Saturday, November 15, 2008

The GOP's woman problem

By Chris Moses

Sarah Palin has a tortured, dependency-based relationship with the media. From the earliest days of her Vice-Presidential candidacy to the flirtatious energy of 2012 projections, this mean and nasty group of “gotcha” journalists has been her lifeline to popular political fame.

Nothing else could have transformed someone so insubstantial into such a national celebrity – there is a particularly American marvel to so much being said about so little. Palin might not like the script that propelled her to prominence, but without the press there would be no stage to seize in her current play of revenge-based co-option.

Yet the dalliance of Palin-plus-press publicity goes far deeper. In much less frequently observed ways, the insatiable speculation about clothes and competency obscures an unspoken and conundrum-producing right-wing vision of women’s subservient social and economic roles. At the same time it also reveals Palin’s – and the Republicans’ – biggest hurdle for future success.

More than a class problem, a race problem or a youth problem, the GOP has a woman problem. Sarah Palin demonstrated this most eloquently–and backwardly–with her endless mouthing of the McCain campaign’s image of “Joe the Plumber,” not to mention her affinity for “Joe Sixpack.”

In terms of both economic growth and voter turn-out, the real praise should have been of Miss Joe the Plumber: the female entrepreneur and small business owner who has been a driving force in economic growth in the United States and around the world. While Mr. Joe has indeed gone missing—especially in mechanical and manufacturing work—a new generation of misses has proved innovative, reliant and savvy as America’s economy has changed profoundly in the past decades.

Instead of going to hockey, the biggest shout-out of the campaign should have gone to e-Bay moms, and the ladies who now lunch for profit.

Mr. Joe’s dwindling economic success relative to the misses’ growing prominence has a strong parallel in deep changes effecting U.S. voter participation. Notable for high-fashioned winks and nods to the guys, Palin would have been far better off in a photo-op with sleeves rolled up, at work in a woman’s start-up.

Female voting has eclipsed male turn-out since 1980 and the gap only grows with each election. The swing has been staggering in the last forty years: in 1964, men held a nearly five-point advantage in terms of percentage of votes cast. In 2004, the percentage of women voting outpaced men by almost four points.

And these women vote Democratic by significant margins: since a near tie in 1988, the majority of women have voted for the Democratic presidential candidate.

This year, women’s participation in state politics translated directly into a state-winning strategy for Barack Obama. A quick glance at the Center for American Women and Politics' map that ranks state legislatures by the proportion of female office holders reveals a striking parallel to Presidential proclivities. Blue gains in 2008, like North Carolina, Colorado and New Mexico score strongly by this measure, and returns that challenged long-held Republican dominance in Montana and Arizona follow the trend as well.

The biggest battleground states—Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia—have three of the ten least gender-representative legislatures in the country. All but one of the top ten, and only three of the top twenty, voted for McCain in 2008.

Palin may also have shot wide of the mark with her incessant repetition of the oddly baseless assertion—again pulled from Joe’s thoughts—that Obama would bring “socialism” to the United States. All essentialism aside, women leaders have often been cited as having more collaborative and team-work oriented management styles. While this is obviously a complex story, there’s potential in the idea of successful women imagining an alternative to the competition-for-competition’s sake model that sustained many of the structural inequalities faced in the course of their own careers.

Still, I’m struck by the most recent World Economic Forum’s index of gender equality by country. The top three—Norway, Finland and Sweden—are some of the strongest socialist-like states in the world. No cultural determinism should define how either men or women must act to achieve equality, though a culture determined to provide equitable access to basic resources like healthcare and family support services appears to lay a strong foundation for gender parity.

Beyond the numbers, Palin’s attempt to be the woman of the right fell flat because she could only eve be the exception that proved the rule of how “traditional” women ought to live their lives. However macho, however much her family persevered in her absence, an absence that disturbed the sacred structure of a heterosexual, two-parent household, Palin could be a maverick, but never a model within the life-circumscribing roles that groups like Christian fundamentalists proscribe for women.

There’s a difference between having success in a given culture and working to promote a culture of success for women. For Sarah Palin, the most pressing question of 2012 will be: Miss Joe the Plumber?

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