Sexism and the GOP’s candidate for VP
Perhaps it required finely tuned feminist radar to detect the media’s sexist treatment of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. I admit, I missed it. But after watching the media’s first week of covering Sarah Palin, I will henceforth pay more attention to claims of media gender bias.
In the first days the nation was introduced to Palin, the media wasn’t asking what the governor of Alaska did, how Palin crushed the corrupt old boy system in her state or what she has learned from a decade in local government. Instead, one television network after another had a female anchor questioning another woman—Sarah Palin’s friends in Alaska, a woman on the street, a female GOP delegate—whether a mother of five children should even be running for national office.
Wow. I don’t remember reporters asking Barack Obama when he declared his candidacy whether he shouldn’t instead be staying home to be a father to his two girls. George W. Bush sought the presidency when his daughters were entering the difficult years of adolescence. No one faulted him as a father. And I don’t recall John F. Kennedy’s priorities—chasing ambition versus husbanding a family with young children—ever being questioned. The issue didn’t arise for these men, of course, because it was presumed their wives would take care of the kids while the boys were out playing politics.
But for Palin, her decision to run for vice president has been questioned bluntly and repeatedly. The questions insinuate that a mother with children shouldn’t run the same race fathers with children have run every four years for more than two centuries of American history.
The gender bias isn’t limited to television. Sally Quinn of the Washington Post is the consummate Beltway insider. She married Ben Bradlee, that paper’s former long-running editor-in-chief and now vice president. She has asked of Palin, “Will her first priority be as a mother or as a Vice President or President?” Putting a new twist on Hillary Clinton’s most famous ad, she asks, “If the phone rings at three o’clock in the morning and her baby is sick, what will Sarah Palin do?”
What will Obama do? Ask his spouse to care for their sick child while he cares for the nation. But Palin, Quinn implies, won’t have that option for the sole reason she is a woman.
The sexist double standard has also been imposed on Palin’s résumé. Democrats, giving the media their cue, immediately proclaimed she is too inexperienced to be vice president. Putting her next to Joe Biden, with more than three decades in Congress and almost as many more years on the planet, of course Palin does not have equal experience. She does have different experiences that may have shaped her character and judgment in ways possibly superior to Biden. But even Palin will likely concede Biden holds the edge on knowledge of how Capitol Hill and international diplomacy work.
Matched, however, against the man at the head of the Democratic ticket, only by falling into sexist logic can anyone argue Palin is unqualified to serve as the presidency’s second string.
Obama spent some early years in community organizing. After graduating from Harvard Law School where he edited the Harvard Law Review, he worked as an associate civil rights attorney at a law firm. For their first years, associates spend their time mostly doing library research and toting briefcases for partners. Obama then spent several years writing his autobiography while working as a part-time law professor at the University of Chicago. In 1996, he was elected to the Illinois State Senate. He helped draft and pass legislation dealing with ethics, the videotaping of police interrogations in capital cases, income tax credits for the working poor, health care and childhood education programs.
He had an easy race for the U.S. Senate in 2004. The GOP’s original candidate dropped out because of a bizarre sex scandal and was replaced midgame by the buffoon Alan Keyes. As a U.S. Senator, Obama has few legislative accomplishments. According to FactCheck.org, the one federal bill touted in his ads, extending health care for soldiers, contained some of his ideas as it included provisions from several bills he sponsored, but was neither authored nor co-sponsored by Obama. For the past two years he has been on the campaign trail, away from his Senate job, virtually full time.
Scratch out “Barack Obama” in the preceding two paragraphs and insert “Sarah Palin.” If that were all the experience a mother with five children could claim, would she be qualified to be vice president? On the basis of experience alone, one cannot answer “yes” to Obama as president and “no” to Palin as vice president without applying a sexist double standard.
Palin has her own remarkable life story to tell. Like Obama, she must overcome stereotypes and prejudice. She has only two short, intense months to get that done.
To their credit, a few isolated feminist commentators and blogs, such as feministing.com, have risen to Palin’s defense. They stand up for her right as a woman to have a family while pursuing an ambitious career. But they also challenge her positions on the issues. Let’s hope their approach to Sarah Palin quickly gains a larger following.
