name of Sanger’s attempt to bring birth control to poor communities in the black South—“The Negro Project”—has a hideous ring today. But it really was a humanitarian effort rather than a racist scheme; the project’s advisory board included W.E.B. DuBois, Harlem pastor Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women. Indeed, upon accepting Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger Award in 1966, Martin Luther King lauded her work among the poor. His speech, which his wife delivered on his behalf, said, “There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger's early efforts… Our sure beginning in the struggle for equality by nonviolent direct action may not have been so resolute without the tradition established by Margaret Sanger and people like her.”

One could go on and on parsing America by Heart like this; it packs a lot of deceit into a small package. Indeed, it’s an object lesson in the power of right-wing propaganda to create imaginary histories. Palin’s book shows that while she calls herself a feminist, feminism is just another subject she knows almost nothing about. To point that out, of course, will only strengthen her sense of being persecuted by supercilious elites. When Palin complains about a cult of victimhood in modern feminism, she is wholly unaware of the irony.

Michelle Goldberg is a journalist and author based in New York. Her first book, the New York Times bestseller Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, was a finalist for the 2007 New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism. Her second book, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World , won 2008's  J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award and the Ernesta Drinker Ballard Book Prize. Goldberg's work has appeared in Glamour, Rolling Stone, The Nation, New York, The Guardian (UK) and The New Republic. Her third book, about the world-traveling adventuress, actress and yoga evangelist Indra Devi, will be published by Knopf in 2012.