Sarah Palin got a near perfect score for her Olympian dive off the heights of the Republican convention and onto the national stage as John McCain’s vice-presidential running mate. Her performance since then and the positive reaction to it by conservative women sent a hurricane-sized wave at the women’s movement. For those of us still paddling toward the promise of second-wave feminism (post Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique”) the water has gotten suddenly rough.
Conservative female voters who came to a Palin rally in Virginia had finally found a brand of feminism, although they would be loathe to call it that, that they could embrace. Palin is with them on social issues like opposing the right to choose an abortion or providing sex education other than promoting abstinence. She wants to put creationism into school curriculums and keep gays from marrying. But she also stands for being a working mother and wife. She’s a woman with five children whose life stands for the idea that mothers can be successful in the working world, even more successful than men. She’s all about “shattering the glass ceiling,” as she put it, breast pump in one hand and hammer in the other. As Republican pollster and mother of three Kellyanne Conway put it, “(Palin) strongly conveys to women today that you don’t have to choose between a successful career and motherhood. You do have to make sacrifices, but you can have it all.”
Evidently, while us second-wave feminists were focused on extending and enforcing legislative victories for equal gender treatment in the workplace and in schools, the powerful idea that women deserve equal rights began to seep into conservative thinking –maybe men could take on more home responsibility, maybe it is unfairly limiting and destructive to assign women roles that constrict their ambition, creativity and dreams.
The hypocrisy of conservative leaders embracing these feminist ideas when it comes to Palin, from jabberers like O’Reilly and Limbaugh to movement leaders like Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum and James Dobson of Focus on the Family is thick as sewer sludge, but it’s also a distraction. Those Americans who care about ensuring and expanding the promise of equality for women need to think about how Palin can forward the feminist agenda. We also have to be wary of a Palinesque pseudo-feminism full of inherent contradictions.
The McCain/Palin ticket opposes pay equity for women, but extols the virtues of Palin’s husband Todd helping out at home, a circumstance unaffordable for most couples. With women’s wages still lagging behind those of men, the dream of shared parental responsibility is just that. When it comes to pregnancy, women who make the difficult and deeply personal decision to have an abortion aren’t looking to be told they can have it all, they just want to be left alone. And while conservative women rejoice that Palin rejects the promise of science in stem cell research and the importance of scientific discovery represented by the teaching of evolution, they also see her opening the door to their aspirations. But Palin’s stubborn adherence to discredited ideas offers little hope that she will attack the kind of continuing sexism in the workplace that limits women’s pay and opportunities. A woman who can’t agree that equality dictates that anyone should be able to marry whomever they love isn’t likely to undertake the fight for equality that will give women full rights in every part of American life.
Still, Palin has created a new wave in the womens’ movement. But it’s a riptide certain to pull us back from gains we have made and progress we look to achieve if we don’t respond with respect and savvy. I don’t agree on social issues with most Republican women, but I do believe they suffer from sexism as I have. They are caught in the cultural imperative that tells them they must be everything to everyone and, therefore, leaves little time or energy for them to follow their passion and dreams. They are populating workplaces where a double standard for leadership holds them back and a double-dose of negative stereotypes about their ability to take charge, rather than just take care, leaves them frustrated and often insecure.
Sarah Palin’s given feminists the opportunity to talk about women’s equality again and get the country, and Republican women, listening. Like Democratic women, more of them than ever are in the workplace, living the experience of continued inequality. Where we stand apart on social issues, we can stand together on getting our fair share and fair chance. It’s a place, at least, to start a conversation.