Wednesday, September 3, 2008


So much for my foray into reporting gossip. I stand by my judgments of the past few days, but my usual mode is analytical, not judgmental. And if I weren't still so frozen with fear that Sarah Palin could actually become our president if McCain wins and dies, I'd write on something warm and fuzzy. Instead, I'm gusting uneasily alongside the Angelus Novus.

And so you get one more post on Palin while I await her speech at the convention.

It's occurred to me that Palin's ill-advised plane flight is - in a curious way - a stepchild of feminism. In her own way, Palin is a feminist. Seen through this prism, Palin's membership in Feminists for Life is actually a pretty accurate description of her politics. She believes women can work and wield power while raising a family. So do I. Her nomination illustrates the breadth of the consensus on women rising to the highest ranks of politics.

Exhibit A for this consensus: Rudy Giuliani just asked his convention - to thundering applause: "How dare they question whether Sarah Palin has enough time to be with her children and be vice president? How dare thay do that? When do they ever ask a man this question?" Not only Phyllis Schlafly but a host of evangelical women see no problem with Palin combining motherhood and presidential campaigning.

But because Palinofeminism is so superficial, it falls immediately into the hoary trap of equality versus difference that has plagued feminism ever since the Woman Question emerged. Historically, European feminists have tended to emphasize differences between men and women while agitating for a society in which those differences - especially childbearing - would not relegate women to second-class status. Anglo-American feminists, by contrast, have put more stress on the equality of men and women.

This historical divergence is schematic, of course, and you can find individual figures who departed from the main current of feminism in their countries. Still, the distinction is real enough that it helps explain why Germany and France and Sweden accommodate motherhood with generous legally-mandated paid maternity leave - and the United States does not.

Now, present-day American feminists are no longer so naive as to believe that a little suffrage and a pinch of formal legal equality will produce actual equality in society. The work of Joan Williams, for instance, shows how further progress toward gender equality will be blocked as long as the American economy demands "ideal workers" with no domestic responsibilities. As long as we deny that care-giving and mothering are profoundly gendered in both idea and fact, women will be systematically disadvantaged in the workplace and public life.

But the many, many American women who pursue a career despite otherwise conservative ideals aren't much aware of these more nuanced approaches. They're usually ignorant of the history of the equality versus difference debates. And so they're condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past. They compete with men on men's terms. If the job calls for them to be manly, they'll be downright macho - no matter how feminine their face or figure.

They don't see that women can never win on men's terms. They don't realize that we have to change the standards and definitions to reflect the importance of reproduction and care-work - or we'll never succeed in the public sphere. This is more than a little ironic because the same folks often trumpet the sanctity of the traditional family and male headship of the family, never mind that the economy (far more than feminism) has totally undermined both.

Of course, we can't know exactly why Sarah Palin chose to fly home after her water broke. We do know she was determined to give her speech regardless, come hell or broken water. We know she revealed her pregnancy only in the seventh month. We know she announced her return to work when baby Trig was just three days old. Through this arc of events, Palin showed she wouldn't let maternity interfere with her public duties for more than 48 hours.

Former Massuchusetts Governor Jane Swift, the first governor to give birth in office and the only one before Palin, followed a similar trajectory during her pregnancy with twins. She too worked during their infancy - and got in trouble for misusing government workers as her personal babysitters. She decided against running for reelection because of the subsequent bad publicity. Her career foundered on maternity - in part because she felt obliged to carry on as if nothing had changed.

The press has bandied about the Thomas Eagleton comparison in the past few days - and who knows, perhaps Palin too will be forced to withdraw (although the way the Republicans are rallying tonight, I doubt it). But I think the stronger analogy is to Swift's story. Swift herself sees the parallels between Palin's situation and her own.

Seen through the lens of Palinofeminism, both these women's choices make a lot of sense. I'm not snarking here; I'm sincerely trying to understand. If you feel you must compete on men's turf and on masculine terms, then you don't acknowledge the changes a pregnancy brings. Yes, most women can do their usual work throughout pregnancy. (I finished grading exams about five days before the Tiger was born.) Yes, many of us balance full-time work with an infant, though it's often a psychotically sleep-deprived time.

