I admit to excessive glee at Palin’s departure. It’s not especially mature of me. I remember a similar feeling when Newt Gingrich dropped off the political scene (and I’d feel the same way if he disappeared again). I felt a similar schadenfreude when Bobby Jindal bobbled his big speech after Obama’s State of the Nation last winter. I feel relief spiked with a little spite whenever a particularly odious Republican sullies their chances for the presidency. (I’m looking at you, too, Mark Sanford.)
And yet, there’s an added layer of horror and fascination when it comes to Palin that is due, I’m afraid, to her being a woman. Like it or not, in a country where fewer than one in five congressional reps is female, she represents other political women. She has been construed as the alternative to Hillary Clinton’s style of politics. But while Clinton projects intelligence, wonkishness, and moderate feminism, Palin represents wingnuttery, no-nothing-ism, and the triumph of image over substance. As a model for female success in politics, this is downright scary. It does no favors to the women who might emulate Palin’s career in the future. It’s also frightening that someone so unqualified – irrespective of their sex – nearly attained the vice presidency.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that sexist attacks on Palin are okay because she’s somehow a traitor to womankind. I agreed with Octogalore’s post on the Letterman debacle in which she argued that we feminists should defend a woman against sexism on principle, not just because it protects our own interests. Problem is, such defenses suck up time, energy, and media attention, all of which are limited. At the end of the day, those battles will be more fruitful if the women we defend aren’t actively working to undermine other women. If Palin leaves the scene we can focus our energies elsewhere, and that’s clearly a win.
But isn’t Palin a feminist, herself? Well, yes, she calls herself one, and she seems to be sincere about claiming the label. I’m fine with her doing so; I see feminism as a big tent. But the irony is that her flavor of feminism – which I dubbed Palinofeminism last fall – turns out to be pretty exclusive, because it’s all about individual aggrandizement. It’s not much concerned with solidarity with other women. It’s overly focused on proving her exceptional toughness. It’s ultra-individualistic. It’s liberal feminism on steroids. Most women can’t succeed on those terms.
One example of Palinofeminism is her position – or lack thereof – on maternity leave. She scarcely interrupted her work for her last two babies. That’s just fine, as long as she felt up to it. But a feminist who cared about other women wouldn’t just uphold the supermom ideal, she’d also work toward guaranteed maternity leave. Palin has been in a position to lead on this issue. She hasn’t done it. And so we’re left only with her example, which implies that every woman ought to be able to do it all – and do it all at once.
I don’t think it’s sexist to call Palin out for failing to support mothers and families in her policies. Palin and the Republican Party used her motherhood and family to market her candidacy. Party heavyweights cheered her decision to carry Trig to term. Palin branded herself a “hockey mom.” But what, please, has she done politically to help parents and families? I’m still waiting for an accomplishment other than sending Bristol on her pro-abstinence media tour. Generally speaking, Palin is an updated version of Anita Bryant or Phyllis Schlafly, using her motherhood to curry popularity and claim authenticity on family issues while supporting policies (such as restrictions on abortion) that are bad for women as actual or potential mothers.
Nor do I think it’s sexist to question Palin’s intelligence. Sure, it would be sexist to suggest she’s stupid on account of her looks. It would be sexist to hold her to a higher intellectual standard than male politicians. Octogalore suggests that this has occurred. The tone of such attacks has often been sexist, yes. I agree that using “beauty queen” as an epithet is a lazy way to attack her intelligence.
Overall, though, I don’t think Palin has been held to a higher standard than male politicians. Instead, she has displayed her ignorance more openly than any other recent political figure except Joe the Plumber (and he wasn’t running for office – yet! – thank god). She has shown herself to be remarkably uninterested in the larger world, and this translates into stupidity on the issues. While she’s undeniably a savvy politician with a gift for appealing to the lowest common denominator in a crowd, she has shown a wafer-thin understanding of policy, especially when it comes to foreign affairs, or really anything beyond Alaska’s borders. No amount of coaching and cramming could close the gaps in her knowledge, because her deficits are the result of a lifetime of ignoring anything that didn’t impinge on her immediate world and career.
George W. Bush was similarly ignorant and incurious. The main difference? He covered it better. Condi coached him, and he absorbed just enough knowledge to prop up the facade of the presidential puppet theater – while Cheney pulled the strings. Should the media have focused more on Bush’s intellectual failings? Absolutely, yes. The media enabled him. That doesn’t mean subsequent no-nothings should get a pass.
Palin wasn’t even able to keep up a false front. She was the Wizardess of Oz, and you didn’t have to draw back a curtain to see it. In a way, that might have been our saving grace, because her obvious unreadiness for the job turned off some moderate women who might have otherwise voted for McCain and Palin.
Now, serious Republican women – with brains and hearts and real conservatism instead of radical wingnuttery – I respect and value. One of ‘em is my very own sister, who’s smart but fiscally conservative. Another is my deeply Republican grandma, now deceased, but for many years a force within North Dakotan Republican politics. (Yeah, I realize it was a mighty small pond.) I like the Senators from Maine. I respect Kay Bailey Hutchinson. These are all women of substance. They’re smart. I absolutely think feminists to their left can find common cause with them on some issues, and we should.
But that doesn’t require me to shed crocodile tears for Sarah Palin.