I’ve been having conversations with friends, and in the blogosphere, about the meaning of Sarah Palin’s candidacy in terms of feminism and “gender equality” if that is taken to mean equality as between men and women. One of my friends, who has done decades of thinking about politics and feminism and sexism, said this:
… note how the Republicans are using liberal values of gender equality to promote Sarah Palin. Yes, it’s mixed in with conservative values about abortion and family, but second wave feminism did make some headway into sexist ideology.
I don’t think I agree that the Reprobates are using liberal values of gender equality to promote Sarah Palin. I should put it this way: the Reprobates are using liberal values insofar as that appeals in some twisted way to liberals. It’s not necessary to use liberal values to situate Sarah Palin for conservatives.
There have always been exceptions to the rules of gender roles, even in more completely patriarchal societies than the one in which we live. You could see those women as embodying proof that there is nothing about women, per se, that makes them more fit for one role rather than another. Or you can simply see it as proof of the norm. I’m inclined to think that women like Elizabeth I, Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher, for instance, don’t signify a true challenge to patriarchal norms, at least in part because they do such an excellent job of adopting personnae that fit fairly easily into those norms.
Elizabeth I became the “virgin queen” for many reasons, no doubt. But I suspect that a few of those reasons were to take herself out of the category of gender altogether in some way, like becoming a eunich for a male. Gender is off the table and “the body” is enabled to enter arenas of power without threat. Marriage signified a loss of power and Elizabeth may simply have been too politically smart to fall for it. There’s also evidence that she was well aware of the loss of personal power that marriage entailed:
“If I am to disclose to you what I should prefer if I follow the inclination of my nature, it is this: beggar-woman and single, far rather than queen and married!”
The virgin role also played powerfully into Christian madonna symbology, the virgin being human but not like any other woman, and this at a time when the status of the Virgin Mary in the Roman Catholic tradition was being wiped out by the Church of England. The “cult of the virgin” played a powerful role in the lives of the simple people who formed the basis of the economy, going back to pagan times, and a credible alternative to the cult in the form of a ruler had significant results in terms of pacifying the people.
Golda Meir got to be Prime Minister of Israel by “playing” very strongly to the myth of the Jewish mother, who is allowed to protect her children fiercely and by any means when they are threatened [whether she did this consciously is another matter], although she may otherwise be not much more than a terrible nag.
It’s difficult to imagine any man making this statement made by Meir after the Yom Kippur War:
When peace comes, we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons. But it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.
Meir’s personal warmth and “motherliness” allowed her to be a woman with nerves of steel in the political arena without threatening traditional gender roles:
Golda Meir was a poster woman for the feminist cause in the 1970’s. Her picture as Prime Minister appeared with the caption: “But can she type?” However, many feminists felt that she could have done more to help other women. Golda overcame many personal hardships because she was a woman: as a child she fought with her parents to continue her education and as a married woman she made a difficult choice between her family and her career. However, she failed to recognize that many of her personal struggles were universal problems faced by most other women of her time. Golda did not use her position of power to address women’s needs (such as child care or equality in the workplace), to promote other women to aspire to public office, or to advance women’s status in Israel. Thus she was an inspiration and source of pride to women, yet, simultaneously, a disappointment and source of frustration to twentieth century women who were fighting for social change.
If Golda Meir was a “poster child” for liberal values of sexual equality, it certainly wasn’t because she actually embodied them.
As for Margaret Thatcher, she was seen as being asexual and so, once again, a very different kind of woman. Perhaps in some ways she harkens back to Elizabeth I, the “Iron Lady” appellation so often attached to her name is reminiscent of strength, but also of a chastity belt. Thatcher adopted the term herself to indicate a strength and resolve not traditionally associated with women. It’s clear that many powerful woman have had to “de-sexualize” themselves in order to maintain that power. The “iron” qualifier is often applied to women with political power, to distinguish them as extraordinary: Wikipedia:
- The Iron Butterfly is a nickname of former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos.
- Iron Rita is a nickname of former Dutch minister Rita Verdonk
- “Jern-Erna” (meaning; “Iron-Erna”) is a nickname of the leader of the Norwegian Conservative Party, Erna Solberg.
- Former United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was given the nickname “Titanium Lady”, playing on some of her similarities with Thatcher.
Many male politicians have to define themselves as “ordinary” in order to appeal to “ordinary” voters in order to be successful. In America, it’s the “regular guys” who have risen by virtue of their work ethic who appeal to voters and, though many powerful men may be far from ordinary, they nevertheless attempt to establish personal narratives that appeal to “everyday” Americans in order to achieve success – witness the attempts of Barack Obama to fit himself and his wife into that story, whether successful or not. Chris Matthews loves the fact that Joe Biden is “just a regular guy”.