But most women make some some compromises with our schedules, demand some concessions from our bosses, and make space in our lives for that small but needy new human. If you're a hard-driving ambition woman, your compromises will likely be smaller. If you're a high-powered Republican woman - much less one in the macho state of Alaska! - there's precious little latitude for even imagining compromise. Things aren't a whole lot easier for high-powered Democratic women; but it's probably significant that women like Hillary Clinton deferred their political ambitions until their children were no longer little.

The people who pay most for Palinofeminism are the women themselves who try to do it all. Sure, it helps set an impossible standard for the rest of us, and so it harms women as a class, too. But really, it's those unreconstructed 1980s-style superwomen - and their families - who pay the price.

And yes - when men try to do it all at once - they, too, pay by not ever really knowing their children. But feminists have been saying that for a couple generations now.


Habladora said...

Really good post, btw. It puts words with a lot of what's been jumbling around in my head, but I've been too sleepy to think about this clearly. Thanks for doing the thinking part for me so I can just link to your thoughts.

And now, to bed.

Sungold said...

Thanks! I've been so blurry with the flu, it's a relief to be able to string together a few thoughts semi-coherently.

Sleep well - I'm off now, too. Those Republicans are just exhausting.

Laura said...

Awesome post.

Three points:

1) On the issue of difference - The Hair. She's not manning it up. Stark contrast to Clinton Washingtonian power-bot style. Implications? Perhaps none from a feminist perspective. It's likely that the hair is a vestige of her upbringing, rather than a decision to defy patriarchal terms, as you put it. Just putting it out there.

2) Jane Swift - sorry but the policy wonk and me recoils at the comparison. Jane Swift could be the poster child for partison hack-ery, while Palin is the opposite. And I don't know about Swift working while the child was an infant - from what I recall, she took a leave, and put some one else in charge. And when she came back, she often called into her meetings rather than attending them. Swift never had the ambition that Palin has. Swift really doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as Palin.

3) On the issue of work/life balance and its feminist implications - I strongly believe that the analysis or balancing of the norms that applies to regular working mothers in the private setting doesn't apply to those in public service. There has to be a moral imperative for public servants: work comes first. We assume that to be the case when a father takes office, and the same should be true for the mother. So we shouldn't be musing about "how can she do it all"? She's made a choice to serve and with that choice comes subordinating personal interest to public interest. So the answer is: she won't be able to "do it all", nor should she.

Sungold said...

Thanks, Laura!

Very astute observation on the hair. I think it's possible that conservative women may both *need* to adhere to the conventions of femininity (a butch look is too threatening) and *are free* to look feminine with less criticism than women on the left (because their male allies have their back). I'm not sure about this either, just speculating.

You live in Massachusetts, right? So you saw Swift up close. I agree the two are *very* different in terms of their ambition. My point was more that they've come under similar pressures.

You have a good point about work/life balance. I for one would not want to vote for a president who would then take six months of paternity or maternity leave! But I think there's more room for latitude at lower levels - a representative to the state house is not as crucial as the chief executive of a state or country.

I also recall Tony Blair taking off some time after his wife Cherie gave birth. Great Britain didn't collapse as a result.

If the nation can spare George Bush for three weeks while he's cutting brush in Texas, surely Alaska could have managed with Palin working from home for the first few weeks after Trig's birth. Of course, in either case the executive is never 100% off the job. But a short-term shift in priorities is certainly something the public can handle.

(One could of course argue that Bush's 2001 vacation contributed to the threats not being taken seriously before 9/11. Maybe so. He's wreaked at least as much damage while fully on duty, however!)

Smirking Cat said...

I got hung up at the beginning of your post from the word "stepchild" being used to refer to something in a negative manner. I know it's a common turn of phrase, but I ended up thinking about that the entire post instead of everything else you wrote.

Sungold said...

Yes, it's a common turn of phrase, and yes, you're right that we should stop using it figuratively. Thanks for pointing that out and continuing my education - which, it seems, is never complete!

I fully understand why you would be sensitive to this, but the problem is a more general one. The negative field of connotations is also related to the history of "stepmother" - which has stood in for "evil" in so many fairy tales.

The Takeaway said...

We're talking with Jane Swift about many of these issues on The Takeaway. Anyone can send questions about Sarah Palin, sexism, motherhood, etc., via our website,