Isn’t it curious who calls themselves “feminist” lately? Sure, not Kristina Schröder, germany’s current secretary for family, women and youth affairs (the one person you might have expected to do so) who pretty much is the most unsuitable and outright irritating person in that position since Angela Merkel and her frilly blouse twenty years ago.
Her predecessor, Ursula von der Leyen, however, a member of the conservative christian democratic union (CDU) and mother of seven children, had no problem claiming feminism (albeit in a conservative twist) as her brand, and was the one to implement “Elterngeld” (which losely translates as “parents money,” federally sponsored monetary support for new parents who take a leave of absence from work during the first 12 to 14 months of their child’s life) and somewhat half-compulsary “Vätermonate” (“father’s months”, which means that for at least 2 out of the 14 months parents are entitled to “Elterngeld,” the other parent – usually the father – has to take a leave of absence from work to claim the money).
[I might add here that it’s funny how early this term, “father’s months,” has caught on, even though it’s not specified who of the parents (in the official definition: mother and father – this is without a doubt another rampantly heterosexist piece of legislation) has to take the shorter span of time doing care work, and it has always been an option to divide the months of “Elterngeld” equally between partners. Apparently, only 12 per cent of recent fathers are aware of or care about that fact [PDF, p. 20], however, and take more than 2 months off from their job (although that may have more differentiated reasons, one of them usually being his higher salary than her’s; a fact which the secretary for women’s affairs, Schröder, does not give a damn about).]
However faulty, heterosexist and deeply steepd in neoliberal idea(l)s “Elterngeld” is, it has been marketed (and predominantly perceived) as a breakthrough of “gender equality,” as a new policy of modern (conservative) feminism, epitomised by germany’s first female chancellor, Angela Merkel, who is still being applauded for her every move by germany’s oldest feminist magazine, Emma. Incidentally, Merkel is a conservative, a member of the CDU, and was far from emphasising feminism in her political career at any point.
Despite the differences regarding the political system and political culture between germany and the US, the latter has obviously had its own (even more peculiar…) “conservative feminists” influx lately, most prominently by Michelle Bachmann, seeking the GOP’s presidential nomination, and Sarah Palin (who secretly does the same, I guess). Although Jessica Valenti has written a great piece on why Palin’s brand of “mama grizzly” feminism can be labelled as a fake strategy to win over (allegedly) progressive voters whilst keeping the conservative ones with a simultaneous family-centred and anti-abortion stance, it strikes me as interesting and noteworthy that women of the conservative persuasion seem to be able to take over the term “feminism” so easily (and willingly) and seemingly position themselves at the front of their political parties with great success.
Ruth Rosen has commented on the irony that (in many respects) ultraconservative women as the afore mentioned Tea Party icons would claim such a term, although “the religious right-wing had so successfully created an unattractive image of a feminist as a hairy, man-hating, lesbian who spouted equality, but really wanted to kill babies” during the 1980s.
Is it purely ironic, though? I’d say: Yes and No.
Yes, because the brand of feminism à la Palin and Bachmann is actually trying to void many of the term’s basic meanings. Just being a female politician does not make you a feminist (anymore…). If you are anti-abortion (or rather: pro forced-birth), you are not a (modern) feminist and have no business claiming that term for you. As Valenti has noted (and Palin & Co. repeatedly emphasised), the majority of “first wave” feminists were largely anti-abortion. I’d add: The majority of “first wave” feminists were also largely white supremacists. Hence, the sole advocacy for equal political rights does not make you a (modern) feminist; and ignoring ongoing feminist debates (within and around a movement that made it possible for Merkel et al. to stand where they stand today) for the past decades most certainly does not either.
Moreover, pursuing anti-feminist politics and/or ignoring discrimination excludes you from feminism – and it’s no surprise that the United Nations’ Report on gender discrimination in germany has come to the conclusion that “in significant areas,” the situation has actually been exacerbated rather than improved during the last years (although one has to obviously put that into global perspective). And ultimately, trying to void, re-brand and utilise ideas, histories and social movements for your own sake, after having fought and defamed them ferociously, makes this a really sad paradox, to say the least.
