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Just Because She Sings and Dances in Her Underwear …

Motley Moose Exclusive, Guest Blogger Series


Be careful what you wish for. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I was an earnest neophyte feminist at Vassar, earnestly debating the meanings of feminism, sexism, and choice, I used to wish, earnestly, that we would have a political campaign that actually discussed these issues. And this year I finally got one. Sort of. Only the disingenuousness of the conversation we’re actually having is something that I, in my actual ingenuousness then, could never have envisioned. But democracy being what it is, and Republicans being what they are, it’s turned into something very twisted, indeed.  

Most of the time, it feels like a parody of the conversations we used to have, as when Camille Paglia argues in on the basis that any woman who has power must ergo be a feminist, regardless of trivial bagatelles like her policies and principles, otherwise known as “requiring an ideological litmus test for membership”. So Palin’s feminism is just unorthodox? Since I’m quite the hetero-doxy myself, let me just say that I’m not taking this crap from Camille. Feminism is not in the eye of the beholder. It is a set of principles, like liberalism. And yes, that makes it ideological. (Isn’t it funny how they’re ideologies when they’re feminist, and values when they’re anti-feminist?) Arguing that Palin is an unorthodox feminist is like arguing that Rush Limbaugh is an unorthodox liberal. You could say it, but what the hell would it mean?

Feminism isn’t rocket science. I debated it when I was a girl, but then I became a woman and put away childish things. For the record (Camille, sit up and pay attention, you might learn something) feminism is belief in, and advocacy of, the rights of women, based on a principle of equality of the sexes. If you do not believe in, or advocate the rights of, women from a principle of sexual equality, then you’re not a feminist. To paraphrase Joan Cusack’s immortal line in Working Girl, singing and dancing around in her underwear doesn’t make Sarah Palin Madonna, and never will.

There is a reason why feminists put reproductive rights at the center of their political agenda: because “the rights of women” are not merely the right to vote, or to equal opportunity, or to equal pay, or to safety from violence and threat. (None of which seem to concern Sarah Palin or John McCain overmuch, either, needless to say.) It is also the right to control our own bodies the way that men are able to control their own bodies.

It is possible, although tricky, to define yourself as an anti-choice feminist, who believes in and advocates all other rights of women but does not advocate a woman’s right to choose whether to bear children against her own will. This is a difficult logical position for any number of reasons-which were shown perhaps most clearly by the Daily Show’s trip to the Republican National Convention, and their exposure of the absurd double standards, double talk, and disingenuousness (did I mention that they’re disingenuous?) of the Republican stance over Bristol Palin’s “private choice” to keep her baby and her mother’s anti-choice political agenda.

Samantha Bee went to find some Republican delegates to see how they felt about this pesky little question of choice:


Although it might seem like shooting fish in a barrel to target the idiocies of ordinary Republican delegates at the convention, the incoherence they drowned in as they attempted to argue for Bristol Palin’s choice while being against choice as a policy were entirely representative–and the consequence–of the semantic confusions that have come to characterize this election. Confusions which are deliberately created by the Republicans, entirely self-serving, and entirely ideological. Who knew that French theory-hating Republicans would be such adept poststructuralists? Floating signifiers are everywhere.

The woman who informs Samantha Bee that “freedom of choice — that’s different from being pro-choice” gets at the heart of the matter. There is, of course, no difference at all, but Republicans have successfully perverted the meaning of “choice” into its precise opposite, some kind of sinister agenda of mandatory abortions for all women.

So to clarify for that dangerously befuddled woman, and anyone else who’s wondering what the word “choose” actually means, it means, as Samantha Bee reminded us, to decide among alternatives. Those of us who are pro-choice are in favor of freedom of choice. Freedom of choice means you are free to choose whichever option is better for your life, and the lives of those around you. This choice, ideally, will be well-informed, well-considered, well-educated, and supported by family and friends. Failing all that, you still get to choose. This means that any woman in the world who wants to can stay pregnant with my blessing. (Congratulations.) But that is not how my principle-and yes, it is a moral principle, and it is a family value-is characterized by its enemies. The outrage is that they are the ones who are mandating a single policy for every woman, while convincing their followers that we don’t really mean choice. But we do. Really.

Part of the problem, of course, is that feminists didn’t set the terms of this argument: in the wake of Roe v. Wade, its conservative opponents began defining themselves as pro-life. As there has been some debate about this, and this posting is about language, let me say that my source is the OED, which tells me that the earliest usage of “pro-life” in the context of abortion comes from a 1971 Los Angeles Times editorial, while the earliest use of “pro-choice” in this context is three years later, in a 1974 policy paper with the catchy title Economic Discrimination against Women in the United States (no, we haven’t solved that one yet either); its first mainstream usage was in Ms. magazine in 1975. So pro-choice was a belated rebuttal to the appropriation of “life.” But it isn’t a bad one. There is a reason why “pro-abortion” never appeared. It was never really used, because no one advocated it.

The OED doesn’t record an actual printed usage of the word “pro-abortion” until 2004, in the US News and World Report, describing someone’s opponent as a “pro-abortion Republican,” which I suspect the Republican in question didn’t call himself (or herself), because, for the record, no one sane is pro-abortion.

