Scene: the editorial meeting of The Atlantic magazine.

Editor 1: You’ll never guess who’s proposed a piece about the struggles faced by women in prestigious, high-power jobs! Anne-Marie Slaughter, the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department!

Editor 2: Oh, I seem to remember hearing that she’d left that position to return home to her growing boys.

Editor 1: Well, to be precise, that decision didn’t really mean giving up her career. Rather, she left the US government job to return to her high-power tenured professorship at Princeton, where her husband also works and where the boys are.

Editor 2: Hang on: she’s complaining that she had such great employment options that she got to choose between them? How are we going to sell that?

Editor 1: Well, the idea is that she discuss why the workplace and working conditions make it highly stressful even for high-power women like Slaughter to strike a good work/life balance.

Editor 2: Sounds boring and dangerously like a feminist diatribe. I vote to turn it down. No one wants to read about struggles faced by working mothers. [Yawns in an exaggerated way. The rest of the room offers an obligatory laugh.]

Editor 1: Her perspective is actually more interesting than that. She’s going to argue that coming to this decision to leave the State Department job conflicted with her feminist beliefs — that her feminism had led her to believe that women could “have it all.”

Editor 2: Okay, I’m listening.

Editor 1: I think there’s a way to [pauses dramatically] — suggest that feminism is part of the problem!

[Entire room bursts into applause. Except for:]

Editorial intern: Excuse me — my name is Maribel, and I just started this week, and I know Editor 2 told me I wasn’t supposed to talk in this meeting, but I have a question: is this article going to argue that feminism promised that women would never feel stressed out or over-worked, no matter how much they’re juggling?

Assistant editor 1: Shhh!

Editor 1: No, really, Assistant Editor 1, it’s fine. Maribel, thank you for your comment. Our job is not to “argue” anything. Our job is to stir up controversy with provocative questions and misleading magazine covers in order to sell copies and win a lot of hits via Facebook posts.

Editor 2: Okay, but make sure Slaughter’s down with this. We need enough references to feminism throughout the piece that it seems plausible that feminism is at least partly to blame. Ask her to use misleading rhetorical questions as section-break titles — we all know how many hits we get from a few misleading rhetorical questions!

Editor 1: How about an interview video to accompany the piece? Hanna Rosin will do it — you know how she loves to poke at feminism.

Editor 2: Great! You can title it something like, “Has Feminism Ruined the Workplace for Women?”

Assistant editor 2: Umm, excuse me, but maybe that’s a little bit strong.

Editor 1: Well, okay. How about, “Have Feminists Sold Young Women a Fiction?”

Editor 2: Yes! exactly!

Editorial intern: Excuse me — once again, my name is Maribel, and I know you’re not paying me for this job, but I actually don’t understand. My mom works 80 hours a week at two jobs to pay the rent so I can get this experience in the publishing world; I never heard once in my life that feminism promised me that I could “have it all” with no hard choices to make. I thought feminism was still working on things like the glass ceiling and the gender pay gap and prosecuting rape charges.

[No one says anything for a beat. Assistant editor 1 looks panicked, as if she’ll get fired for this misbehavior by an intern.]

Editor 1: You’re right, Maribel. We need Slaughter to offer a disclaimer early on. Something about how she knows about her own privileges. Something like, “Millions of other working women face much more difficult life circumstances. Some are single mothers; many struggle to find any job; others support husbands who cannot find jobs. Many cope with a work life in which good day care is either unavailable or very expensive; school schedules do not match work schedules; and schools themselves are failing to educate their children. Many of these women are worrying not about having it all, but rather about holding on to what they do have.”

Editor 2: That’ll make her sound smart and well-informed, and even sensitive. Then she can drop all interest in those millions of women and get back to suggesting subtly that feminism is to blame.

Editor 1: I’ll sit on Slaughter to ensure that the first couple of screens of text keep the subject of feminism on people’s minds.