We’ve seen this VP before
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s selection by John McCain as his vice presidential running mate set in motion widespread scrambling to find out something, anything about her. Emerging from the list of darkest of dark horse candidates for the second spot on the Republican ballot, Palin was, for the first five days after being picked, widely described as an “unknown”; someone so far outside the box that most people’s first reaction upon hearing her name was, “Huh?”
Then she spoke on the third night of the GOP National Convention and we realized we really do know her. She is not unknown; she is simply re-issued.
We know Palin because we knew Spiro Agnew. She has been assigned the Spiro Agnew role, the Spiro Agnew dialogue, the Spiro Agnew bludgeon. She is, despite her gender, Spiro Agnew the way Mary Martin was, despite her gender, Peter Pan.
Yes, Virginia, before there was a Bill O’Reilly, before there was a Ronald Reagan, before there was even a Rush Limbaugh; conservatives had to make do with Spiro Agnew. He was all they could find in the old days, those medieval years early in the decade of the '70s. But, boy, they sure got a lot of mileage out of him before he crashed and burned.
Palin, like Agnew, was plucked from nowhere (he was governor of Maryland when Richard Nixon agreed to take him on as apprentice vice president, a practically invisible figure on the national stage), and like him she set to work immediately to establish some street cred by bashing Democrats.
Agnew relished the role of insulter-in-chief (“naddering nabobs of negativism” was one dismissive phrase he coined that will probably never be forgotten) and built quite a following among the rank-and-file Republicans for his unrelenting assault on everything Democratic or liberal (he rarely distinguished between them) and for his having positioned himself as the outsider suddenly granted entry to the Washington inner circle.
Both of those assignments are apparently also in Palin’s job description. She will be, as Agnew was, for however long she remains in the public spotlight, the surrogate “everyman or everywoman” upon whom the gods smiled randomly and pushed out in front to remind us that in this country, anyone can be president, not just those with years of preparation, experience or education. She is this moment’s National Lottery winner.
Agnew’s fall from grace, you might remember, was equally rapid to his rise. He didn’t make it all the way through the first term before some old rumors of corruption and influence peddling turned out to have enough substance to force him to leave the Nixon Administration. (Now there’s a claim to fame; too crooked even for Tricky Dick to stomach!)
We know Palin in many other ways, too. We know her because we’ve watched dozens of movies and TV shows in which ordinary citizens get magically stuck in positions of responsibility, and when the chips are down these plucky folks, by gosh, they outshine all the highfalutin Washington (or Gotham, River City or Tombstone) professionals with little more going for them than their down-home American goodness and common sense.
It’s a staple plot line that never fails to bring a smile to our faces and a tug at our heart. Its lesson is classically American: You don’t need no stinkin’ education, no stinkin’ experience, no stinkin’ preparation. Just roll up your sleeves and bake that cake (or install that Constitution; bring peace to the Middle East; resolve that previously unsolvable economic crisis). As Nike has famously advised, “Just do it!” That could be the Sarah Palin motto.
Palin didn’t actually star in Legally Blonde, but with a simple adjustment from the Courtroom to City Hall, it could have been her life story: Beautiful young woman gets underestimated by the male power structure simply because she is attractive, then turns the tables and proves to be smarter than everyone else; solves City Hall’s complex dilemmas while doing her nails; earns the everlasting admiration of the total citizenry.
We also know Palin because we know Phyllis Schlafly. The prototypical anti-feminist, Right to Life spokesperson and columnist, famous for her toxic tract, A Choice, Not an Echo, hacked out the trail Palin is treading long before the Alaskan was born. These are well-worn footprints she is following, not new ones.
We know Sarah Palin because we know Fox News and because we know Ann Coulter. She is a fresh face on the scene, but the ideas she espouses are certainly not fresh; they deviate not an iota from the Karl Rove memo-of-the-day repeated endlessly by the clones at Fox. And she delivers them with the venom and bilious smirk we know all-too-well from watching Coulter when we can’t escape.
I know many watching her televised speech expressed surprise afterward at her polished performance. For me, the pieces of it I later saw replayed were ominous. All hope of having the November election decided on the basis of issues flew out the window, banished by her personal and sarcastic attacks.
I’m afraid we’ve seen this all before, and it’s never failed to work. A nation captivated by the “sport” of professional wrestling and the “spontaneity” of "American Idol" just might fall for Palin’s act, too. We don’t need no stinkin’ preparation ... any of us could be a star ... if only John McCain would call.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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