The "Palindox" of Sarah the Feminist

One of the very interesting dynamics that has emerged lately (and on which Ruth Marcus, among others, has written) is the topsy turvy nature of people's reactions to Sarah Palin's life choices. Democrats in general and feminists in particular have questioned the consistency of Palin's career ambition with her commitment to being a good mother. Republicans in general and opponents of feminists in particular have applauded the fact that a mother of five, including a special-needs infant, is able to ascend to the highest levels of government and power without taking time off for motherhood. My own sense is that both groups are being unfair and disingenuous but for different reasons.
Feminists appear to question Palin's commitment to family because they suppose -- correctly -- that if a woman who hailed from the liberal or left wing of the political spectrum were to make the choices that Palin has made, she would be excoriated rather than celebrated. At some level, women who have felt the need to apologize for their ambition and whatever "compromises" they have had to make to pursue their careers find the country's love affair with Sarah Palin maddening. If she can be embraced, they think, why can't I? And if I cannot, then I will not allow her to be either. Sarah Palin is, in that sense, like the little sister whom everyone considers adorable for doing precisely the same thing that the big sister was yelled at for doing in her time.
Right-wingers applaud Sarah Palin's confrontation with the glass ceiling because of the delicious irony. They do not especially care for the idea of giving women equal opportunity. They are, after all, the ones who brought us the 1992 Republican Convention, at which Pat Buchanan -- to much applause -- derided Hillary Clinton as a cross-dresser for her ambition. Like Clarence Thomas, however, Sarah Palin has an inspiring personal story that -- but for her politics -- concretely seems to personify dreams of her group's triumph over adversity. She was a "hockey" mom, a mother of five and nonetheless simultaneously pursued impressive accomplishments. Like Clarence Thomas as well, Sarah Palin has succeeded by championing positions that endear her to those who have expressed contempt for the struggles of people who otherwise resemble her. Sarah Palin is the Trojan Horse of the party that would turn back the clock on women's progress.
Another interesting feature of Sarah Palin's appeal that bears note is that her politics permit her to act -- proudly -- in ways that would be considered "mannish" in a left-leaning political woman. Imagine for a moment a right-wing politician referring to a group of feminists as "pit-bulls with lipstick"; would that likely be a compliment, as it was when Sarah Palin said it of "hockey moms"? (Incidentally, if Palin is a hockey mom, then I am a karate mom -- you heard it here first). Would the vicious and angry appearances of Laura Ingraham (who clerked for the Supreme Court at the same time as I did) or Ann Coulter be tolerated by the right-wing establishment if they were not fighting for causes better associated with sexist men than feminist women? For that matter, is it any accident that it is pro-life women who proudly call themselves "feminists for life," while pro-choice women are otherwise reluctant to use the "f" word and risk being characterized as "shrill" or "militant"? It is truly riveting to watch people who ordinarily mock claims of sexism queuing up to claim that Palin has been a victim of it.
To put the matter differently, the phenomenon of Sarah Palin may tell a story of how much the Trojan Horse and those like her can live the feminist dream if only they deny it to other women. And no, I will not apologize for calling Palin a horse, with or without lipstick -- I happen to love horses, as long as they are not made of wood and do not contain an army of gun-toting reactionaries.

Posted by Sherry Colb