A long way from the summit: some thoughts on feminism, women in politics, and the new Leslie Sanchez book

It’s been a year since the most exciting election in my memory (and, according to my septuagenerian mother, a certified political junkie, of hers as well.) The books and documentaries about the 2008 presidential campaign have arrived full force in the market place. One focuses on the trio of women who helped define this extraordinary moment in very recent history: You’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe by Leslie Sanchez, a Republican activist and CNN contributor. Sanchez looks at the way the media and the nation itself responded to Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Michelle Obama — and what those responses say about the state of feminism at the tail end of the first decade of the 21st century.

(Other feminist bloggers have already reviewed YCALWM, including Clarissa, Amelia at Equal Writes, and Stacyx.)

As a registered Republican and liberal feminist who longs to see a return to progressive values within the GOP (the party of Millicent Fenwick, a political hero of mine), I’ve admired Leslie Sanchez as a sensible voice for inclusion and moderation within a party that has far too few such voices. Hers is a welcome perspective, and the fairness with which she treats both Clinton and Palin is perhaps the book’s strongest suit.

Sanchez, no supporter of Hillary, explores the pivotal question of why so many younger women saw a vote for Barack Obama as a far more revolutionary act than a vote for the first of their sex to have a serious shot at winning the presidency. She suggests that Clinton tied herself too closely to older white feminists, commonly identified with the Second Wave, and lost a generational connection with younger voters. Sanchez is right about this, I think; there’s no question that the gap between Second and Third Wavers (represented by women over and under 45) about Clinton was a significant one, much covered in the press and lamented in the feminist blogosphere. But Sanchez, whose feminist credentials are slight at best, is too dismissive when she talks about the “brashness and tired agendas of the women’s rights advocates (backing Clinton”. It wasn’t the agenda that was wrong — it was the generational disconnect that doomed the junior senator from New York.

YCALWM, is, it should be noted, primarily about Sarah Palin. Loved and loathed in equal measure, the former Alaska governor is universally acknowledged as the most unusual — and divisive — figure in contemporary American politics. Rare would be the person who didn’t find himself or herself in at least one argument about Palin over the past fourteen months since she burst onto the national stage. And for feminists, Sarah Palin — and her experience in the public — drive home two key lessons, lessons that Sanchez does her best to explore.

First of all, Palin represents the re-emergence of a particular kind of conservative feminism, one that has been around for decades. Long before Sarah Palin, Michelle Malkin, or Ann Coulter were household names, conservative women like Phyllis Schlafly, Judie Brown and others were leading major organizations opposed to feminism like the Eagle Forum or Concerned Women for America. In their willingness to engage in the rough-and-tumble world of partisan politics while holding leadership roles in their movement, these women were embodying at least some feminist ideals — all while fighting against essential tenets of traditional feminism such as pay equity and bodily autonomy. (See Ronnee Schreiber’s Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics for a much more thorough treatment of this phenomenon.) Sanchez, like many Republicans, oversells Palin’s novelty; there have indeed been plenty of women before the Alaska governor who were willing to embrace both leadership positions and anti-feminist traditional values. But few had Palin’s remarkable life narrative.

Sanchez points out that it certainly ought to be possible for women to oppose Sarah Palin’s positions while defending her from sexism. She’s absolutely right. Every feminist I know found Palin’s politics repugnant (her views on reproductive justice and marriage equality made her unacceptable); every feminist I’ve spoken to was troubled by the nature of the attacks that came her way, often (but not exclusively) from liberal male allies. Sanchez suggests that the liberal feminist blogosphere colluded in the attacks or remained strangely silent, co-signing the sexist mistreatment of a female candidate because she, Palin, wasn’t a feminist. This is grossly misleading: within hours of Palin’s nomination in August 2008, Melissa McEwan of Shakesville (one of the best known feminist bloggers in the entire ‘sphere, and along with Amanda Marcotte, famously and briefly an employee of the John Edwards campaign) started Sarah Palin Sexism Watch

McEwan wrote: We defend Sarah Palin against misogynist smears not because we endorse her or her politics, but because that’s how feminism works. Yes. Sanchez, who claims to be exceptionally savvy about the new media, can hardly have missed what appeared on one of the “big four” feminist blogs over and over and over again. (The big four: Pandagon, Feministing, Feministe, Shakesville; all ran posts defending Palin against sexism while repudiating her positions.) But it’s inconvenient for her thesis to note how many liberal feminists took the McEwan stance on Palin; Sanchez would rather peddle the myth that the left abandoned Palin to the wolves out of a contempt for her politics and a classist disgust at her family life. Though satisfying to those who would like to find evidence of a non-existent hypocrisy on the left, there’s just no substance to the accusation.

Sanchez is at her undisputed best when it comes to the final chapter of her book. Noting the often-bitter generational divide among feminists, she urges a new, less hierarchical movement for women, rooted in conversations through cyberspace. This makes sense:

Establishing the mentor-mentee relationship between different generations of politically active women is the first step down the road toward breaking out of the box others have put us in since we won the right to vote. And once we are talking to each other, rather than at each other, we can focus on developing organizations that allow us to compete as equals in the political arena. And the best place to start this process is online. (Emphasis in original.)

You’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe is often repetitive, reading at times as if it were cut and pasted together; it’s either sloppy or deliberately disingenuous in its analysis of liberal women’s response to Sarah Palin. On the other hand, Sanchez is remarkably insightful about the ambivalence we have about powerful women at this point in our national story; she makes a compelling case that misogyny remains a potent force in American public and private life. (That message is particularly welcome from a Republican.) Wherever we find ourselves on the political spectrum, we need to take seriously the lesson of the 2008 campaign: women have indeed come a very long way, but the promised land of full equality remains troublingly out of reach.

0 thoughts on “A long way from the summit: some thoughts on feminism, women in politics, and the new Leslie Sanchez book

  1. Great review! It is true that the author is often blinded by her unconditional admiration for Palin. Still, it is a relief to write something fairly reasonable and not driven by rage coming from a Republican writer and journalist.

    One thing I disagree with completely is Sanchez’s prediction of where our possible female candidate for the Presidency might come from. I don’t think the corporate world can offer a viable candidate for the highest political office, especially in times of this crisis.

  2. Do we really need to get into the whole silly “wave” thing, which doesn’t really work by generations anyway? It’s pretty accurate to say that part of Clinton’s problem was a generational gap, but really, outside of formal feminist theory not too many women (self-identified as feminists or otherwise) put themselves into a “wave”.

    It would be more accurate, if less polite, to say that Sanchez is blatantly making shit up. She simply assumes that feminists = liberals = ignored attacks on Palin, not because this actually happened, but because it’s an easy attack that then must be refuted.

  3. Great review! I agree that many on the left did not attack Palin in a sexist way, although of course some did. I give Sanchez credit for repeatedly noting that the GOP and the McCain camp in particular was treating Palin in a rather sexist way and in doing so, it was hard for GOPers to then turn around and just claim that it was the evil left that were hypocrites.

  4. “But it’s inconvenient for her thesis to note how many liberal feminists took the McEwan stance on Palin; Sanchez would rather peddle the myth that the left abandoned Palin to the wolves out of a contempt for her politics and a classist disgust at her family life.”

    The (established) Left is not identical to Feminism.

    The sooner you realize that, the less energy you’ll have to waste defending leftists who happen to be sexist, or pretending not to hear them.