No one is actually advocating more abortions. No one is going to OB-GYN clinics around the nation, buttonholing pregnant women, and exhorting them to abort their baby. Because they are not in favor of abortions is precisely why feminists are in favor of sex education, owing to the myriad evidence that it results in fewer abortions —  because unwanted pregnancies go down when 17-year-olds aren’t surprised that sex causes pregnancy, or that withdrawal isn’t an effective means of birth control, and neither is hope, belief, or prayer.

Sarah Palin is not anti-abortion, because she has said that she would permit abortion if a mother’s life would end because of a pregnancy. (Her life as she knows it and chooses to lead it ending doesn’t not seem to pose a problem to Palin. The mother would have to actually die for her to think the mother gets to choose–which some wouldn’t consider a choice at all.) Palin doesn’t allow that there are any other circumstances under which a woman might be granted the right not to have a baby if she becomes pregnant against her will.

So let’s clarify the terms. It seems that everyone in Palin’s camp are for freedom of choice, but are under the impression that this is different from being pro-choice, because they’ve been convinced that being pro-choice is just a nefarious euphemism for being pro-abortion. No wonder they hate us. I’d hate anyone who ran around with an I “Heart” Abortions button, too. Abortions are not good for anyone. They are painful, and difficult, and traumatic. But at least now they are clean, and safe. And sometimes they are the best option available.

Sarah Palin is not pro-choice, and she is not for freedom of choice, except evidently for her daughter. But as the MSM accepts her characterization of herself as “anti-abortion”, it follows that the rest of us are pro-abortion. And thus once again they are setting the terms of the conversation, through mystification and double-talk.

Sarah Palin is anti-choice, and pro-coercion. She is a Republican who is for government intervention in the private reproductive decisions of citizens, and in no other arena. Although there is one way in which she is consistent: she does think that no matter who screws you, from rapists to HMOs to corrupt corporations, you’re stuck with the consequences.

She is for taking the choice away from everyone else, while celebrating her daughter’s right to make the “right” choice-a choice that would be rather nugatory if her policies were implemented, and that owes everything to the hard-won battles of feminists on the front line of the reproduction wars.

What the anti-choice lobby doesn’t want anyone to remember is that the debate is not about abortions versus no abortions. It is about safe abortions versus unsafe abortions. Because one of the many inconvenient truths that evangelicals like Sarah Palin choose to ignore is a little theological quandary called “free will.” Women who don’t want to be pregnant will not just lay down and turn into unwilling baby machines because the Sarah Palins of the world object to abortion, and want to sanctify the life of the unborn fetus. Unless the mother considers an unwanted fetus more holy than she is, abortions will ensue. That’s as much an unwelcome fact as is pregnancy for women who don’t want to be pregnant.  

Abortion is not some  evil new post-feminist invention. Abortion is as old as pregnancy. It’s as old as creation-and older than creationism. If Sarah Palin is right that men and women walked the earth with the dinosaurs, I guarantee you that women–and men–were attempting to abort unwanted pregnancies with brontosauruses watching them. (Except it turns out they weren’t really brontosauruses, doesn’t it? Which is the same kind of games with words and history that the Republicans are playing–and winning.) And women will have been dying from abortions then, and they’ll be dying again if we forget what choice means.

Dr Sarah Churchwell

Senior Lecturer in American Literature and Culture

School of American Studies

University of East Anglia

Norwich, United Kingdom


  1. There are so many crackling lines and great arguments in this, I don’t know where to start. But I’m learning this one by heart

    Arguing that Palin is an unorthodox feminist is like arguing that Rush Limbaugh is an unorthodox liberal

  2. GrassrootsOrganizer

    20 years ago I made the decision to see to it I never had any more children.  My reasons were MORAL — I thought it was IMMORAL to bring any more children into the world if I couldn’t afford them.  I also thought it was IMMORAL to bring children into a troubled marriage.  Finally, I always considered it IMMORAL to get pregnant over 40 given the increase in birth defects and genetic abnormalities.

    Of course, I would nevr IMPOSE MY MORALS on anyone else or judge them for not adhering to my moral benchmarks.  But today I was discussing all this with a young feminist sister (who happens to share my morals) and we were thinking it might be time to start a forced sterilization movement.

    If you don’t have a household income over the poverty line for  the number of kids you already have, you will be required to have a device that prevents pregnancy until you can afford a child.  If you enter marriage counselling, seperate or file for divorce, you have to go onto birth control until your marriage problems are settled.  And when you reach the age of 40?  You have to have your tubes tied.  And I believe so strongly in MY MORALS that I’m going to work to have them crafted into law.

    And if a doctor knows you are violating the new pregnancy limitation laws, he or she will lose their license if they don’t report you.  And any doctor who shares my beliefs can refuse to treat you.  I’m also going to fight like hell for mandatory implantation of birth control devices in all women under 18.  

    I feel perfectly justified in this campaign because I’m convinced I’m right and know what’s best for the rest of you.  

