September
28th 2008
This is why we need more (& better) women politicians:

Posted under: American history, class, Gender, GLBTQ, Intersectionality, race, women's history

Because Sarah Palin can’t bear the weight of the unreasonable expectation that she represent the interests of all women, as though “women” represent a stable, coherent political subjectivity.  Truth be told, no woman could–and no man is ever held to this standard.  Anthony McCarthy writes at Echidne about the “sex traitor” Palin:

In trying to figure out what is wrong with these people, traitors to others within their kind, looking at their inability to see past their own interest is a key to understanding them. It’s a mistake to look at Sarah Palin and analyze her actions and her place in this campaign in terms of the struggle against patriarchy. She doesn’t struggle against it, she endorses it. That she has found a way to rig the patriarchal system to HER benefit and through her to that of those closest to her is to be expected, that’s what conservatives do no matter what group they belong to. Looking at Palin as any kind of first for women (second, actually, as we are not supposed to remember) only leads away from reality. She is out for number one, not for women in general. Her nomination is as meaningful for progress for women struggling against patriarchy as Clarence Thomas has been for the equality of black people or the Log Cabin Republicans for gay people. In the struggle against patriarchy, she’s just a patriarch in disguise.

“Her nomination is as meaningful for progress for women struggling against patriarchy as Clarence Thomas has been for the equality of black people or the Log Cabin Republicans for gay people.”  Well, here he’s half right–the part where he says that her nomination is meaningless “for progress for women struggling against patriarchy.”  That’s true, and all feminist women I know recognize that Palin would work against their interests–but not all women identify as feminists, and I’ve never in my life heard a male politician criticized because he didn’t represent the interests of all men.  (Paging Judith Butler, on the incoherence of assuming that “woman” is a unified political subject?  Hello?)  Many of Hillary Clinton’s supporters during the primary campaign engaged in overly simplistic and essentialist commentary about how a vote for Clinton was necessarily feminist, and that no true feminists could consider voting otherwise.  I thought that was ridiculous and embarrassing–as though women who voted for Edwards or Obama or Richardson were somehow inauthentic or not as committed to feminist causes simply by virtue of their votes, and as though women had no other policy concerns beyond electing another woman.  Women are just as complicated political subjects as men–and (for better or worse) they don’t always prioritize what mainstream feminist organizations tell them they should when the vote.

There are conservative women who cherish the Evangelical Christian ideal of male household headship and womanly submission, for example.  That’s certainly not my style, although I will note that in order to meet that ideal, a man actually has to be home to take charge of his household, and for a lot of working-class women and women in poverty who haven’t been able to count on the men in their lives to stay sober and to stick around to help raise the kids–well, having a man at home to give his income and his time to his family doesn’t sound like oppression, if your alternative is working 12-hour shifts at Wal-Mart and “shopping” at the Food Bank on your way home.  (And, I’m not saying that unreliable men are all poor or working-class–I’m just saying that having a drunken, abusive, or absent husband or partner is a lot easier to cope with when you’re middle-class or rich because those women have more money, social capital, time, and connections to help solve their problems.  Women who aren’t middle-class or rich might think it’s worth a try to work it out with their men, with the help of the Promise Keepers or some other conservative organization devoted to helping families pull it together.)

Here’s where McCarthy gets it wrong:  …as Clarence Thomas has been for the equality of black people or the Log Cabin Republicans for gay people.  Riiiight–because there is no such thing as a conservative African American person, or a gay man who’s a libertarian Free Marketeer who also donates to the Cato Foundation, or a Republican woman.  This is at the root of McCarthy’s problem, which is that he can only see Sarah Palin’s sex, and Clarence Thomas’s race, and the sexuality of the Log Cabin Republicans.  We’re all of us much more internally divided and diverse than these simplistic equations suggest.  When McCarthy says that Palin is a “traitors to others within [her] kind,” he’s only able to process one part of Palin’s identity, not the whole of it.  This is something that never, ever happens when people talk about white male politicians.  (And, as more than one of the commenters on his post pointed out, it’s a position that pretty much lets off the hook all of the male authors of misogynist policy in Palin’s political lifetime–and there are a lot more of them than there are of the so-called “traitors” like Palin.)

Sarah Palin is a culturally conservative Western governor.  That’s who she is and what she represents, regardless of her sex.  The Republican party luvs them their culturally conservative Western politicians–Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, George W. Bush, Tom DeLay, Dick Armey, Colorado’s own Bill Owens, and John McCain–have you heard of them?  It seems to me that if we’re looking for conservative Republicans to blame for the lack of progress women have made in this country in recent decades, Sarah Palin wouldn’t even crack the top 300.  But in McCarthy’s construction, she’s uniquely blameworthy.  She’s also the only ambitious politician in America, apparently–she’s “out for number one,” unlike all of the men listed above, plus Bill Clinton, Edward M. Kennedy, Barack Obama, or any other male politicians, who are just trying to serve all of humankind with their lifelong devotion to public service and aren’t vainglorious or ambitious at all.

