Would I Be Less Offended if Palin Were a Man?

Like many in my circles, I was horrified when I learned about Sarah Palin’s beliefs and several of her actions as Wasilla Mayor and Alaskan Governor: the Evangelical leanings, the anti-reproductive rights stance, the sanctimonious way she uses “hockey mom” as a badge of purity and goodness, the belief that things like war and pipelines are sanctioned by God, the attempt to use her power as Mayor to ban books at an elementary school, the homophobia… But this is par for the course from a conservative Republican. As McCain’s running mate, did I really expect anything else?

Well, yes. I expected to hear these sentiments from the lips of a man. When I believe that we should judge individuals on their words and actions, regardless of what group they belong to, am I actually holding Palin’s gender against her?

The McCain camp cries sexism every time Palin is questioned on her integrity or experience. Conservatives claim hypocrisy that the feminist movement hasn’t jumped to her support. But backing a candidate just because she’s a woman is just as bad as refusing to vote for a candidate just because she’s a woman. A new Palin-inspired tee shirt reads “A Woman Candidate is not Necessarily a Woman’s Candidate.”

We can applaud the fact that she’s a powerful woman, a mother of five who successfully Governs Alaska while tending to a Downs Syndrome infant, attending church, and toting kids the ice rink. She’s the epitome of a working mother, and a woman in power who doesn’t back down from a challenge. All of that is great. But it becomes harder to more obviously applaud her bid for U.S. Vice President when she appears to have been chosen (after a 15-minute meeting and a telephone call) as a pawn to the men who desperately want McCain in the White House.

Was she chosen as the best person to lead the nation should anything happen to a 72 year old cancer survivor? Or was she chosen as the perfect emblem to entice women and ultra-conservatives – those demographics whose ambivalence about McCain might otherwise keep them home on election day – or worse defect to Obama? (Well, the women anyway.)

She toes the party line and can help him win. She is acceptable, is so perfect, because she looks exactly like men and conservative women want her to. She’s pretty, she’s feminine, and she’s all about God and family. She’s a barracuda who is ready to spar with the enemy, but won’t make waves with her own.

So why aren’t feminists giving the credit conservatives feel she deserves? And why do anti-feminist beliefs coming from a strong independent woman bother me so much?

There’s obviously a disconnect in the way conservatives and progressives think about women, about sexism. What is sexism, really? Because when feminists and conservatives breach the issue, they seem to be talking about two different things.

The McCain campaign recently claimed sexism on Joe Biden for calling Palin “good looking.”  This was actually a misrepresentation because Biden, when pointing out an obvious difference between himself and his opponent, said “She’s good looking.” It was a humorous dig at himself. He also called Obama good-looking and made a joke about his own appearance next to the younger Senator. Still, if spun to denote that Biden believes her femine attractiveness is her only valuable trait – that’s sexism.

But how does her own, enthusiastically supportive voter base treat the Governor? Well, there’s the sycophantic and oddly news-based  VPILF.com, there’s the Sarah Palin sexy school girl action figure (to be fair the company also makes ultra buff verions of McCain, Edwards, Spitzer, and Obama – who is featured sans shirt), and a full-body silhouette of Pain (think mud flaps on an 18-wheeler) with arms and one leg wrapped around a drilling rig and the flattering assertion, “I’d drill that!”

CNBC’s Donny Deutch praised Palin with the following:

There is the new creation that the feminist woman has not figured out in 40 years of the feminist ideal that men can take in a woman in power and women can celebrate a woman in power. Hillary Clinton didn’t figure it out. She didn’t put a skirt on! […]

She [Palin] talked about energy. Didn’t matter! Today everybody’s running in circles — we want to have her over for dinner. I trust her. I want her watching my kids. I want her laying next to me in bed. That’s the way people vote.

So, “men can take a woman in power” as long as she wears a skirt? As long as she’s attractive enough to “mate”? Opt for a pant suit and you’re screwed?

This is the difference. Sexualizing a woman isn’t celebrating her. Feeling comfortable with a woman when she conforms to what pleases (not threatens) you, is not a feminist ideal. When women need to be what men want, that’s not progressive and it’s not good for women.

Feminists respond to things that truly empower women, and satisfying male fantasy – or the fantasies of anyone else, isn’t it. Although the way Palin’s male brethren respond to her attractiveness is clearly sexist, this isn’t a judgment on her. Her attractiveness in itself makes no difference anymore than someone’s unattractiveness would. In fact, elevating the importance of a woman’s level of attractiveness to men is precisely what brings you into the realm of the offensive.

Palin isn’t automatically embraced by feminists because being female is not a criterion for inclusion. Plenty of males support feminism and plenty of females don’t. Feminists care about Palin’s views, and her views on women’s issues is what makes her so unacceptable to progressive females across the country.

Yet hers is a predictable worldview for a Republican running mate. Why is it that when women say and believe things that degrade their own sex, it’s so much harder to deal with?

Consider the infamous Phyllis Schlafly, whose best-of quotes might include

“Sexual harassment on the job is not a problem for virtuous women,”

“Sex education classes are like in-home sales parties for abortions,”

or

“Feminism is doomed to failure because it is based on an attempt to repeal and restructure human nature.”

Or how about Charlotte Allen who received attention for a recent Washington Post article entitled “We Scream, We Swoon, How Dumb Can We Get?” – women who seem to disparage their own gender to the end of being accepted by God or the males in their lives, or both. In a sort of “See? I get it. Women are dumb! I know my place. I’m different from all those other dumb females. I think like you!”

If Mike Huckabee were standing at McCain’s side repeating all the anti-women convictions we heard last fall, I’d be angry and I’d be writing about it. But when a woman says these things, and is mistaken for a “new creation of feminism”, it’s a whole other phenomenon, one tinged with confusion, and betrayal. Maybe it’s that she’s being mistaken for a feminist, or that a conservative woman as Senate tie-breaker poses one more hurdle to women’s legislation, or that there’s a feeling of assumed self-delusion about such views in a woman, or it could be that she comes in such an appealing outer envelope I worry that no one will bother to rip it open to read what’s inside.

Or maybe it was just the blind-sidedness of her candidacy and with time a female anti-feminist in such potential power will look and sound to me just the same as the male anti-feminists in power now.

Sarah Palin has a right to believe whatever she likes. She even has a right to try and take away my rights as a woman and citizen: to use her power to eliminate sex education, reduce my access to birth control, prevent me from obtaining a safe and legal abortion even if I were raped or my life were in danger, teach creationism to my children, strip away the rights of homosexuals and transgenders (and attempt to cure them with prayer vigils), and wage war, drill for oil, and do anything else she chooses in the name of God.

If the country votes for these beliefs in November, we will get what is coming to us. And a new “feminism” may even be born. (In other words, VOTE!)

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