  3. schurchwell

    Hi everyone, thanks for the kind words of welcome, and I’m glad you liked it. Plenty more outrage where that came from … And thanks for the suggestion of the tip jar, this is all new to me. Is this how it’s done? cheers, Sarah

  4. alyssa chaos

    you summed it up quite well.

    Being pro choice dooesn’t mean you necessarily even agree with abortion, its a point the Republicans cant seem to grasp.

    Awesome diary.  

  5. SusieQ

    What an amazing diary. With the rise of Palin and the ever growing relativism around the word “choice,” I had truly started to question what it means to be a feminist. Thank you for repaving the road.

    I recently had an argument with a friend–a fervent pro-choice advocate–who wondered aloud if the US doesn’t need the shock to its system that would be the overturning of RvW. In a perfect world, where every woman can afford the plane fare to New York, I don’t disagree. State by state decisions might help to cement the terms of a woman’s right to choose. But this is not a perfect world and wire hangers will never be safe. How do we–without endangering anyone–recast the terms of the debate? How can we get the Palins of the world to see things through our eyes (as, I am inclined to think, many of us are able to do through theirs)?

    I don’t think that we yet have the answers. I know I don’t. But I think that Dr. Churchwell has shown us that language, and our care for it. is a key.

    In any event, I just found motleymoose (through mydd) and I can’t tell you how glad I am that this blog exists.

  6. KimBlue

    Being pro-feminism and pro-choice doesn’t seem so illogical to me.  One of the fundamental principles of feminism is that one person shouldn’t get to impose their will on another person.  If you believe that a fetus is a person (which I do), perhaps a feminist should be defending him or her, rather than denying his or her right to life.

    You repeatedly lament that the Right has unjustly narrowed the definition of “pro-choice” to mean “pro-abortion.”  I would argue that the Left has had a hand in that narrowing as well.  The Left insists that a woman has a right to “choose” (i.e. seek an abortion), but ignores the fact that unless a woman was raped she already made a choice that led to pregnancy, and she is unwilling to accept the consequences of that choice.

    We are only entirely free to act until our choices impact the lives of others; then the law creates some restrictions to protect us from harm.  If a person is not “free” to kill their next-door neighbor (without suffering legal consequences), why should a woman demand the freedom to destroy a baby who only exists because of choice she made?

  7. KimBlue

    I don’t deny that women should have reproductive freedom; I just think they should be willing to accept the consequences of the way they choose to use that freedom.

    I don’t relish the idea of women seeking illegal and even dangerous abortions if the practice becomes illegal, but I do think that laws say important things about what our society will and won’t tolerate.  Anti-murder laws don’t prevent thousands of murders from occurring in the U.S. each year, but I doubt anyone in this forum would suggest we should legalize murder so it could be more humane and people could have more freedom.

    Frankly, it seems strange to me that if a new mother kills or abandons her newborn we call her a heartless monster, but if she had destroyed the same baby in an abortion clinic six months earlier she would get a pat on the hand and encouragement to use better contraception the next time.  I don’t mean to be offensive – I just honestly don’t understand why pro-choice folk view those as morally different decisions.  I’d be interested to read your perspectives on it.

  8. I’m a little reluctant to enter into the discussion about feminism and abortion, mainly because I have never held definitive beliefs about either subject.

    When it comes to feminism, I do fully support equal pay and equal rights for all people regardless of gender, race, religion, or any other qualifier. Simply put, all people should have equal rights under the law and equal treatment in areas where the law applies.

    I am quite torn when it comes to abortion. Like many people, I abhor the thought of abortion. On the other hand, I abhor the thought of a child being born into a loveless situation or one where the child will be resented as a burden. I consider an early-term fetus as a potential human, not as a full human being with full human rights. This allows me to accept early-term abortions. Late term abortions are an entirely different matter that carries more troubling implications. This is a matter I think will always trouble me.

    Regardless of my opinions on the meat of the article, I do have an opinion on the writing. I think it is a wonderful diary. I am very impressed by your style and phrasing. I hope to read more articles by you in the future.

    • Kysen

      But, here and now…

      A ‘Tip Jar’ is a comment left by the author of the diary for the express intent of gathering ‘Fierce’ ratings (or mojo, or kudos, or props or whatever the positive rate is at the time).

      It gives readers another way to ‘applaud’ the diary and the diarist (Recommending it being the other).

      It is also considered ‘poor form’ to post a tip jar in a diary that you did NOT write. You will likely end up gathering more ‘FAIL’ ratings than ‘FIERCE’.

      It need not be anything fancy….just a comment of “Tips Appreciated” or the like with the Subject of “TIP JAR”….most folks will know the deal.

      Again, Dr. Churchwell, Thank you!

      (and…add a tip jar!)

    • That’s what terrifies me about ABSOLUTISTS – they want to impose THEIR morality, by law on fiat, on ME.

      But morality is no morality if it’s LAW: that’s the difference between law and morality. Plenty of immoral things are illegal (and some moral things too). But while I disapprove of certain kinds of hunting, badly cooked barbeque meat, and republicans – I don’t actually want to legislate to BAN them.

      Oh, wait…

      That’s what a democracy is all about, that’s what civil society is for, to allow freedom of moral choice away from the absolutists.  

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