As a “Jewish mother”, Golda Meir was able to exploit an abundance of emotion. Thatcher, on the other hand, was not known for displays of emotion at all, which is very “un-womanly”, but fits with an alternate narrative of “the woman who is ‘really’ a man”. These are no ordinary women, nor are they allowed to be if they are successful. They are “irregular” women and that allows them to circumvent their status as women.
As for Hillary Clinton, she got absolutely murdered by sexism, not only in the media, but also among Democrats! Mostly Democratic men, of course. Unlike Sarah Palin, she got hammered for not being a “real woman”. She was too old and baggy and wrinkly and shrieky and “post-sexual”, postmenopausal and too much a ballbreaker who had nevertheless made herself a doormat for her husband who cheated on her and she then capitalized on her “victim” status to get elected to the Senate. She was critisized if she showed her cleavage (expoiting her sexuality? behaving like an ‘unchaste’ woman?) and critisized for wearing pants (too much like a man? not ladylike?) and critisized if she complained, because that was whining. And ain’t all that just like a woman? Not even liberals have liberal values! They’re certainly confused and contradictory expressions of attitudes toward women, which shouldn’t surprise us and, indeed, does not surprise many feminists.
Sarah Palin breaks the Clinton mold AND the Thatcher mold so it is true that she is a new version of a woman with at least potential political power. Time will tell whether there is a need to construct her place in as complex a way as in the cases I’ve been talking about.
Thus far, Palin has described herself as “a pit bull with lipstick“. Her audience has seemed not just willing, but delighted to accept that definition. She is far from de-sexualized. Chris Matthews wants to wake up in bed next to her and that seems to be a good part of the appeal – they’ve accepted a total stranger, those Reprobates, because somehow, they can see her as a version of Annie Oakley. Sarah Palin hunts and rides a snowmobile and shoots – she’s a modern day American cowgirl. Not many people can sling guns the way those broads can! I bet Annie Oakley voted Republican. She didn’t align herself with the feminists of her day either.
I came up with the comparison to Oakley all by myself but I’m not alone. Here’s what Joan Walsh said about Palin:
By the time Palin took the stage, she no longer seemed like an Alaskan Annie Oakley, a gun-toting, hockey mom biker-gal; she’d become pioneer victim girl, Pauline tied to the train tracks by mean Democrats and the liberal media. But Palin shook off the victim mantle by coming out swinging, first blasting “the pollsters and the pundits” for writing off McCain last year, then tearing into Barack Obama with glee, teeth bared like a Rudy Giuliani in heels.
See? Palin isn’t a woman. She’s McCain, Obama and Giuliani in drag! Not even Joan Walsh can resist describing Palin in terms “other”.
The fact that Palin was momentarily “tied to the railroad tracks” by sexism, visions of that “Alaskan Annie Oakley” still apply – Palin came back swinging and untied those knots, just as our girl Oakley would.
I’m trying hard to find male commentators who don’t refer to Palin’ssex while at the same time bending the gender narrative to take her outside the realm of ordinary women. Some comments from an article by Rick Moran:
There’s steel behind that beautiful smile that Democrats belittle at their peril
… a huge smile creased John McCain’s face as he gave her an affectionate peck on the cheek and looked at her as a father might see a daughter on her wedding day …
… There also appears to be a high level of confidence that the six-term senator from Delaware will make mincemeat of the little lady from Alaska when they debate in a few weeks.
If I were a Democrat, I would not be so sanguine iIf Joe Biden is seen as being condescending in the slightest toward Palin during that debate, he is likely to get clipped.
… in my appraisal of the relative strengths of Mr. Biden vs. Mrs. Palin. This is one tough lady …
… they grow them “Tough in Alaska.”
“Them” being women.
In addition to the Oakley qualities, Palin is a Mom of a great big family, she’s “pro-life”, rabidly anti-abortion, pro-marriage, anti-gay, blah blah blah. She’s no threat at all the the status quo and I just can’t see how she’s in the position she’s in because of liberal values. American males want to screw her for gawd sakes.
Multiple narratives are used to explain the success of a small number of women who have achieved political power. Powerful women themselves have been savvy enough to appeal to whatever narrative helps them achieve and maintain that power. Sometimes, no amount of savvy works, as with Hillary Clinton, who found herself in the unenviable position of believing that an appeal to her gender would lose voters while at the same time finding herself unable to defeat the sexism of which she was the target.
While the fact of competing narratives may be an indication of competing values and material interests, it’s also proof of the lack of success of “liberal” equality narratives in terms of achieving dominance.