Sarah Palin: a campaign built on female chauvinism

In her new column, Wendy Kaminer says the hockey mom has come to bury liberal feminism… and Hillary Clinton provided her with the shovel.

Wendy Kaminer

Topics USA

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Wendy Kaminer, one of America’s most respected free speech warriors and the author of numerous books, is joining spiked as a columnist. Her column, on life, liberty and politics in the US, will appear monthly. In the first instalment, she argues that Sarah Palin has been the chief beneficiary of the dangerous game of identity politics played by Hillary Clinton and others.

In her first speech as presumptive Republican vice-presidential nominee, rookie governor and veteran hockey mom Sarah Palin came to praise Hillary Clinton and to bury liberal feminism. Don’t cry for Clinton, however: she provided the shovel, by relying on regressive, non-ideological appeals to female chauvinism during her doomed primary campaign.

‘I’ve come to believe that hard work, determination and resiliency are encoded in our DNA’, Clinton declared in a Mother’s Day speech in West Virginia. ‘We know that we have the “worry” gene. We know we have the “put your coat on because it’s cold outside” gene. But we also have the “stand up and fight for what you believe in” gene.’ Invoking this crude vision of genetic determinism (however metaphoric), blaming sexism when she and her ‘fight gene’ got stuck in second place, Clinton played a dangerous game of identity politics; her loss became Palin’s gain.

‘The women of America aren’t finished yet, and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all’, Palin promised in her maiden speech, celebrating the now proverbial ‘18million cracks in the glass ceiling’ supposedly left by Clinton’s nearly 18million votes.

Advocates of reproductive choice, equal pay, daycare and other liberal feminist goals are naturally distraught; co-option by the hard-right, socially conservative Palin is a profoundly injurious insult. But many of them passionately supported Clinton in the treacherous spirit of sisterhood that she invoked, and would have found hard to avoid. From a short-term political perspective (and for a losing candidate there is no long term), Clinton would have been foolish not to appeal to the hunger of so many female voters for a woman on the ticket. And she was hardly alone among feminists in embracing femininity.

From its nineteenth-century beginnings, the American women’s movement has included true believers in feminine virtues – notably women’s presumed moral superiority or (in modern terms) their ‘ethic of caring’ – and heretics who debunked prevailing views of natural cognitive and characterological differences between the sexes. This was not a theoretical debate: historically, feminists who believed in natural or incorrigible, cultural differences between the sexes believed in their differential treatment, through measures like protective labour laws for women. Feminists who insisted that sex was not a fair or accurate predictor of character, aptitude or behaviour insisted that justice required single standards of law and the equal treatment of men and women as variable individuals, not representatives of their sex.

Some women have straddled both camps, not surprisingly, defending presumptive female virtues when they advantage women and decrying them when they do not: feminists who vilified former Harvard University president Lawrence Summers in 2005 (and helped terminate his presidency), for speculating about men’s superior scientific aptitudes, generally refrained from even gently criticising Hillary Clinton for claiming that women were genetically inclined to ‘worry’ more about others or ‘stand up and fight’ for them, or for the faux feminist chauvinism of her campaign.

It’s worth noting that debates about biological or cultural determinism persist even though formal legal equality has almost been achieved. (The Supreme Court still applies more permissive standards of review to allegations of sex discrimination than it applies to alleged race discrimination.) Sisterhood and the double standards it implies retain political appeal partly because social and economic inequalities persist, along with traditional gender roles. Abortion rights remain under siege and access to legal abortions has been significantly limited. Disputes about affirmative action have complicated questions about treating women as members of a class or as disparate individuals, while crusades against sexual harassment, including absurdly broad restrictions on speech (on campus and in the workplace), have reinforced notions of female vulnerability and nurtured victim feminism.

Sarah Palin is hardly a stereotypically weak, vulnerable female, which, in no small part, is why some regard her as a feminist. Right-wing Republicans are hardly proponents of affirmative action or civil rights laws protecting women from harassment and other forms of alleged discrimination in education or employment. (Senate Republicans recently blocked passage of a bill allowing employees to file pay discrimination lawsuits within six months after receiving allegedly discriminatory pay cheques.) But in fashioning Palin’s affirmative action candidacy, the McCain campaign has gleefully adopted liberal feminist tactics and grievances that conservative Republicans have so long derided. The dissonance that has always marked the feminist movement has been smartly exploited by the more bizarrely, brazenly dissonant McCain campaign.

