Thursday, October 02, 2008

why sarah palin is bad for feminism

Emily Bazelon says it all

So instead of bowing out, she heads into her debate with Joe Biden with expectations so low either she or her opponent seems bound to trip over them.

For women who are watching this all unfold, this means a lot of analysis, much of it angst-ridden. Conservatives express straightforward disappointment. "I watch her interviews with the held breath of an anxious parent, my finger poised over the mute button in case it gets too painful," Parker writes glumly. "Unfortunately, it often does. My cringe reflex is exhausted."

Many more-liberal women, meanwhile, make the point that Palin's poverty of knowledge is a big reason to doubt John McCain's judgment, as Ruth Marcus drives home in her column in the Washington Post this week. The problem is that Palin is a vice-presidential candidate who is not ready to be president, not that she's a woman who isn't ready. Given that, let her fail now, before she does real damage in office.

But Palin's gender is at the center of another set of reactions I've been hearing and reading among women who don't support her ticket, filled with ambivalence over how bad she is. Laugh at the Tina Fey parodies that make Palin ridiculous just by quoting her verbatim. And then cry. When Palin tanks, it's good for the country if you want Obama and Biden to win, but it's bad for the future of women in national politics. I'm in this boat, too. Should we feel sorry for Sarah Palin? No. But if she fails miserably, we might be excused for feeling a bit sorry for ourselves.

Palin is the most prominent woman on the political stage at the moment. By taking unprepared hesitancy and lack of preparation to a sentence-stopping level, she's yanking us back to the old assumption that women can't hack it at these heights. We know that's not true—we've just watched Hillary Clinton power through a campaign with a masterful grasp of policy and detail. Clinton lost in part because she was the girl grind. Complex sentences, the names of Supreme Court cases, and bizarre warnings about foreign heads of state invading our airspace weren't her problem. The fear now is that Palin is the anti-Hillary and that her lack of competence threatens to undo what the Democratic primary did for women. Palin won't bust through the ceiling that has Hillary's 18 million cracks in it. She'll give men an excuse to replace it with a new one.

Worrying about this can lead you to an odd, even self-contradictory amalgam of anger and pity. Judith Warner embodied this in the New York Times when she described watching Palin smile while sitting down with Henry Kissinger and feeling a "wave of self-recognition and sympathy" and an "upsurge of concern and kinship." In the next breath, in proper feminist fashion she points out that glamorizing incompetence "means that any woman who exudes competence will necessarily be excluded from the circle of sisterhood." But then Warner loops back to her opening sympathy and ends by casting Palin's nomination as not only "an insult to the women (and men) of America" but "an act of cruelty toward her as well." The suggestion is that John McCain inflicted the cruelty when he picked her.

As Rebecca Traister points out in Salon, there's an obvious feminist comeback here. Shut down the "Palin pity party," Traister urges. "Shaking our heads and wringing our hands in sympathy with Sarah Palin is a disservice to every woman who has ever been unfairly dismissed based on her gender, because this is an utterly fair dismissal, based on an utter lack of ability and readiness." Good point. And an especially pertinent one on the eve of the vice-presidential debate. Traister's argument refutes the McCain campaign's effort to spin the justified attacks on Palin as sexism. The campaign can't dismiss Palin's critics as sexist for jumping on her thin, stock-phrase-laden answers to reasonable questions. It would be sexist—and destructive for the country—to demand less. But the answer isn't necessarily to throw the sexism line back in the campaign's face, as Campbell Brown did on CNN last week. Brown scolded the campaign for treating Palin as if she's too delicate to handle the press. But where is Palin in this equation? Doesn't she have to account for the way she's been shielded from questions that shouldn't be hard for her to answer?

Traister is right that this is on Palin at least as much as it's on John McCain. Palin put herself in line for the presidency; she could have turned down the invitation to join the ticket. She gains from this campaign no matter what—before it, she had no national profile, now she has an outsized one, and all the criticism will just make her true fans love her more. (They're ready to eat Kathleen Parker alive.) She has cannily based her appeal on scorning the media, so it hardly makes sense to feel pity for her because the media are actually scornful, given all the fodder she's provided.

For all of these reasons, I should take Traister's advice and stop agonizing. I'm not ambivalent about Palin's positions on taxes, stem-cell research, or offshore drilling. Why should I be ambivalent about how she performs in the debate? What if Palin does unexpectedly well and gives McCain another boost in the polls? Better she should go down hard for knowing nothing about the Supreme Court than that the court should move ever rightward because the Republicans get to pick the next justices.

And yet. When I watch Palin, I can't help but cringe along with Parker. Call it women's solidarity, however misplaced. I keep coming back to this prim phrase: Please, don't make a spectacle of yourself. String some coherent sentences together. Your efforts to wrap yourself in Hillary's mantle make no sense in terms of what you'd actually do in office. But if you could pull off just a bit of her debating prowess—just a bit—I'll step a little lighter when I wake up Friday morning.

Although I actually hope that she crashes and burns spectacularly. I feel no sympathy or solidarity. As far as I am concerned, she is no sister in feminism, and not my representative for a woman in politics. I didn't think "oh no, now no one will take a female Supreme Court justice seriously" after the Miers debacle. Miers was deeply unqualified, but that didn't signify to me, and shouldn't have to others, that her failure injured the very idea of a female Supreme Court justice. Perhaps it is becuase that at the time, there were two other great examples on the Supreme Court--O'Connor and Ginsburg. O'Connor, whatever you think of her as a justice, is an inspiration of sorts to all female law students. Ginsburg is certainly my hero. Miers? I never reacted to her but as someone who takes the law seriously, and never once thought "well, at least there will be another woman on the bench, no matter how poorly she does." Down with identity politics!

Mere representational politics never fared well (see also Justice Thomas), and so why should I care whether Palin does a disservice to all female politicians by being incompetent, unprepared, inarticulate, and unqualified? I would consider those her own personal failings rather than qualities endemic to all women. Seriously, if this distinction must be made, let me shout it from the rooftops. I cringe with schaudenfreude, not solidarity. Palin should simply stopped being thought of as representative of all women, since she clearly doesn't represent all of our politics--and in fact flagrantly contravenes many key issues important to dominant women's groups.

She may be a woman, wife, mother, etc., but she professes to be the everyman, not to represent every woman. She also professes to be qualified and ready to be in the executive office. For these things I will judge her, not whether or not I consider her representative of my gender. There are plenty of other competent female politicians. Why should they be forgotten in the rush to sympathize with the way Palin is being "mistreated"? She is actually unqualified! It is not sexist to say that she is woefully ignorant of important issues and then question her basic comprehension skills (she apparently opposes Roe v. Wade and yet supports the right to privacy) and thus intelligence!

She's rolling with the soft bigotry of low expectations right now. She'll hurt women everywhere if she keeps playing to them. For this I judge her even more harshly, and I would expect others to as well. I don't hope that she'll do well. I merely hope that she is incompetent in gender neutral ways. She had better not start crying (cough Alito's wife cough) if dealt a tough question, or do as Geraldine Ferraro did to George H.W. Bush during their debate decades agoand accuse Biden of bullying and patronizing. But I bet you that if she "loses," and she should and I hope she does miserably and fails spectacularly (Emily! Get a mean streak!), the right will blame Biden's bullying ways and Gwen Ifill's militant black leftism. That's what you should get mad about--the harm her actually playing into these low expectations and stereotypes will do to women or the post-hoc construal of her performance, not what her poor performance will say in and of itself.


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