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.