Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska says that she's a champion for women, professing that, as the Republican vice-presidential nominee, she is the breakthrough that authenticates the 18 million cracks in the proverbial glass ceiling opened by Sen. Hillary Clinton. But before Palin can claim any authenticity as a fighter for gender issues, she needs to address some important questions: With Alaska having the highest rates of rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence in the U.S., according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, what did Palin do as a mayor, and as governor, to remedy these problems? And what would she do as vice president to address gender-based violence as a national issue?
Her previous and current governing acts signal that the protection of women's rights is not much of a priority for her. For all of Alaska's dismal statistics on violence against women, Palin took steps that worked against the interests of vulnerable women -- especially Native Alaskan women. As mayor, Palin refused to have the city of Wasilla cover the costs of the forensic kits for women who said they had been raped. As governor, Palin stood in the way of efforts to expand legal-service resources to victims of sexual assault, and fired Walt Monegan, one man who had almost unanimous respect from police, urban Alaskans, and Native Alaskans alike for his dedication to this issue.
As mayor of Wasilla from 1996 to 2000, Palin decided she would defy a bill from then-Gov. Tony Knowles that said local law enforcements should foot the bill for "rape kits" -- the forensic analysis needed to trace the identity of attackers -- when victims filed complaints or sought treatment in medical centers. The kits cost between $300 and $1200, putting them out of the reach of low-income women and adding a financial weight to an already burdened accuser. But Mayor Palin thought instead that the kits were too much of a financial drain on the city government.
The Alaska that Palin inherited as governor had a rape rate 2.5 times the national average. Its rates of sexual assault against children are six times the national average. And its per-capita rate of women killed by men is the highest in the nation. For Native Alaskan women, reality is even grimmer. A major Amnesty International report on violence against American Indian and Alaskan Indian women found that an alarming one in three female Native Alaskans and American Indians (two distinct groups) are raped in their lifetime, and three in four have been sexually assaulted. Native Alaskan women are 10 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than all other Alaskan women.
These women are often cut off from the avenues to justice -- literally. Since many Native Alaskan women live in rural villages that have no connecting roads to the main cities with police stations, they have a difficult time filing complaints. The Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault reports that 30 percent of Alaskan women have no access to victim services where they live. According to the Amnesty International report, police are themselves handicapped -- often underfunded -- in trying to get to the villages when complaints arise. And in interviews Amnesty International conducted with Native Alaskan sexual-assault survivors, respondents said that police and medical professionals often wrote them off as being drunk when they complained. Doctors and police wouldn't follow up on investigations.
In what was hailed as a step in the right direction, Palin appointed Monegan, the former Anchorage police chief, as public-safety commissioner in 2006, just after she was elected governor. The first Native Alaskan to hold this position, Monegan was well regarded as a well-respected public figure among both city- and village-dwelling Alaskans. He's a board member of the Alaska Native Justice Center, which advocates on behalf of Alaskan Natives. As commissioner, he established and supported measures to strengthen law enforcement in the native rural areas, and advocated for more protection of native women, who are the prime targets for assault, rape, and murder -- mostly by non-native men. He also established a Citizens Police Academy, which empowered residents to report crimes as they surfaced. One program he hoped to put in place would have deputized villagers and eventually elevate them to official state troopers -- a program which, if carried out, would have given sexual-assault victims a law service in their own front yards.
But Monegan bumped up against Palin's staunch position that she wouldn't support any programs that she felt would burden taxpayers. Monegan went to Washington, D.C., to request federal funds to combat sexual assault and domestic violence. It was this move that drew him into conflict with Palin and her way of governing. Palin reportedly had not "authorized" the program to expand the sexual-assault legal services that Monegan wanted to implement. According to her lawyer, Thomas Van Flein, Palin considered Monegan's trip to D.C. to request funding "the last straw."
Palin's spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said Monegan was fired because the governor wanted the public-safety department to move "in a new direction" -- although this "new" strategy seemed remarkably similar to what Monegan was already doing. Palin's interim replacement for Monegan was Kenai police officer Charles Kopp, who at the time was facing accusations of sexually harassing a female employee -- a "new direction," indeed.
All of this stands in stark contrast to Palin's counterpart on the Democratic ticket, Sen. Barack Obama's running mate Sen. Joseph Biden, who has a strong congressional record on these issues -- most notably his long battle in establishing, promoting, strengthening, and sustaining the Violence Against Women Act. (It was, in fact, this signature piece of legislation that made funds for Monegan's proposed programs possible.)
Palin's record of standing in the way of progress and justice for those women suffering from the most egregious of crimes undermines her claim that she represents a step forward for women. Her record in Alaska makes clear that her chosen style of governing often means choosing to save a dollar rather than save a woman's life.