Defining Feminism: The Political versus The Personal

Palin v Steinem

Since Sarah Palin claimed the label feminist there has been quite an uproar about who can and cannot claim the term and what the term actually means. For feminism to be inclusive and therefore true to its basic goal of fighting for the rights of the underprivileged, it has to have a flexible and malleable definition. It is for this reason that Palin was able to claim the term, and still stand by her opposition to abortion and comprehensive sex education amongst other seemingly un-feminist stances.

This blog, however, makes a brazen statement about feminism in its title alone. It claims that to be feminist is to be pro-choice.  In the dualistic sense this means that if one is pro-life that one cannot be a feminist.  How can feminism be malleable and have a narrow definition?

The conundrum of feminism is that it has a personal and political definition and they are two separate entities.  When a politican claims to be a feminist they are claiming support for a specific set political ideologies.  The personal use of the word has much broader definitions and is used in a social context.

Katherine Mangu-Ward makes this really important point about feminism and politics in the Slate article “Who Gets to Be Feminist?”: “To call oneself a feminist in this context  [political] requires a certain set of opinions on abortion, social justice, sexual-harassment laws, equal pay, contraception, and a whole host of other contentious issues. Specifically, the opposite of the opinions Sarah Palin happens to hold.”

Palin’s claiming of the term feminism blurrs the personal and political lines; she claims the term feminist in a personal sense, complete with her own specific definition, but applies that definition to the political arena.  In terms of political strategy, its rather ingenious.  One of the ways Palin has been able to blur the lines of personal and political feminism is by playing to the idea that the terms feminist and woman are interchangeable.  Unfortunately, feminists themselves have toyed with this very same idea and in effect set the stage for Palin to make such a claim. Jessica Valenti’s article in The Nation traces the origins of this paradox:

During the Democratic primary, feminist icons and leaders of mainstream women’s organizations insisted that the only acceptable vote was for Hillary Clinton; female Barack Obama supporters were derided as traitors or chided for their naïveté. I even heard from women working in feminist organizations who kept mum on their vote for fear of losing their jobs. Perhaps most representative of the internal strife was a New York Times op-ed (and the fallout that followed) by Gloria Steinem in which the icon wrote, “Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life.”

To so specifically claim that gender is the singular defining definition of feminism in the political sense is to open the door for any female politician to call herself a feminist. As feminists, either politically or personally, we must demand that feminism does not recognize gender constructs.  And as political feminists, we we may just have to get used to choosing between two feminist politicians (oooh, I relish the thought!).

About Kimberly:
Kimberly is a law student at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. When not studying or writing, she can be found devouring video games and books. She is commonly caught muttering under her breath a critique of the consumeristic mechanism that constantly insists on bombarding her personal space.


  1. I agree – gender alone is not enough. If being a woman were the only component of feminism, we would lose our male allies.

    That being said, I think that someone could be against abortion for themselves and still be a feminist, but you have to support the rights of other women to make that decision for themselves. If it ain’t your body, it ain’t your choice.

    That graphic scares me, though. Just gotta be honest. :)

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