The Palins and Changing Gender Attitudes
Sarah Palin has burst onto the national scene with her selection as John McCain’s running mate. She has generated an unusual amount of excitement. When someone generates the level of excitement she has, it is usually because they represent something to people. Somehow, they strike a chord.
Palin is a politician with a generally right wing perspective. It isn’t her views which excite people. There is nothing particularly notable about them. And in fact many who are excited by her don’t share most of her views.
Some call her “hot” but it isn’t her looks which are responsible for the phenomenon. She doesn’t dress provocatively or project an “available” image. And she has generated the most enthusiasm not among men looking for a sex object, but among women - and usually moms. She has an 80% popularity rating among white women, and there has been a remarkable political shift of 20 points in that demographic since she was nominated.
So what does she represent? She calls herself a feminist, but is definitely not aligned with the feminist establishment - mostly upscale white women with a heavy ideology that has never attracted the masses. She lives out the idea that a woman can do anything, and importantly that it is not a choice between having a family and doing something in the world. She is proud of having defeated the “good old boys” in her amazing gubernatorial election where she first toppled an incumbent governor in the primaries and then defeated a popular former governor in the general election. She is definitely feminine and not a man-hater, but unafraid to challenge men in what were traditionally the provinces of men. Her life becomes a symbol with which many ordinary women strongly identify.
Let’s not forget the man she calls “my guy” - her husband Todd. He seems like a “man’s man” - a TV commentator during the convention called him “studly.” Blue collar oil production worker, commercial fisherman, champion snowmobile racer - he really seems to fit the typical masculine image in so many ways.
And yet he is not the stereotypical macho male who feels the need to dominate women. He doesn’t seem interested in dominating his wife. He doesn’t seem to feel challenged by her success, but to be genuinely proud of her. And he doesn’t seem to have a problem with staying home and taking care of the kids while his wife is governing the state. Being “First Dude” is just fine with him.
The Palins have been flexible about roles. There was a time when she was a stay-at-home-mom - the “hockey mom” - and Todd was the breadwinner, and they were largely living “traditional” roles. Now she’s Governor and Todd spends a lot of time on the home front, taking care of the kids. They adjust to changing situations. They seem to have a secure, happy marriage, and love their kids and can adjust when their children don’t do what they hoped.
The Palins present a model of not being boxed in by rigid role assignments. It is a model that in no way challenges marriage and family, but shows that you don’t have to choose between that ideal and doing what draws you regardless of traditional gender roles. Their right wing politics highlights that this is not a way of living associated with a particular political ideology, but is something for everyone across the spectrum.
In some ways, the Palins seem to represent the triumph of the feminist movement. Those who have flown the feminist flag are divided in their reaction. Some have exploded in rage, because Sarah Palin is clearly not one of them. Others admit to admiring her, while being appalled at many of her views. Sarah does not spend her time bashing the feminist establishment, although the only feminist group she has felt able to identify with is Feminists for Life, which itself attracts mostly people with a very different political perspective than hers. And it has been interesting to see the dynamic between Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. They seem to respect each other. Some would like to see Hillary lash out at Sarah, but Hillary doesn’t seem to be interested in that. I think she will keep their differences political, and not make it personal.
In part what we are seeing is a generational shift in attitudes. In that, Palin has a lot in common with Obama. They are of the same generation. Just as Obama is African-American but doesn’t get boxed into being a black politician like prior black candidates, Palin is proudly a woman but doesn’t get boxed into the old image of a feminist politician. So, while there is much going on in America that discourages me, I can see signs of important positive movement in my lifetime on some very important matters. The younger generations just aren’t hung up on race and gender in the way so many Americans were when I was young. They’re more willing to let people be people, and not box them in.