Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Palin, Clinton, Michelle Obama: Double standards for women in politics?

Just how comfortable are we with female leaders? Not at all? Very? Somewhere in between? Judging from the current presidential race, all of the above may apply. While the unprecedented participation of women in the current US presidential race marks monumental progress in the acceptance of women as solid political leaders, media spin and water-cooler buzz may suggest otherwise. If there is one thing we can glean from these mixed messages, it is this: gender is and will continue to be a big issue in the political decision-making process.

When Gloria Steinem brought gender to the fore of debate in a widely discussed New York Times editorial last January, she painted a telling hypothetical picture. Take Obama's past experience, she wrote, and change sexes- Achola Obama as opposed to Barack- and you will come up with a political ticket going nowhere. Regardless of our political leanings, many of us had to admit it was a good point. That, however, was in January.

Now with Sarah Palin, an arguably less experienced and more problematic candidate than the hypothetical Achola Obama in the mix, we must ask once again: just how comfortable are we with female leaders? How will our expectations of a 'female leader' as opposed, simply to a 'leader,' color our ballots this November?

As more and more information trickles in regarding Palin's personal life, I cannot help but wonder— how would we react if she were male? Would the debate surrounding her daughter's teen pregnancy be nearly as vocal? Would her physical beauty be mentioned with such avid frequency?

One aspect in this hypothetical can be nearly certain. If Palin were male, the fact that she recently gave birth to an infant with Down syndrome would most likely be a blip on the radar- a talking point to induce empathy and garner votes rather than a reason not to run for VP. Only one week into her candidacy we have all likely heard the same refrain. Often laced with incredulity, it is this: "How can she think of running for office when she has a baby to take care of?"

In terms of logistics, there is only one answer: Palin can think of running for office in the exact same way a man with an infant can think of running for office. Perhaps she will have to confront some extra decisions, such as whether or not she will have the time or desire to breastfeed during intensive campaigning, but these are not insurmountable obstacles. This however, is not just a question of logistics. It is a question of how we define 'politician' and how we define 'mother' and just how willing we are to let the two cozy up together.

The case of Palin is just one example of the ways our ideas about gender will influence politics in the years to come. Whether we are talking about Hillary Clinton crying during a speech, the fashion choices of Michelle Obama, or the intersections of Palin's personal and professes ional lives, gender is there. It is our job as voters, at the very least, to begin to acknowledge and understand this force in our political consciousness.

by Juliana Sloane

1 comment:

Tracy H. said...

I think even if Palin were a man, we'd still be talking about Bristol's pregnancy because of her/his support for abstinence-only sex education.

And if she were a man, I think her/his anti-choice stance would draw even more criticism from pro-choice people, including myself, who feel like a man shouldn't impede on women's reproductive rights.

(I only recently came across your blog, and I like how intelligent it is.)