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The left should be outraged and exasperated by all this —
but at their own failings as much as Ms. Palin’s ascension.
Since the 2008 election, progressive leaders have done little to
address the obvious national appetite for female leadership.
And despite (or because of) their continuing obsession with
Ms. Palin, they have done nothing to stop an anti-choice,
pro-abstinence, socialist-bashing Tea Party enthusiast from
becoming the 21st century symbol of American women in politics.
What makes this all the more frustrating, of course, is that progressives
helped to give Ms. Palin her start; her political career was a natural
outgrowth of feminist successes. As a teen, she played basketball
thanks to Title IX; as an adult, she enjoyed a professional life made
possible by the involvement of her load-bearing husband Todd,
entering Alaska’s governor’s mansion at 42 with four children in tow
and giving birth to a fifth while there.
Ms. Palin, in turn, has been making a greedy grab at claiming feminism
as her own. She recently marked the 90th anniversary of the 19th Amendment
by expressing her gratitude “to those brave feminist foremothers who struggled
and sacrificed, endured imprisonment and ridicule ... to grant future generations
of American women a voice.” On the same day, she sent out this Twitter message:
“Who hijacked the term ‘feminist’? A cackle of rads who want 2 crucify
other women w/ whom they disagree on a singular issue.”
The hijacking accusation goes both ways. Ms. Palin’s infuriating ability
to put a new twist on feminism — after decades of the word’s being
besmirched by the right and the left — allows her to both distance herself
from and accentuate the movement’s maligned reputation. Her new spin,
of course, is that she does not support policies that move women forward.
You’d be forgiven for thinking she does. Ms. Palin has spent much of 2010
burnishing her political bona fides and extending her influence by way of
the Mama Grizzlies, a gang of Sarah- approved, maverick-y female politicians
looking to “take back” America with “common-sense” solutions.
Sure, the Grizzlies sound somewhat progressive on paper. But from their
opposition to reproductive rights to their work against health care reform
and labor policies that would empower American women, their ideas are
just antiquated clichés dressed up in designer suits. Like Ms. Palin herself,
their talk about being “mama bears” and “tough as an ox ... wearing lipstick”
simply reduces female candidates’ political prospects to maternal worth
and sex appeal.
It’s easy of course, for liberals to laugh off Ms. Palin’s “you go, girl!”
ethos and increasingly aggressive co-optation of feminist symbols.
We progressives discount her references to the women’s movement —
not to mention her validity as a candidate — by looking down on her as
a dim, opportunistic, mean-girl prom queen, all spunk and no policy muscle.
But the sad truth is that Democrats often prefer their women fulfilling
similarly diminutive models for behavior. Consider how Hillary Clinton
has been treated, at times, by those in her own party:
Democratic leaders never really celebrated Mrs. Clinton’s nation-altering
place in history as the first female candidate to get so close to a major
party’s presidential nomination. Indeed, she is most appreciated when
she plays well with others in the Senate or the State Department; when
she behaves like a fierce competitor, she is compared to Glenn Close’s
bunny-boiling virago from “Fatal Attraction.”
The left’s failure to nurture and celebrate female politicians has had a
significant effect on its policies. In recent years, Democratic majorities
and progressive legislation seem to have been built on steady trade-offs
of reproductive rights, culminating this year when the first female speaker
of the House, Nancy Pelosi, was forced to push through health care reform
with a compromise on abortion financing.
An older generation of female Democrats, including Mrs. Clinton and
Ms. Pelosi, are about as eager to mount a Palin-style girl-powered
campaign as they are to wear a miniskirt on the House floor. For them,
proudly or aggressively touting one’s feminist credentials (if you’re actually
a feminist, that is) is taboo. It’s considered too, well, female.
But as women of a different generation — of, gulp, Sarah Palin’s generation —
we wonder if Democrats shouldn’t look to her for twisted inspiration, and
recognize that the future of women in politics will be about coming to terms
with (and inventing) new models.
Imagine a Democrat willing to brag about breaking the glass ceiling at
the explosive beginning, not the safe end, of her campaign. A liberal politician
taking to Twitter to argue that big broods and a “culture of life” are completely
compatible with reproductive freedom. A female candidate on the left who
speaks as angrily and forcefully about her rivals’ shortcomings as Sarah Barracuda
does about the Pelosis and Obamas of the world. A smart, unrelenting female,
who, unlike Ms. Palin, wants to tear down, not reinforce, traditional ways of
looking at women. But that will require a party that is eager to discover,
groom, promote and then cheer on such a progressive Palin.
If Sarah Palin and her acolytes successfully redefine what it means to be
a groundbreaking political woman, it will be because progressives let it
happen — and in doing so, ensured that when it comes to making history,
there will be no one but Mama Grizzlies to do the job.
Anna Holmes is the founding editor of the blog Jezebel.
Rebecca Traister is the author of the forthcoming
“Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed
Everything for American Women.”