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Is Sarah Palin Good For Women?

August 30, 2008, 1:57 pm

A commenter who can only be known as Anonymous 7:50 (choose names, people! it’s half the fun of blogging!) asked yesterday on my Obama post, “So, given all that, what didja think of the Palin selection today? Another historic step in the advancement of
women?” I hope this person is one of my students, because it is one of the best questions I have been asked lately and the idea that I might encounter Anonymous 7:50 in the classroom sounds fun.

My answer, less direct than you might like, is: Yes. I Suppose. And No. Not Really. And — Good For Her! Let’s Crack Open A Cold One!

For details on Sarah Palin’s career, you can go to this article in the Los Angeles Times. For her official bio, including pictures of her family and of the Governor holding a dead caribou by its rack, click here. For a checklist of why Palin strengthens the McCain ticket among conservatives, go to the ever-reliable and witty Historiann.

After quick research, I have a strong feeling that I would probably like Palin as a person. She’s outdoorsy, and so am I. She seems real. While I don’t hunt, I can imagine kicking back on the porch with her after cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, having a few laughs and a serious policy discussion that was intelligent and mutually respectful. I have firm roots in Idaho and the mountain West, and so am quite comfortable being friendly, intimate with, and interested in, people who cleave to beliefs and practices that the Northeastern intelligentsia sees as quite marginal or worrisome. For example, here are some things I like about her:

While I think guns are too dangerous for crazy people and untrained enthusiasts to own, I grew up around a lot of rifles and shotguns, and understand why rural people in particular value hunting and often have an economic need to hunt. I understand less well when they feel the need to own automatic weapons and rocket launchers, drill with the Michigan Militia, patrol the border looking for migrant workers, and collect seven years worth of canned food in the basement in preparation for the Last Days, but Palin doesn’t do that. She buys a license and shoots her limit every year. That’s all.

I’d really like to go to dinner at her house: I bet she makes a heck of a caribou roast.

I have no problem with creationists as long as they are not trying to institutionalize that knowledge as “the truth,” and I have no problem with people who are morally opposed to abortion, as long as they don’t interfere with the right of my nieces to choose not to give birth to an unwanted child, deny them knowledge about their own sexuality, and prevent them from having access to birth control. I think Palin’s decision to carry a child she knew had Downs’ Syndrome to term makes her particularly likable, since not everyone has the empathy and emotional strength to contemplate that. Downs’ kids are more often than not really nice people, and I think it speaks well of Palin that she isn’t eugenicist and doesn’t need to have traditionally perfect children like so many of us do. On the other hand, as we admire her capacity to juggle family and (a very ambitious) career, and her willingness to raise a disabled child, let’s take a look at the financial resources she has to do that and get those to other families too!

As an anti-war liberal, I respect it that Palin’s eldest son is in the military, which is neither here nor there, except that so few proponents of the war seem to live in families where military service is valued over other ambitions. I hear he is deploying soon, and I hope that she gives McCain a good talking to about his failure to support preparedness in the military, his opposition to expanded veterans’ benefits and his incredible current silence on the issue of torture.

Palin sounds ambitious, decent, honest and — while I resent the political turn which has forced every candidate to talk about God as if She was House Majority Leader — I have several good friends and colleagues who are people of strong, sometimes evangelical, faith, so I don’t happen to have that particular liberal prejudice. Being religious may have something to do with what seems to be an ethical profile that one might argue is unusually good for politicians in Alaska.

So Palin’s nomination may be a good one, and it seems to be consistent with the past three decades of Republican political positions. But is Palin’s nomination good for women?

I think that is harder to say. One of the great contrasts between Republicans and Democrats is that the GOP doesn’t really do women’s politics, and hasn’t since the Ford administration: they do what they call family politics, and strenuously resist the idea that there is such a thing as inequality, racism or sexism. Current Republican policies are based on the ideological position that identity is irrelevant to individual prosperity, and that the only differences between people are their relative level of virtue, which can be gauged by an individual’s capacity to be disciplined and adhere to “values.” Economic success, for example, is a subset of virtue; hence, the incredible concentration of poverty among women and minorities is usually ascribed to their lack of values. This is not unrelated to the importance of religion in Republican party politics after 1972. Christians, and particularly antinomian Protestants, have long believed that personal misfortune is an outcome of being at odds with the Lord, and that tracing the source of God’s wrath to failures of virtue may be the only way to prevent misfortune in the future. General catastrophe, however, is a good thing, as it might be a harbinger of the Apocalypse and the Second Coming. It’s a stretch, but if you understand this you will also understand why government not responding to AIDS and the Bush administration provoking the possibility of nuclear war in the Middle East would, in the end, be consistent with family values.

But I digress. The Palin nomination may be good for some women, particularly Republicans who have ambitions for higher office, but in the terms I am arguing, not good for most other women. It’s hard to tell, and hard to care, because a Republican victory in November (which I think is unlikely) will be bad for the poor, and bad for those who are not poor — including women — who suffer from structural inequalities and have nowhere to go for help, given that there is now a pro-business majority on the Supreme Court. A United States without national health insurance will be bad for women; a prison system that is Hoovering up black men and warehousing them for generations can’t be good for women; badly crippled and mentally traumatized veterans with no health insurance will be bad for women, particularly when they are women; schools that think they are making children more capable through rote learning and testing will be bad for girls who are becoming women; welfare policies that offer no route for improving yourself aside from getting married will be very bad for women; assuming that sex just works itself out after marriage, and that normal humans are content to wait for a committed monogamous relationship to have sex, has historically been bad for women; taking children away fro
m mothers because they are lesbians is really bad for women; teenagers having babies they can’t afford and don’t know how to raise will be bad for girls and the women who are their mothers and grandmothers. And so on. Pick your issue: I can tell you why Republican policies are bad for most women. And Sarah Palin isn’t going to change that.

I also think that the Republicans may get little effect from a move that is historic for them, since they have also come to the party too late. And it isn’t just because Hillary Clinton ran a terrific campaign, and could have been President. It’s that interest group politics, which flourished in the 1960′s and began to break apart during the Ford and Carter administrations, are really over. They have been killed by the relative successes of 1960s social movements, and not sufficientIy sustained by the things the civil rights, gay rights and women’s liberation movements failed to achieve. As a result, I don’t think most people vote on sentiment or identity; I think they vote pragmatically, and attend to more than one identity when they do. I don’t think there is a category empty of ideology and political content called “women” that a candidate can — or cannot — be good for. I don’t think having “a woman” on the ticket is necessarily moving the cause of “women” ahead more generally, since women have moved towards a variety of forms of equality without a female chief executive or veep, even under conservative administrations. Note: in 1984, when Democrat Geraldine Ferrarro was chosen by Walter Mondale and the convention as the first woman Vice Presidential candidate, other women were in the mix — Dianne Feinstein, the Mayor of San Francisco and Martha Layne Collins, the Governor of Kentucky. Since then, a quarter of a century ago, not only has a woman not been chosen or elected, but very few women have even been vetted for the position.

I think what is more important than whether the Palin nomination is good for women is that the Republican Party Platform, regardless of who is on the ticket, is not good for women. Women are more likely to be poor, homeless, uninsured, single parents, and caring for dependent relatives than men. As long as Republicans believe that they can campaign on “social issues” rather than “pocketbook issues” they can put the Virgin Mary on the ticket and “women,” as well as “men,” will vote Democrat in the fall.

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