Can we please, please, please stop holding women politicians to ridiculous standards now?  Will people please stop becoming totally deranged by the fact that Palin has two X chromosomes?  Sarah Palin is not “in disguise,” as McCarthy says, as though it’s a totally new thing to him that some women benefit from the status quo.  Palin is just a hack pol in a long line of hack pols who have run for the Vice Presidency.  Get over it.  If Democrats are so exercised by Palin’s candidacy and are furious that she might become the first woman Vice President, or even (given the state of John McCain’s health) the first woman President–well, whose fault might that be?  Huh, Dems?

17 Comments »

17 Responses to “This is why we need more (& better) women politicians:”

  1. Indyanna on 28 Sep 2008 at 8:32 pm #

    Yeah, a wince-y smile on that last sentence, for sure. “Traitor to his/her/ [category]…” seems to be a phrase growing from the same essentialist rhetorical tree as its close chronological contemporary about how “some of my best friends are…[category]…”

    Now that the Dems have caved on offshore drilling, and as the rest of the economy ices up, those government dividend checks they get up there in the 49th State are going to seem more and more attractive to some people. Let’s see what happens on Thursday night. I hope they don’t bring up that law review article…

  2. Historiann on 28 Sep 2008 at 9:45 pm #

    I think Palin will do pretty badly, but that’s the conventional wisdom, and if that’s the conventional wisdom (along with the meme that Biden is just a masterful debater) then it will be called a draw or even a win for Palin if she avoids a total meltdown and/or Joe Biden doesn’t pull the mask off of her to reveal her as a fembot.

    (By the way, that last clause was a joke.)

  3. Roxie on 29 Sep 2008 at 5:44 am #

    Amen, five paws up, and a hearty “What she said!” to this post and especially your last few sentences, Historiann. Whose fault indeed is it that Republicans are in a position to put the first woman in the executive branch?

  4. Historiann on 29 Sep 2008 at 6:15 am #

    I think at least half of the anti-Palin Dem hysteria comes from a defensive sense of shame, as well as an angry (and irrational) insistence that Dems are the only party that’s allowed to have historic “firsts.” The other half is of course sexism: above all, resentment of ambitious women, as though ambition is itself proof of monstrousness; failure to recognize that women’s paths to power are different from men’s paths; the insistence that women be all things to all people rather than represent a particular consistuency or constituencies, etc.

    In other words, in Palin’s nomination speech in Dayton a month ago today, she was more right than even she thought that she was the inheritor of Hillary Clinton’s legacy. It’s just not the legacy she thought it would be, of breaking glass ceilings. It’s the legacy of being trashed by Democrats who hold women politicians to different standards than men are held to. And with Democrats like that–well, who needs Republicans?

  5. Profane on 29 Sep 2008 at 9:10 am #

    Two andom musings in between classes on the Black Death, Medieval village life, and the Anglo-Scottish wars. . .

    I have long considered myself to be a post-feminist since that has described all my adult relationships. This campaign has forced me to acknowledge the necessity, for the sake of intellectual honesty, to be a self-described feminist.

    Perhaps ‘Third Wave Identity Politics’ relating to issues of race and sexuality would be helpful in the same way that Third Wave feminism provides a effective framework for responding to ridiculous criticisms of Hillary Clinton and Palin?

  6. Historiann on 29 Sep 2008 at 9:44 am #

    Profane–wow, thanks self-identifying as a feminist! (At least I think that’s what you’re saying.)

    Actually, I think that Third Wave feminism is one of the problems here, since Third Wavers insist that all of the bad old days are behind us and we can just march forward confident about the future, because everything will just get better and better for everyone all the time. (In other words, Third Wavers = Whig historians of the highest magnitude). I used to be a “Third Waver,” until I turned 29, entered the workforce, and witnessed first-hand the systematic discrimination against women in my first tenure-track job. It’s younger women who were more dismissive of complaints that Clinton wasn’t getting a fair shake, not women who are 30 or 40 and up.

  7. Susan on 29 Sep 2008 at 11:44 am #

    I completely agree with you on the anti-essentialism stuff. It’s not helpful AT ALL. But I think part of the problem is that because (as you note) her narrative is the only thing that she has, it sort of forces an essentialist approach. And there are clearly people who identify with who she is, no matter what she says. (Though the Katherine Parker piece suggests that is not universal.) What I find intriguing is hte number of women who are “feeling sorry” for Palin because she is in over her head.

    As for the rest, outside the US it’s often conservatives who don’t challenge the status quo on gender issues who are the female firsts. I.e. Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir; Benazir Bhutto married and started wearing a head covering when she wanted to become a serious political player. So I’m terrified that she might become the first woman vp, but that’s because of what she stands for. It wouldn’t surprise me at all.

