Let's be clear: I don't like Sarah Palin.
She is, as I have said before, hyper-partisan, painfully ignorant, pathologically dishonest, chronically unethical, intellectually unconscious, and jaw-droppingly stupid. And those are her better qualities.
But that does not mean that sexist attacks on her are immune from criticism. Last week, on his show Real Time, Bill Maher called Sarah Palin a "dumb twat." This was, of course, his typically politically incorrect shorthand way of saying that Palin is, as many have said before, and justifiably so, an idiot. But his use of the word "twat" to describe her raised the ire of Lisa Bennett, Communications Director for the National Organization for Women, who released this statement in response:
Listen, supposedly progressive men (ok, and women, too): Cut the crap! Stop degrading women with whom you disagree and/or don't like by using female body terms or other gender-associated slurs. OK? Can you do that, please? If you think someone's an idiot or a danger to the country, feel free to say so, but try to keep their sex out of it. Sexist insults have an impact on all women.
This is not a new criticism. Many feminists believe that using words such as "twat" or "cunt" are gender-specific slurs that, intentionally or not, degrade women and women's anatomy by using them as an insult.
On her Facebook page, Palin appeared to agree with NOW, calling Maher's comment "personal, vulgar, sexist venom." But Palin also had a message for NOW. In an interview on—where else?—Fox News, Palin said, "By the way, I need NOW's defense like a fish needs a bicycle. I don't want them to defend me."
Certainly, NOW took no pleasure in defending Palin. In fact, in 2008, after John McCain picked Palin as his running mate, NOW took the unusual step of issuing an endorsement—for the Democratic ticket:
Sen. John McCain's choice of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate is a cynical effort to appeal to disappointed Hillary Clinton voters and get them to vote, ultimately, against their own self-interest.
Gov. Palin may be the second woman vice-presidential candidate on a major party ticket, but she is not the right woman. Sadly, she is a woman who opposes women's rights, just like John McCain.
The fact that Palin is a mother of five who has a 4-month-old baby, a woman who is juggling work and family responsibilities, will speak to many women. But will Palin speak FOR women? Based on her record and her stated positions, the answer is clearly No.
What was, not surprisingly, lost on Palin, was that NOW's response to Bill Maher wasn't really about defending Palin. In fact, since Palin's rise to prominence in 2008, many feminists have defended
her against what they perceive as sexist attacks. As Melissa McEwan at Shakespeare's Sister explained
immediately after Palin's nomination, and continued in her ongoing series "Sarah Palin Sexism Watch" (which has more than two dozen posts):
For the record, there is plenty about which to criticize Palin that has absolutely fuck-all to do with her sex. She's anti-choice, against marriage equality, pro-death penalty, pro-guns, and loves Big Business. (In other words, she's a Republican.) There's no goddamned reason to criticize her for anything but her policies.
And I'll go ahead and put it right in the fucking inaugural post in this series: I will defend Sarah Palin against misogynist smears not because I like or support her, but because that's how feminism works.
And that, of course, is the point. The fight for women's equality, and specifically, women's fair treatment by the media, isn't about any one woman. It certainly isn't about Palin. It's not even about Maher's use of "dumb twat" to describe her.
It's about fighting to change an institutionalized power structure that disadvantages women. It's about changing the cultural assumption that men are the baseline of normal, from which women are a deviation. In the debate over health care reform, Sen. John Kyl perfectly exemplified this assumption when he argued that health insurance should not have to cover maternity care because he doesn't need it. Sen. Debbie Stabenow famously responded, "I think your mom probably did."
We have witnessed, countless times, the double standards applied to female politicians, who are asked whether they can effectively govern and raise a family, a question male politicians with children are never asked. The media obsessively analyzes how female politicians dress or style their hair or whether shedding a tear proves that women are, indeed, too emotional to lead. Male politicians are exempted from such analysis. And it is that double standard that feminists and advocacy groups, like NOW, fight to end, even when the target of such sexism is someone who does not share the goal of ending sexism.
Palin is certainly comfortable denouncing sexism when it suits her. What she doesn't do is stand up to sexism when it is directed at those with whom she disagrees. When the Minnesota GOP posted a video calling Democratic women ugly, Palin was silent. When a woman was assaulted at a Rand Paul rally last year, and her attacker claimed she deserved it and demanded an apology, Palin was silent.
Palin also opposes virtually everything that improves women's lives, from paycheck fairness legislation to women-dominated unions to reproductive health care to funding for teen mothers. (Yes, really.)
In Palin's response to Maher, and her rejection of NOW's defense, she also said that she is "through whining about a liberal press that holds particularly conservative women to a different standard, because it doesn't do any good to whine about it."
And Palin has certainly done plenty of whining about the liberal press and its treatment of
women Sarah Palin. She's previously attacked women's advocacy groups, specifically NOW, for an alleged double standard. She even offered this advice:
NOW could gain ground and credibility with everyday Americans, thus allowing their pro-women message to be heard by more than just their ardent supporters, if they made wiser decisions regarding which battles to pick.
However, that was in the context of criticizing NOW for condemning CBS's decision to air a "pro-life" ad during the 2010 Super Bowl. Having demonstrated its single standard of calling out sexism regardless of the target, Palin doesn't want NOW to do any such thing.
Before Palin discovered the joys of decrying sexism, she criticized Hillary Clinton for—that's right—"whining" about sexism, insisting that it "doesn't do us any good."
But Palin isn't the arbiter of media sexism. That she has apparently returned to her original position that women ought not to complain about sexism does not mean that those women and advocacy groups who have always taken a stand against it should follow suit. Quite the opposite. Those who want to end sexism must take a stand and hold the media accountable for its treatment of women. All women. Even women who reject feminism, or use it as nothing more than a campaign slogan. Even women who fight against women's interests. Even women who attack other women for "whining" about sexism. Even women who remain silent when attacks are directed at women with whom they disagree. Even women who criticize other women politicians and then misquote their Starbucks cup to say that women who don't support other women are going to hell.
That, of course, is why NOW released its criticism of Bill Maher. That, of course, is why feminists admonish the media for using gender-specific slurs and attacking Palin on the basis of her anatomy rather than her heinous political positions, her laughable gaffes, her made up vocabulary, or her pathetic crib notes. It is because of the very simple understanding that sexism, on the left or the right, harms all women. When we remain silent in the face of it, every woman suffers. And equality cannot be achieved only for some women. None of us are equal unless all of us are.
That's not something a woman who fights against women's equality can be expected to understand, of course. And, to be clear, her positions deserve no defense. It isn't necessary to support Palin's politics. It isn't even necessary to refrain from calling her an idiot. But sexist attacks on women have no place in our political discourse, regardless of who is attacked. We will not bring an end to sexism by selectively defending only those with whom we agree. And that means that even Sarah Palin, whose very politics is anathema to the cause of women's equality, deserves defense against such attacks. Even if she doesn't want it. Even if she doesn't understand it.
Let's just call her dumb and leave the sexism to Sarah.