When Hillary Clinton protested last spring about facing blatant sexism in her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, one of her harshest critics was another female politician, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
“I think she does herself a disservice to even mention it, really. You’ve got to plow through that,” Palin said at a forum on women in politics held in March.
“When I hear a statement like that, coming from a woman candidate, with any kind of perceived whine about that excess criticism, or maybe a sharper microscope put on her, I think that doesn’t do us any good.”
Palin’s admonition to Clinton at the time: “So be it, work harder.”
How political circumstances change. Now Palin’s on the Republican presidential ticket, and it’s John McCain’s campaign decrying discrimination on the campaign trail.
Palin’s selection as McCain’s running mate has dramatically transformed the U.S. election campaign, creating something like Sarah-mania among conservative Republicans, and helping to propel the Arizona senator ahead of Democrat Barack Obama in national polls. But the biggest impact of Palin’s selection may be in how Republicans and Democrats are dealing with issues of sexual politics.
In a series of ads and campaign conference calls this week, Republicans have made Palin’s gender a central component of their attack strategy against Obama, accusing the Illinois senator and his supporters of being sexist and condescending to Palin.
A McCain television ad launched Friday in several battleground states charges Obama with being “disrespectful” of the Alaska governor.
It highlights Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden’s offhanded description of Palin as “good-looking” and an Obama aide’s statement that the governor was doing “what she was told” by McCain.
Democrats say the McCain ad takes the remarks wildly out of context, making it appear as if it was Obama who called Palin good-looking.
Similarly, Obama dismissed as “phoney outrage” Republican allegations earlier this week that his reference to putting “lipstick on a pig” – made specifically about McCain’s policies – was a personal attack on Palin.
Still, the GOP tactics have flummoxed Obama’s campaign and left high-profile Democrats – male and female alike – struggling to find the right tone when criticizing Palin.
When the chairwoman of South Carolina’s Democratic party, Carol Fowler, said this week Palin’s “primary qualification seems to be that she hasn’t had an abortion,” Republicans within hours had arranged a conference call with reporters to denounce the remark.
Senator Lindsey Graham said “there would be a firestorm of monumental proportions” if a Republican had said the same thing about a female Democratic candidate.
“Our Democratic colleagues and opponents are in a meltdown mode over Gov. Palin,” said Graham.
“She’s a talented, reform-minded, conservative female governor who has, I think, thrown our opponents for a loop in terms of how to engage the McCain-Palin ticket.”
Fowler said she was referring to Palin’s appeal among anti-abortion activists on the religious right. But she quickly apologized.
“Palin’s selection really has the Democrats in a box,” says Kathleen Dolan, political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “They don’t know how to go about trying to dismantle her as a credible candidate in the ways they would if she were a man, without being perceived as being bullies.”
Obama has said he assumes Palin “wants to be treated the same way that guys want to be treated.” But the rules of engagement are unclear, even after Clinton’s candidacy highlighted the challenges of a woman running for president and of running for president against a woman.
“The norms are quite rapidly changing about what counts as sexist,” says Lynn Sanders, a politics professor at the University of Virginia who specializes in gender politics.
“The experience of having Sarah Palin nominated, on the heels of Hillary’s candidacy, is going to help Americans figure out what is fair game in talking about women, and maybe get some attention off of questions about appearance and sexuality and onto questions about policy and ideological commitments.”
But even on matters strictly political, gender issues loom large.
When Palin sat down for an interview on Thursday with ABC News anchor Charles Gibson, much of the resulting news coverage focused on how the Alaska governor struggled to define the “Bush doctrine” of pre-emptive military strikes.
But conservative bloggers and commentators had a different take Friday morning – blasting Gibson as “pompous,” “sneering” and “condescending” for his persistent questioning of Palin.
“Republicans seem to be saying there are things that can’t be said about Palin, questions that shouldn’t be asked,” says Dolan. “They see the real sexism where it exists, but they also want to call honest, critical analysis of her sexist.”
Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and Republican presidential candidate, maintains Palin is being subjected to a double standard when it comes to her political experience.
“The whole issue of whether she knows world affairs or not, these are questions that were never asked of Barack Obama, never asked of him to this day,” Giuliani said Friday.
The fierce reaction among conservatives to the treatment of Palin hearkens back to how Democratic voters responded to Hillary Clinton’s first Senate campaign in 2000, says Dolan.
At the end of a televised debate, Republican candidate Rick Lazio approached Clinton demanding she sign a petition. The incident was cast as an attempt to bully Clinton, and his support plummeted.
Lazio’s fate should serve as a cautionary tale for Biden, who will face Palin in a much-anticipated vice-presidential debate Oct. 2 in St. Louis.
“Male candidates have to walk a fine line about how they campaign against women, because our stereotypes are still so strong,” Dolan says. “On the one hand, we want to see women as strong and independent and forceful. On the other hand, we still see them as our daughters who need to be protected.”
Another McCain campaign ad this week showed images of a pack of wolves emerging from the forest as a narrator warned Obama would “try to destroy” Palin as he falls in the polls.
It may be “inconsistent” for McCain’s campaign to complain about sexism when Palin herself has dismissed such talk as whining, but it’s also smart politics, Sanders says.
“How do they get around that inconsistency? Well, Sarah Palin can’t be the one who complains.”
Obama’s campaign signalled Friday it hoped to shift the spotlight off Palin and put it back on McCain, with new ads claiming he’s out of touch with middle-class Americans.
“In recent weeks, John McCain has shown that he is willing to go into the gutter to win this election,” David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, said in a strategy memo. “His campaign has become nothing but a series of smears, lies and cynical attempts to distract from the issues.”
So the response to Palin should be “plow on”, “work harder”. That is, if we weren’t feminists. And damn it, she isn’t! I’ve read several posts on blogs I’m not gonna link to admonishing feminists to “be inclusive” with respect to Palin and feminism. I’m all for tolerance. I’ll tolerate Palin but it’ll be a frosty Friday in the north woods before I call her a feminist. She isn’t!