I suppose women who vote should be thrilled these days. Not only did they witness Hillary Clinton almost become the first nominee for president for the past eight months. They also get to see Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska possibly become the first female Vice President of the United States of America. Surprisingly, this possibility is being put forth by the Republicans, whose party had never nominated a woman to the presidential ticket until last week. Well, times do indeed seem to be changing. Or are they?
Washington political analysts were stunned by Sen. John McCain’s choice due to Palin’s lack of experience on the national and foreign policy scene, as well as her relatively short career in politics. But they did offer one possible answer for why McCain might have made such a choice. Palin, being a woman, could reach those Hillary Clinton die-hard fans in a way John McCain couldn’t. Additionally, Palin could encourage the Evangelical bloc with values more conservative than McCain’s (specifically on abortion) to feel comfortable with the GOP again. Since Obama is already having trouble reaching “white working class voters,” Palin could draw them to the Republican ticket by emphasizing her small town values, anti-Washington reformism and “maverick-style” leadership that jives with McCain’s.
When Palin was announced as the V.P. nominee, I must admit that I felt patronized. I asked myself, “Do they really think that women as a voting bloc are so simple-minded that they will vote for McCain simply because a woman is the V.P. nominee”? This condescending stance was also prevalent during the Democratic primaries, when it was often assumed that women Democratic voters would vote for Hillary Clinton rather than Obama simply because she was the first woman to really have a chance at the presidency.
The underlying presumption of this simplistic logic is that women are automatically “pro-women”. The logic assumes that women place the highest value on having a woman national leader. In other words, it is presumed that female voters’ desire to see a woman in national office trumps their views on who they think will best handle the recessive economy, rising costs in health care and public education, energy and oil crises, the environment, etc. If this is indeed what the McCain Campaign had in mind, they showed that they misunderstood even the most elementary idea of feminism.
Feminism, like other ideas and value systems, is very complex and diverse in its definition, meaning, and interpretation. But it is foundationally an ideological argument for social and political practices that improve women’s lives, grant them more institutional equality and rights. The idea that a national leader naturally adopts this ideological position because she is a woman is simply false. There are countless examples of women whose acquisition of power more often than not depends on becoming “more like men.” (Margaret Thatcher immediately comes to mind.) The most powerful women often adopt explicitly anti-feminist positions in order to gain inclusion and acceptance, whether in the business or political world. At best, women in powerful leadership positions advocate a tokenized, watered-down version of feminism.
The media frenzy over McCain’s V.P. choice was interrupted by the possibility that Hurricane Gustav might be a repeat of the disastrous Hurricane Katrina three years earlier. Since the Republican National Convention, Palin’s nomination and Hurricane Gustav converged, let’s consider an example what feminist national leadership might look like in a time of natural disaster. During and after Hurricane Katrina, women were the most negatively impacted. Because they were the primary care-takers of children and the elderly, women were much more likely to be unable to evacuate. (Unlike the evacuation for Hurricane Gustav, there were no buses provided by the government three years ago.) If one happened to be poor and a woman, the chances of survival plummeted. Three years ago, evacuation was a private affair, i.e. if you were too poor to have your own transportation, you were out of luck. (The absence of public transportation infrastructures in cities like New Orleans is one result to cutting “big government”). Post-Katrina, poor black women were the most likely to suffer from stress-related illnesses and the least likely to be able to return to their previous homes. In a disaster like Katrina, feminist national leadership would have meant considering issues that make women particularly vulnerable. It would have meant having institutional policies that address woman-specific needs: practical plans to evacuate elderly, disabled or immobile people and women with children without the means to evacuate; providing assistance for medical needs particular to women; food and housing assistance for women who had lost jobs and needed to provide for their children along with the money to fund such programs. Anything less is essentially advocating the intentional abandonment of this particularly vulnerable group.
Gov. Palin’s speech at the RNC on Wednesday was silent on issues that negatively impact women at structural levels. In fact, Palin stated that she was explicitly against “big government” and “wasteful spending,” a position common to Republican philosophy. Though no one knows exactly what Republicans mean by those phrases, suffice to say that they symbolize a stance that advocates privatization and the cutting of public social services. Fine. But if the government does not take care of those poor elderly women disproportionately affected by natural disasters, who will? If a poor woman gives birth to a disabled child and has no money to pay for the child’s medical needs, who will help her? If a woman with kids is working full time at minimum wage, but she is still not making enough money to subsist or have health insurance, who will assist her in the absence of government programs? If the state does not mandate equal pay for equal work, will private businesses and corporations close the wage disparity gap between men and women out of good will?
Palin’s speech was delivered with confidence and sass. She did exactly what she was supposed to do. Ideologically and politically, however, it’s clear that Palin is far from being a feminist or even pro-woman. If anything, she’s been cast as a “tough reformist” who—gauging from the pictures of her holding a gun—is supposed to be like “one of the boys.” (Isn’t that the prerequisite of being nominated to national leadership?) Watching her on the grand stage with her family, I wondered what her life would be like if she does indeed become V.P. She is expected to continue being a “hockey mom,” take care of her newborn with Down Syndrome, support her teenage daughter who is five months pregnant and about to marry, be a good wife and grandmother, go hunting, deal with media scrutiny, make national decisions, possibly lead the US army in two wars, stand by the President, make international trips and give good speeches. Good grief!!
It occurred to me that Palin is a lot like many other women I know. They juggle family, household management and career only to eventually wear themselves thin. “Equal rights” seems to be mistaken for “pile more work and responsibilities on women” these days. If this is supposed to be feminist politics, something went seriously wrong along the way.