Nevertheless, there is a No when it comes to the question whether this is just a historical irony. As mentioned above, feminism as a movement was far from being as inclusive and anti-discriminatory as it is sometimes claimed when trying to counter this conservative influx. As with most social movements (and life, really :)): things have been and are complicated, there is no unified theory, there are no homogeneous actors fighting for the exact same cause. The neoliberal understanding of feminism that conservatives like von der Leyen, Merkel, Palin or Bachmann advocate – a meritocracy that has no room for the most obvious gender inequalities because they hinder their idea of “healthy competitiveness” – has its roots in the long tradition of liberal feminism. The classism, the homophobia, the “xenophobia,” the white-centredness and privilege, and the outright racism that many conservative “feminists” display is also nothing new to feminist (and other social) movements, and attitudes of the first and second wave have been criticised over and over again by working class feminists, gay, lesbian, bi and transgender feminists, and, of course, feminists of colour like bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins or Trinh T. Minh-Ha. So, even though it has a sour aftertaste, the “conservative feminists” are not completely off base when referring to a certain type of “feminism” as being theirs as well.
Yet, there has been a multitude of debates on those and many more issues (transphobia, anti-Semitism, heterosexism, ableism,…) within the various strands of the feminist community – being stuck in a picture of feminism that many people have tried to overhaul, improve and make more inclusive for more than 25 years now seems severly damaging to a person’s credibility as a “feminist” to me. Ultimately, I’d automatically put a question mark behind every person who considers hirself a feminist and does not recognise the intersectionalities and various forms of discrimination within our societies and, thus, does not have more than “gender equality” (for white, middle-class, “able”-bodied cis-women) on hir “justice horizon.” Sadly, this is exactly what conservative “feminists” stand for.
The truly remarkable and equally annoying phenomenon, however, is what that label of “conservative feminism” gets done; especially in germany. Policies that would have been mocked in public discourse and media outlets as “radically left-wing” are now being lauded for their pragmatism, be it von der Leyen’s suggestion for quotas for women in companies (something women’s rights activists have demanded for decades now without any success – albeit a more comprehensive anti-discrmination approach that does not only include gender inequality would be more appropriate) or Merkel’s successful campaign for germany’s nuclear phase-out. Once again, policies that were specifically linked to social movements, i.e., in this case the 1970s women’s movement in germany and the concurrent ecological movement (as overlapping as they were), are being taken up by conservative politicians and being partially and specifically implemented after years of denial and/or resistance. Within that process, the actual social criticism is lost – actions like the nuclear phase-out become more of a logical administrative step, seemingly without any underlying ideology (whereas the ideology underlying it is simple economic and political profitability).
Although one could applaud the long way social justice issues have come, being seemingly more and more part of public consciousness now, this does not strike me as a victory of any kind. Just as it is often the case with the concepts of “gender mainstreaming” or “managing diversity,” certain aspects of broader social justice idea(l)s have been incorporated – when fitting – into “mainstream” or even conservative politics, to boost their appeal to “minority” voters, as a token concession, a figleaf to seemingly legitimise political directions that inherently contradict anti-discriminatory efforts. It might just be another example that shows how changing a discriminatory system by becoming part of it simply does not work.
I think this is what one has to worry about: Getting blocked in, both in action and thought, by people who first steal your thunder and then market it as theirs. For me, the offence is not so much that people who most certainly don’t fit the profile and/or have any idea what they’re talking about call themselves “feminists” – one could easily mock that. For me, it’s the success of their strategy. It is the societal climate and the apparent relative weakness of social movements that make it possible for people to noisily take credit for their very specific implementation of some ideas founded in social justice idea(l)s and movements, while their actions mostly serve their clientele and few others. If there was more to it, if there was a broader, louder base against sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism (or rather: if we lived in a society in which these grassroots got more public attention and a chance to execute any measures on a bigger scale), it would probably not feel like people who claim they’re feminists when they’re really not are blocking you in.