Editor 2: It doesn’t matter how much Slaughter fights against “The Man” [uses exaggerated scare quotes with hands, producing more obligatory giggles from the room] in the final pages of the piece — in fact, it’s even better if she does that, because it’ll nix some of the criticism from “feminists” like Maribel. [Room laughs even harder at this, turning heads to look at Editorial Intern, knowing that her internship will not lead to a paying job with the magazine; this laughter also reminds all the women in the room not to push this “feminism” thing.]

Editor 1: Okay, folks, let’s make this happen! Now: ideas for a cover. How about a variant on the “sad white babies with mean feminist mommies” theme? Anyone?

You’d think they would, considering how much they talk about it.  “Is Nikki Haley a Feminist?” asks one headline.  “Is the Tea Party a Feminist Movement?” asks another.  “Sex Addiction is a Feminist Victory” announces a third.  All of these articles are written by Hanna Rosin, one of the co-founders of Double X (the site’s terrible women’s blog, about which I’ve complained before) and a contributing editor for the Atlantic monthly.  In asking such preposterous questions — and, by the way, failing to answer them — Rosin denudes the word feminism of all meaning and contributes to the erasure of the political need for the equality of the sexes, which itself is anti-feminist behavior.  She’s not alone at Slate; Amanda Marcotte’s essay claims that Sarah Palin’s version of feminism has us all asking “anxious questions”:

Does the word feminism mean anything at all?  Does merely wearing a power suit and smart-girl glasses automatically make you a feminist?

THESE ARE STUPID QUESTIONS that good journalists would not ask.  Feminism means a belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes, and it denotes the movement to achieve that equality.  It’s in the dictionary.  But in Rosin’s hands, “feminist” seems to mean “woman,” and possibly a vague kind of “pro-woman” perspective.  Sometimes it means “a woman who has some degree of power.”  Or, “powerful woman who complains that she has received criticism” (this is how Palin and Haley count as feminists).  None of her essays treat a woman or group expressing any interest whatsoever in the equality of the sexes.  None of her essays discuss even the possibility the public rise of such virulent anti-feminists might indirectly result in the equality of the sexes.  Marcotte comes up with the tortured term “feminist anti-feminist” to describe women like Palin:

She’s just the latest incarnation of a long and noble line of feminist anti-feminists:  women who call themselves feminist but also object to the existence of the feminist movement and organize in opposition to it.

I’m sorry, but doesn’t that make them ignorant anti-feminists?

Which begs the question, are Rosin and Marcotte ignorant too?  I believe it’s far worse than that:  I think they’re canny journalists who get paid a lot to cover the gender dynamics of anti-feminist right-wing women.  When they play the provocateur by asking such offensive questions as “Is Sarah Palin a feminist?” they get a lot of responses, which translates to more attention from their publisher, which translates to more advertising revenue.

They’re canny, but they’re also doing anti-feminist work for the devil.  If journalists act as if the  term is so confusing, the vital importance of fighting for equal rights is eaten away.  No one took it seriously when Palin claimed she had foreign policy experience because Alaska is next to Russia; why should we take it seriously when she claims to be a feminist?  It is journalists’ job to be skeptical, not to denude language and politics of meaning.  Rosin likewise enjoys asking the provocative question, “Who owns feminism?” ask if us selfish feminists have encircled it with velvet ropes.  If the KKK announced itself to be an “anti-racist” organization despite all evidence to the contrary, would Rosin ask “Who owns anti-racism?”  By publishing such frequent pieces, Slate contributes to an anti-feminism in American culture more generally.

Of course journalists should think seriously about the gendered implications of so many women in right-wing politics.  Of course they should ask such questions as whether such women might alter our society’s views of powerful women.  Just don’t throw around the word “feminism” as if it has no independent meaning.

P. S.  At first I planned to respond to Rosin’s most recent Atlantic piece, “The End of Men,” in which she visits a community college, notes that there are more female students than male students, and extrapolates that the end of the world is nigh for men.  But then I read the long list of crazy online responses to it and became too demoralized.  Please read it yourselves and email me with intelligent thoughts.