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In an American Prospect piece titled “Lessons For Feminists From Sarah Palin,” Courtney E. Martin lists the political lessons that feminists can take away from the case of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.
Martin, to her credit, stays pretty upbeat on Palin’s aftermath, striking three positive notes on Palin’s political ascension: she’s taught us that “women across the country are hungry for their strength to be acknowledged, without sacrificing their femininity”; that “defending women against sexism means defending all women against sexism”; and that “we’ve succeeded in so many ways!”
I, too, believe that feminists have learned a lot from the rise of Palin. But since I’m kind of a downer, I think it’s important to point out the less-than-positive flip-sides of Palin’s Feminist Primer:
Lesson #1: Women across the country are hungry for their strength to be acknowledged, without sacrificing their femininity A Female Politician’s Image is Always More Important Than A Man’s.
Martin finds an interesting silver lining in Palin’s lasting contribution to “American electoral rhetoric”—-the pit-bull with lipstick. The phrase, Martin argues, was a rallying cry for the powerful woman who refuses to be underestimated because of her feminine identity.
“Feminists need to get better at explaining that, in fact, feminism is opposed to anything that narrows human beings’ choices around gender identity and expression,” writes Martin. “Whether you are Sarah Palin and you want to wear a perky ponytail while standing by your ‘dude,’ or you’re Rachel Maddow and want to wear thick black glasses while standing by your partner, we defend your right to do so.”
The shade of one’s lipstick and the style of one’s glasses should never have any bearing on a woman’s political career. But while this election cycle exposed many liberal commenters eager to ridicule Palin for her perky ponytail or productive womb, it also produced rampant sexism among Palin supporters. For many of her conservative backers, Palin’s femininity wasn’t just tolerated—-it was magnified, obsessed over, and valued above her qualifications. Palin’s femininity wasn’t respected as a personal choice—-it was practically a prerequisite for her position.
The feminist lesson we can learn from Palin isn’t so much that ponytails are as valid as Maddow’s black-framed glasses or Hillary Clinton‘s pantsuits—-it’s that no matter what flavor of female political figure you are, your looks matter.
Even in extremely visible careers like politics and cable news, strict standards of appearance have relaxed a bit for female employees. But the expectation of femininity has far from disappeared, as any side-by-side comparison of Palin and Clinton will make clear. Even Maddow, Martin’s example of the anti-Palin, is a smoking hot babe—-a smoking hot babe who doesn’t wear those signature glasses on the air.
Lesson #2: Defending women against sexism means defending all women against sexism.
Actually, I totally agree with this point. Awesome!
Lesson #3: We’ve succeeded in so many ways! Palin’s Failure Is Not A Feminist Success.
Martin takes a time-out here to detail How Far We’ve Come—-and she’s right to remind feminists to soak up their successes once in a while. “Sarah Palin doesn’t represent feminists, but she surely represents the success of feminism’s long, hard-fought battle to get women leading roles on the political stage,” writes Martin. “It may have made feminists squirm to see that the movement’s fight produced a moment ripe for a soldier like Sarah Palin, but from another vantage point, her candidacy (and more importantly, Hillary Clinton’s) prove we’ve won certain battles. Women are taken seriously as political candidates. Plain and simple.”
Well, I have to disagree there. Sarah Palin was not taken seriously as a political candidate—-she ranks up there with The Economy in helping to totally derail John McCain‘s presidential campaign. Since November 4, we’ve learned enough about Palin’s uninformed, inexperienced, and dubiously ethical approach to politics to know that she shouldn’t be taken seriously as a political candidate in the future. I’m not sure why Sarah Palin has risen to the forefront of the Republican Party, but it’s not because she’s the best and the brightest the party’s got to offer. Unfortunately, I’ve gotta think it has a lot more to do with image (see Lesson #1).
*BONUS* Lesson #4: Let’s Get Our Shit Together.
Though Martin doesn’t headline it as such, she does touch on Palin’s most lasting feminist lesson at the end of her essay. “I feel thankful that she inadvertently pushed feminists out of complacency,” writes Martin. “No matter who she claims to be, we need to keep pushing ourselves to clarify who we are.” This is Palin’s real contribution to feminism: Her frustrating combination of power, femininity, destructive reproductive health positions, and incessant winking presented a puzzle for feminists to hash out at every Palin public appearance. In other words: Hey! She gave us something to blog about.