As Sarah Palin action dolls attest, Palin is supposedly tough enough for the role of presidential understudy, and ready to serve as commander-in-chief – yet she requires protection from the rigours of campaigning. Shortly after her selection, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis proclaimed that she would not be available for interviews until the press agreed to treat her with ‘deference’, as well as respect; since then, she has granted formal interviews to a few network anchors and dutifully recited her talking points; but the campaign continues to shield her from reporters and has even proposed delaying the vice-presidential debate.

The press has begun to rebel: recently, CNN anchor, Campbell Brown, shrewdly called out the McCain campaign for its sexist coddling of Palin. But McCain has been running against the press, his former ally, and successfully diverted it by reflexively condemning as sexist virtually any criticism of Palin’s policies, record, or its own misrepresentations of her record. No matter that Palin chastised Clinton for whining when she complained of sexism during the primary, or that McCain laughed approvingly when one of his supporters called Clinton a ‘bitch’. When Obama casually uttered the words ‘lipstick on a pig’, a term McCain had used against Clinton, the McCain campaign erupted, and we spent days venting about what was widely acknowledged to be a transparently frivolous charge of sexism; it took the spectre of economic ruin to sober us.

Liberal proponents of restrictions on hateful or merely ‘offensive’ speech, vaguely defined, can blame themselves for the culture of umbrage that has helped shape this campaign. Feminist proponents of women’s virtues, like ‘worry genes’, share the blame for enduring presumptions of women’s weaknesses and the protectionist impulses that Palin’s candidacy both disclaims and exploits. Republicans turned chivalrous with Clinton’s defeat, capitalising on the fury of her female supporters, and Palin was promoted to vice-presidential nominee primarily if not solely on account of her sex.

As quickly as free-market Republicans embraced a bailout of Wall Street (and McCain, a born-again populist, demanded limits on executive pay), social conservatives who condemned feminism for encouraging mothers to work outside the home embraced this mother-of-five for pursuing the vice-presidency shortly after giving birth to an infant with Downs Syndrome; their enthusiasm was only intensified by news that her unwed teenage daughter was pregnant. Bristol Palin and her self-proclaimed ‘redneck’ high-school boyfriend were feted at the Republican convention, while Democrats watched slack-jawed. Liberals who naively expected news of the pregnancy to derail Palin’s candidacy failed to recognise that the teenager’s vow to give birth and marry her boyfriend enacted a drama of sin and redemption that appealed to religious conservatives. Not that Republicans would have smiled upon a Democratic candidate whose teenage daughter was pregnant, even if she did ‘choose life’. She would have provoked diatribes about maternal selfishness, neglect, permissiveness and familial dysfunction, as liberals helplessly pointed out, angered and a little awed by conservatives’ ideological agility.

Palin’s popularity may have peaked, Democrats profoundly hope. But the spectacle of her candidacy remains as hard to ignore as the possibility of her election is to contemplate. I’d bet McCain’s proposed tax cuts that she could not correctly describe the respective roles of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, much less explain the current economic crisis or, say, the conflict in Darfur. Literacy tests for voters have long been prohibited because of their historic role in suppressing African American votes, but we should perhaps consider literacy or civics tests for candidates.

Palin has famously cited Alaska’s proximity to Russia as a foreign policy credential, wrongly described giant mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as taxpayer-funded (before their federal bailout), and answered a town hall question about her plans for the ‘economic empowerment’ of women with a tribute to her high-school athletic experience and a federal equal education law that has long been a target of conservative wrath: ‘I’ll tell ya’, Palin said, ‘I’m a product of Title IX in our schools where equal education and equal opportunities in sports really helped propel me into, I guess into the position that I’m in today.’ Buttressing her credentials, I suppose, McCain added, ‘Could I mention that she was a point guard on a state championship team?’

Perhaps George W Bush has set the presidential bar so low that any former point guard can jump over it. Palin’s popularity does reflect, in part, the cultural mistrust of expertise and intellectual rigour (as opposed to mythic American ‘common sense’) that helped elevate Bush to the presidency. Still he had the advantage of membership in a political dynasty that Palin lacks; her inexperience as a former mayor of a tiny town and governor of a small, idiosyncratic state for less than two years, her confident ignorance about the economy and international relations, along with concern about the 72-year-old McCain’s health (not to mention a pending state legislative investigation of her alleged abuses of power), would probably have precluded her selection had she been born male, had Hillary Clinton not aroused the resentments of an essentially non-partisan sisterhood, and had feminism ever managed to disentangle itself from the chauvinistic vices of femininity.

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer, writer and free speech activist. She is the author most recently of Free for All: Defending Liberty in America Today, published by Beacon Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Her forthcoming book is Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU.

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Topics USA


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