Saturday, October 18, 2008

No, John, Sarah Palin, Is Not My Role Model

On the day John McCain announced his running mate, a friend of mine shouldered his way through the other parents at the field hockey game until his mouth was close to my ear. "I thought of you today," he grinned.

"You did?" I asked, wondering what committee I would be volunteering for in the next few minutes.

"Yeah, I knew you would be so excited that John McCain picked a woman for his vice president," he continued to smile, "knowing how you feel about women in power and all."

I didn't correct him, then. He was so pleased to contribute to his perception of my feminist vision that I didn't want to disappoint him. So, I didn't tell him about the unexplainable outrage I felt when I heard about the announcement. At first, I was a little ashamed of my reaction to McCain's choice. I thought it might be the very "knee-jerk" response ( full of emotion and empty of substance) that I caution my argumentative writing students about.

My reaction was somehow connected to an odd conversation I had with one of my creative nonfiction writing students a couple of years ago in the hall outside of my office. Mary Clearman Blew's essay "The Unwanted Child" had led to a spirited classroom discussion about women's roles--and inevitably, women's rights. I shared the story with them about my first teaching job, recalling how I was hired along with a male journalist friend to teach the same course. I had more education and more experience than he, but his pay was $500 more than mine, a fact I discovered at the Gandy Dancer Bar over a Bombay gin martini. The irony of this discrepancy lay in the fact that I had written promotional materials for this university, my alma mater, that proclaimed the institution's dedication to women.

After class, the female student followed me into the hall, and we stopped outside of my office door. "I just don't get it," she said.

"What do you mean?"

"I just don't see you as being a feminist, being that you're married and have children and all," she tossed off as she continued on to the next class.

I stood in the hall, confused. It was only through discussion with some of my female colleagues that I got it--feminism to this student equaled man-hating which stretched to include the final dismissal of men--lesbianism. In our conversation, this young woman sniffed at the word 'feminist,' especially when I told her that I thought she was one. Serving in the army, living on her own since 16, she'd demonstrated strength and self reliance--to me, the epitome of a strong woman. It was at this point that she aimed her final comment at me and moved on down the corridor. She never took another class with me, although she'd registered for one.

How had feminism come to this, a taste of bile in the mouths of our young women, a vitriolic idea to be spat onto the cement? Coming of age in the '70s, dressed in my brother's paratrooper jacket, flannel shirts, and straight-legged blue jeans, my long hair hung down my back in a proclamation of self. I had nothing to prove to the world by strapping myself into heels and pencil skirts. In my third year of college, a professor taught the first of many Women's Studies classes there, and I fell into the history of my gender. I emerged convinced of my strength and determined to prove my equality. I lived feminism then, taking a position in the ranks of predominantly male journalists, meeting them elbow to elbow in the field, in our bylines, and at the bar rail. I believed, not in the superiority of women, but in our equality to men.

Thirty years later I was appalled by the negative reaction to feminism, including a young female student's comment on the fact that women are still paid 70 cents to the male dollar wage: "Oh, well, I'll just use the money my husband makes."

So it would seem that I would be overjoyed at McCain's choice, kicking up my Sex in the City high-heeled shoes in the streets. This will show 'em! Instead, I am angry, a low flame under my discontent. Part of it has to do with some of the reaction toward Hillary Clinton's campaign--internet jokes showing her as half man, hinting at the emasculating tendencies of a powerful woman. With me, that line is just so tired. Yet, Clinton played her best game, trying on new faces so as not to frighten voters away, all the while plodding away, believing that if she carefully argued the issues, proving her competence, she would be taken seriously.

I think my angst is rooted in that desire to be taken seriously, one that I and so many other women of my generation held as a goal and did the work to make it happen. We lived through the years when women believed they had to work twice as hard as the men around them to cement their positions. I guess I am appalled at the idea that one intelligent woman can be seamlessly swapped out for another wearing red lipstick. I'm even more appalled that a large portion of the population is willing to mindlessly cheer this new woman while jeering equally mindlessly at the first. This woman is younger, her breasts are higher, her calves and thighs are slimmer. She is pretty, perky, and entertaining, don't ya know?

I'm sure Sarah Palin is a good woman who loves her country and her family. I'm not sure that she is presidential material, and the fact that she's a woman has nothing to do with my judgment. I'm offended by the supposition that American women would run to the polls to vote for her, just because she's a woman--by the idea that a well-coiffed head could pull votes away from the black candidate--that we could be so easily manipulated.

And, no, John, Sarah Palin is not my role model. Sure, she juggles a lot of roles. But, in case you were out of touch with real women, we all do. I hold a job, make important decisions, mother four children, have a good marriage with my high school sweetheart, connect with my family, stay on top of important issues, balance the budget, deal with crisis after crisis, dream. So does my husband.

John, one thing your campaign has done for me is to spotlight America's continuing gender bias. An unattractive but accomplished female leader is an emasculating bitch, but an attractive not-so-experienced female leader who winks while proclaiming herself a pitbull wearing lipstick is hailed as a change maker.

Have we fooled ourselves at the changes we thought we'd made? You betcha.