Saturday, September 6, 2008

"Women" Politicians

So, I watched Sarah Palin's speech, and I read what people wrote about her, and I read why one of my friends is now a fan, and I have to say that I was unimpressed. Part of the reason why I was unimpressed is because of the narrative her speech took. I was insanely bored of her familial story at about the 7 minute mark, just like I was kind of appalled that her first speech after she had been announced John McCain's running mate was also in great part about being a wife and mother. An editorial in my paper said that Palin "showed us a new model of female politician". My friend said, "Like all political women must do in these types of speeches, she brought up her family in detail". That is the prevailing sentiment, and that is a sentiment I hate. Caveats, modifiers, qualifiers, and markers of this nature drive me up the wall. Sarah Palin is a woman, and she is a politician. But the one should not make for a different type of the other. That "women" politicians have a different criteria to meet than "normal" politicians is offensive, ridiculous, and more than a little sexist. 

The same Republicans that are now fighting so hard against sexism have also unanimously declared that there is a "right" way for a woman to be a politician, and that is by focusing a lot of the attention and energy on the fact that she is still a real woman -you know, one who would rather be a hands-on mom and wife and who puts that part of her life first and foremost, or at least first and foremost in her speeches. I think it is great that another woman has been selected to be a vice-presidential candidate. I think it is a little sad that it took 24 years for it to happen again, but I also believe that it is a demonstration of the progress women have made in the public realm. Even the Republican Party, a party that hasn't exactly been known for their progressive policies since about the time of Teddy Roosevelt, has had to deal with the reality of women both making in-roads in traditionally male arenas and with women who want to see more women succeed in traditional male arenas. Which is why I consider Sarah Palin's pick for vice-president is in fact a feminist victory. We did that. Not me personally, but feminists -since before Seneca Falls- have been working for women to have access to and be acknowledged in public spaces. Each generation has gotten a little closer, has fought new battles, and have changed mindsets about the way things are and should be. These in-roads have been, in many cases, slow to build; sometimes they have been minimal. Sometimes, they have been great. 1920 was a banner year. The Women's Lib movement, starting with Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, created a radical shift in how women are viewed by society and what women are capable of achieving in that society. Joe Biden's Violence Against Women Act is another monumental step forward. And the party that represents "traditional family values", the party that has often presented the ideal home and family as one that has a wife and mother in the kitchen with the string of pearls and the homemade dinner with a smile, has a woman in the running for executive office. That is real change. That represents a real change in how we see women. But although Palin's nomination is a victory and a continuation of feminist ideals, Palin herself subscribes to the opposite of those ideals.

Sarah Palin still plays the role we have often expected women to play. She is a politician who emphasizes the fact that she is a woman. And it is working quite well for her. It has made her the very model of a modern woman politician. But we shouldn't want something different from a woman politician than a male politician in terms of how she relates her familial life to us. Barack Obama and John McCain and every politician of the male gender who came before talks about their family, but they did not and do not do it like Palin does. They don't have to. The assumption is that they are family men without the onus being on them to prove how involved they are with family life. They do not have to present themselves as a typical husband and father, and that is both a good and a bad. It is a good thing because it theoretically allows them to concentrate on something more important in running for political office, and that is the issues and their own political philosophy and how that philosophy will help America grow stronger. It is a bad thing because it represents the extent to which we minimize fathers' and husbands' importance in being a constant presence in their family's life. I just watched Finding Nemo for the hundred thousandth time, and one thing the movie emphasized is how extraordinary Marlin is for going the extra mile to find Nemo. He was presented as being an exceptional father, the very top of the pack. And Marlin is a very good father, don't get me wrong. But that narrative, that idea of placing children before self and battling the entire ocean to get a child back, is deemed impressive when presented as a father's narrative and typical when presented as a mother's narrative. And that plays to why "women" politicians have to emphasize their familial role and why just regular politicians aren't expected to. Because a woman's primary concern always has to be her family, and a man is considered to be above average (or in some cases, like stay at home fathers, below average) for doing the exact same thing.

