Unfeministing America: The Palin Problem
by Elizabeth Winkler
Sarah Palin has come to embody everything that makes me want to prepare for the final interment of feminism. Or, to take the cynicism further, makes me wonder if I missed the wake, but at least she’s here – hurray! – to remind us of its sad occurrence. The figure now hailed as the triumphant embodiment of modern womanhood has assumed a leading position in an undeniably anti-woman campaign, and though her speech may have aroused and espoused superficially feminist passions, its underlying implications and the importance placed on her “traditional – even sexualized – mom” image underscores the reality that feminism has yet to meet Sarah Palin.
I don’t think there is any question among feminists that a woman who advocates sex-only abstinence education and is unsupportive – to put it lightly – of the right to birth control and abortion can ever be construed as a champion of women’s rights. What should perhaps be noted, though, is the brilliant move the GOP (arguably America’s greatest old boys’ club) made in putting a woman at the head of a ticket that would hinder and even reverse the progress of the women’s movement. To have a member of the oppressed supporting the oppression of her own constituency is among the most strategic power plays that could have been executed.
Unfortunately, few Americans seem to recognize that Palin was rather transparently used as a woman, and a young one at that, to counter-act the exciting and seemingly revolutionary image embodied in Obama. She hardly earned her position, as her lack of experience demonstrates, but was placed in the position she now holds by the good graces of McCain and his strategists, an embodiment of traditional patriarchy if I ever saw one.
Moreover, her appearance and body language at the convention (and throughout the campaign) seemed to place enormous emphasis on her femininity, suggesting that it’s acceptable for a woman to hold the vice-presidency as long as she does not compromise any aspects of traditional womanhood. She doesn’t wear Hillary’s ridiculed pants suits, but shows off those sexy legs in short skirts and high heels instead.
Fondly dubbed a “MILF,” she loves talking about her lipstick and she cannot seem to extricate her identity from that of mother and wife: a substantial amount of her speech was spent introducing her family (and even affirming the masculinity of her husband), and associating her political and social policies to her children (for instance, the special-needs infant and the nineteen-year-old army enlistee). At the end of the speech, she accepted the applause with her infant in her arms.
Somehow it seems predictable now that the first female candidate for the vice-presidency would conform to all these traditional roles as though to assure social conservatives that she poses no real threat. Moreover, we find her on a Republican ticket espousing status quo and even reactionary values: she’s a woman but the radicalism stops there, so don’t worry: nothing will change too much!
But perhaps the worse element of this entire charade is the fact that women, regardless of their political, social or economic concerns, have shown themselves willing to vote for Palin simply for the gratification of seeing a female flitting so near the Oval Office. Not only does this demonstrate a widespread ignorance about the values of feminism and female empowerment (few of which Palin actually espouses policy-wise), but it also affirms America’s disappointing tendency towards identity politics.
Moreover, such a move raises the possibility of reverse sexism. Are we any better than our male counterparts if we vote for a woman simply because she is a woman? Our aim should not be to play catch-up with the boys’ club, feminist action reducing itself to male-oriented re-action. In electing Sarah Palin to the vice-presidency, and even in celebrating her candidacy, the potential for meaningful feminist discourse is displaced by the illusion that the success of a one pro-life hockey mom actually typifies the triumph of an era.
If – in the image of Palin assuming the podium at the convention – we are to understand (as her “we shattered the glass ceiling” hooray suggested) that women have made a great breakthrough and will solidify that breakthrough in her election, then the scope and depth of the feminist agenda will be hopelessly trivialized. Or, if Palin is making the argument – and Americans already believe – that she represents the New Woman of the twenty-first century, then the damage has, arguably, already been done. It just took the ascendancy of Governor Mom to highlight it.