  8. Historiann on 29 Sep 2008 at 12:02 pm #

    Susan, you’re exactly right. I didn’t think that the first woman in the White House would be a liberal (or even a conservative) Dem. I thought she’d be a fairly moderate Republican. (And she may yet be!) Somebody like Tsippi Livni, for example.

    Note, too, the different routes to political power compared to their male peers, and the greater success women have in parliamentary systems, where the paths to power are more varied, and where power is very often shared so that Prime Ministers aren’t as all-powerful as our Imperial Presidents.

  9. Indyanna on 29 Sep 2008 at 7:11 pm #

    Margaret Atwood (citing Antonia Fraser on “women rulers” in history) makes a point somewhat similar to Susan’s in an interesting interview in the Sunday _Times_ mag this week.

    I don’t work for the _Times_, BTW, or flack for it, but I do cite it a lot, because in this burg, if you don’t get one each day (and some cigar-chomping guy in Altoona sets tight limits on how many get through that choke point) you’re pretty much finished, informationally–on the print side, at least!

  10. PZ on 30 Sep 2008 at 10:27 am #

    “If Democrats are so exercised by Palin’s candidacy and are furious that she might become the first woman Vice President, or even (given the state of John McCain’s health) the first woman President–well, whose fault might that be? Huh, Dems?”

    Huh? My problem is her positions.

    “I think at least half of the anti-Palin Dem hysteria comes from a defensive sense of shame, as well as an angry (and irrational) insistence that Dems are the only party that’s allowed to have historic firsts.’ The other half is of course sexism: above all, resentment of ambitious women, as though ambition is itself proof of monstrousness…”

    But why is it “hysteria” to disagree with her positions and why does this disagreement have to be reinterpreted as jealousy or disapproval of ambitious women? Who is projecting now? Why do only Palin and the Republicans get to be so hypocritical, for instance, as to request “privacy” for Bristol’s “decision” while working to deny privacy and the right to decide to every other American girl? WHY is it sexist to oppose this kind of thing?

    I oppose McCain/Palin because they really are crazy enough to do something like start a nuclear war, not because I am jealous of Palin for being his VP pick or of the Republicans for having a woman on the ticket. AND:
    if you want to keep tabs like that, remember GERALDINE FERRARO was on the Democratic ticket years ago.

  11. Historiann on 30 Sep 2008 at 10:43 am #

    PZ–I agree with you that Palin is utterly objectionable because of her policy positions. But, my point in this post is that she’s no more objectionable for being a woman who holds those views/advocates those policies. (Anthony McCarthy’s comments suggested that she was especially objectionable as a woman who opposed liberal feminist positions because of her sex.)

    My point in asking “Whose fault might that be? Huh, Dems?” was to highlight the foolishness of being upset that the Republicans might get a historic “first.” If indeed having the first woman VP or presidential candidate was a big priority, why did the Dems let their main chance go by? (I don’t think it was a big priority for most Dems, so that’s why I find all of the disingenuous boo-hoo-hooing really stupid now.)

  12. PZ on 01 Oct 2008 at 9:06 pm #

    OK – I guess I missed the news that the Democrats were upset the Republicans might have the first woman VP.

    I’m for Helen Gehagan. http://www.alibris.com/booksearch?qsort=&page=1&matches=49&browse=1&isbn=9780195068962&full=1

  13. Historiann on 02 Oct 2008 at 7:57 am #

    Yes, indeed! Had she won against Nixon back in the day, she might have changed American history.

  14. crankypostdoc on 13 Oct 2008 at 6:17 pm #

    Thanks for at least trying to inject some sanity into the whole Palin debate. It always amuses me that white males think they have the right to decide who is or is not a traitor.
    Don’t forget, though, it was the Dems who came up with the idea that diversity is all about skin color or genitalia, it’s not about ideas. So you can hardly complain when the Republicans turn around and appoint people with the “right” skin color or genitalia who happen to agree with them. Just an ideology that comes back to bite lefties in the butt. And no, I don’t believe in false consciousness.

  15. Historiann on 13 Oct 2008 at 6:49 pm #

    Hi crankypostdoc–thanks for stopping by to comment. I actually think that things other than ideas matter–including to some extent sex, race, and other things like that–but I don’t think they’re the only things that matter. You’re right that the outrage against Palin has exposed some hypocrisy on the left–but I would argue that the left’s gynophobia was exposed even more thoroughly in the primary election campaign.

    I have tried, but I do not believe that I have succeeded in injecting much sanity into this debate. But, thanks for the encouragement!

  16. Physical beauty and professional competence in women : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 27 Oct 2009 at 8:50 am #

    [...] the reaction to Palin’s presence on the national political stage has always been so disproportion…, and so focused on her beauty and her body.  Oh, well:  just more evidence that the left is just [...]

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