We need to change that. We need to make going the extra mile for one's children an acknowledged fact, gender excluded. We should expect fathers to be just as hands-on as mothers. We should demand that fathers and mothers each do the same amount of heavy lifting in terms of child care. We should require our definition of a "good" father to be our definition of a "good" mother. And we should accept that in the political realm, a politician's immediate family and the politician's devotion to them should not make up the better part of a speech. It is appalling that Sarah Palin is winning such praise, is being presented as a good woman politician. She is either a good politician, or she isn't. I think she is a very good politician, who has very bad ideas about what is best for the nation and who has in a short time built up a goodly number of scandals. I don't know if she would be a particularly good vice-president. I doubt very much she would be a good president. 

I don't really want a president in the White House who wants to overturn Roe v. Wade and believes that abortion should be illegal in all cases including rape and incest. I don't want a president in the White House who is expected to spend a lot of time telling us about her family before she gets into the nitty gritty of actually telling us about her policies and herself. I don't want a woman politician. I want a politician who is a woman. I want that to be the order in which we examine our politicians. And Sarah Palin doesn't give me that. She is a woman who has, through design or an organic progression, given me a woman politician who conforms to the status quo about how a woman -not a politician, but a woman- should present herself to the public. That is pretty savvy. It allows people to feel good about seeing a woman in the spotlight without making them actually have to think about how women are forced to be presented. It may get Sarah Palin a slice of the pie. But as my girl Gloria Steinem says
"Feminism has never been about getting a job for one woman. It is about making life more fair for women everywhere. It's not about a piece of the existing pie; there are too many of us for that. It's about baking a new pie."
Sarah Palin isn't into baking a new pie; she's found a way to fit into the current paradigm. And we don't need that. And I for one don't want that.


MediaMaven said...

I don't think male politicians have to prove to such an extent that they are family men, but they still have to do it. The impression is there because they made it so--Obama is featured right along with his wife and children and they talk about family BBQs, notably in "soft" pieces (a la People or US Weekly), but it still is mentioned in other features. Can you imagine a bachelor or a politician elected to office now without a spouse and kids?

I understand what you're saying--and the impetus is we need to change the paradigm--but Sarah Palin had to mention her family. Her image required her to introduce herself in her own words (as much as we can infer that speech is from her own words), and especially since many of her scandals were family-related made her family one of the aspects she had to focus on.

When Bill Clinton was going through the Monica mess, there were pictures of him with Hillary, him with Chelsea, the three of them, to prove that they were still a family, trying to get through this. A strong-knit family—one of America’s Values—is something that very much needs to be present with our presidents.

You could argue (as others have) that the “genius” of Sarah Palin is that she is using her family and her family-centric persona to gain votes and power. It’s her way of connecting to people, by being somewhat traditional. Don’t underestimate that power.

And I’d like to point out that while my dad may not agree with you on a lot of feminist issues, he’s always the first to notice that people never thank their fathers in acceptance speeches, or acknowledge everything their dad did for them. It’s either all about the mom or the parents as a whole.

petpluto said...

"but Sarah Palin had to mention her family. Her image required her to introduce herself in her own words (as much as we can infer that speech is from her own words), and especially since many of her scandals were family-related made her family one of the aspects she had to focus on."

I disagree, to a certain extent. Yes, politicians have to mention their family -and their religion. It is almost impossible to not be religious and be elected to office; it is almost impossible to not be married by a certain age and be elected to national office. But I disagree to the extent she had to mention them, especially in her first speech after McCain picked her as his running mate. She has built herself up as first a wife and mother and second as a politician. It is very savvy, and I don't underestimate that power. But it is a false power that women and society in general need to recognize as being damaging to women in general.

Sarah Palin is using a traditional method, a traditional woman's method, to connect with people. That shouldn't be the new model of a woman politician. That's old hat; I want my politicians, male and female and Republican and Democrat, to have to follow the same basic guidelines in terms of what is expected -behavior and speech wise- from them. And I'm not about to accept anything else that makes sure women always and still have to be present in that sphere of domesticity in order to be palatable to American society. That sphere chafes.

John said...

Whenever I compare Sarah Palin to Hillary Clinton, especially considering Palin's image as a "traditional" wife and mother (presumably this makes Mrs. Clinton a "radical" wife and mother somehow)I am reminded of Joe Biden's message at the DNC: Even if she herself is a woman, her policies and her image signal to me "That's not change! That's more of the same!"