Sarah Palin's Retrograde Gender Politics

Observers of contemporary politics, especially those who follow the high drama of presidential campaigns, are plagued by many questions. Most vexing, perhaps, are those concerned with the role of gender in public life. Why is testosterone the coveted elixir of political power? More specifically, what anxieties have made the ‘wimp factor' one of the most important variables in determining the outcomes of elections? First coined in 1988, this phrase…denotes a male candidate's deficient manhood. --Stephen Ducat, The Wimp Factor

The McCain campaign has spent the last two weeks trying to convince American voters that Sarah Palin is just the jolt of estrogen that the country needs. She has five kids; long, pretty hair; and the teeth-gritting, fist-clenching fierceness of a mother about to pull a car off her toddler. Reuters, in fact, reports that after her deus ex machina appearance at the Republican National Convention, McCain suddenly shot up 12 points ahead of Obama with white women. (He was 8 points behind before the confetti fell in Minneapolis.)

Palin may have been plucked from obscurity to appeal to women voters who are aching for a maverick in mom's clothing, but don't be fooled. Palin is not on this ticket to bring gender balance to the White House; her primary role is to reinforce the almighty power of traditional masculinity.

From her first public speech as VP candidate, she's been driving the point home. Of Obama, she quipped, "This is a man who can give an entire speech about the wars America is fighting, and never use the word ‘victory.'" Notice that he's not just a candidate giving an address, but a man, a man who doesn't have the balls to go after outright victory. There is ample evidence that the war in Iraq is not a win-lose equation (and never really was), but a complex, messy civil entanglement with multiple competing interests, close to 5,000 American lives lost, and $200 million spent daily. Despite these cold hard facts, Palin chides Obama for not appealing to vulnerable Americans' need to feel like invincible winners again.

And, in perhaps the most offensive display of her "wimp factor" agenda, she attempted to discredit community organizing by feminizing it. She sarcastically told conventioneering Republicans (along with millions of Americans watching on television), "I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,' except that you have actual responsibilities." It was an eerie echo of what oblivious men in positions of traditional power have been saying for centuries: that the work of community building -- whether it be child-rearing, elder-caring, teaching, nursing, social work, or, yes, community organizing -- isn't really work at all. That, despite being the backbone of our economy and the heart of our civic life, it doesn't count because it doesn't involve power suits and bottom lines. What makes this ridicule of community-building even more ironic is that the GOP is simultaneously glorifying Palin's role as caregiver of her own sprawling family.

When it comes to Obama's policies, Palin throws plenty of punches. She asks, "Al Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America ... he's worried that someone won't read them their rights?" In a McCain/Palin world, even the Constitution is framed as embarrassingly soft. A man who would worry about the rights of a potentially innocent human being, instead of seeking to immediately destroy him or her and any question about America's brutal toughness, is seen as humorously wimpy.

"What does he actually seek to accomplish," Palin asks, "after he's done…healing the planet?" Coming from her, "healing" is preposterous and hippie, something that might work for those touchy-feely community organizers, but not the tough-guy leader of the free world who should -- in Palin's estimation -- have rigid goals and tank-like resolve. Healing isn't what soldiers are doing right now in underfunded VA hospitals or what McCain did after suffering as a POW in the Vietnam War; guys tough it out. In fact, those returning from Iraq are often asked to pay out; eight out of 10 wounded soldiers have been, according to a study commissioned by the First Infantry Division, asked to refund the military for the payments they mistakenly received while injured. "Healing" is for sissies.

Men are, first and foremost, protectors in Palin's antiquated world. McCain is "not afraid of a fight;" he will "defend America." She assures the American voters that there is "only one man in this election who has ever really fought for you," discounting with one pithy line the 35-year political service of Joe Biden (many of them spent specifically focused on foreign relations) and all the ways in which Obama has tried to fight for the security and safety of this country, including his role in nuclear non-proliferation policy. The Palin worldview is clear -- real men are warriors and the rest of 'em are wimps.

The flip side of Palin's insistent McCain-mythologizing is her minimization of her own story. What should irritate women voters and certainly enrage former Hillary supporters the most is that Palin consistently downplays her own ambition and intelligence. Her political narrative is that of "the hockey mom," someone who didn't have much ambition beyond the PTA but got slowly sucked into electoral politics on a grander scale.

There's no question that becoming a mother is often a politically electrifying experience, but when Clinton spoke, she made clear that mothering was just one critical part of her complex identity. She didn't attempt to make people comfortable with her femaleness by dressing it up in maternity. Instead, she transformed the way people saw motherhood. With Clinton, mothering became a legitimate leadership experience. Palin demotes it to a reassurance for retro thinkers, essentially saying, "Don't worry, I'm a woman with political power, but I'm still an old-fashioned mom."

Palin is standing by her new man, McCain, in the sugary-sweet manner of a '50s pop song. Sure, she's a little feisty, but only in the service of making her war hero look manly and her own heroics look momly. She was strategically chosen as the sidekick who can call Obama a sissy without fearing the repercussions, and sway disappointed women voters in the process.

If elected, she will break the glass ceiling of vice-presidential politics, but then she'll do everything in her power to make sure that the gender roles in Washington -- and the rest of the country, for that matter -- stay exactly the same.