In the past few weeks, Sarah Palin has been variously described as a diva who engaged in paperwork-throwing tantrums, a shopaholic who spent $150,000 on clothing, a seductress who provocatively welcomed staffers while wearing only a towel, and a “whack-job”—contemporary code for hysteric. Worse, she was accused by a suspiciously gleeful Fox News reporter named Carl Cameron of not knowing Africa was a continent, of being unable to name the members of NAFTA, indeed of being unable to name the countries of North America at all. (“But she can be tutored,” Bill O’Reilly told Cameron, as though speaking of a small child.) More significant than the dubious origins of these leaks, or the fact that the campaign that cried “sexism” at every criticism of its vice-presidential nominee was engaging in its own misogynistic warfare, is the fact that all of the allegations were so believable. After all, Palin had earned herself a reputation as, in the words of one Fox News blogger, “something of a policy ditz.”
It’s hard to get too worked up on Palin’s behalf, of course; she was complicit in her crucifixion. But it is disappointing to watch what some have called the “year of the woman” come to such an embarrassing conclusion. This was an election cycle in which candidates pandered to female voters, newsweeklies tried to figure out “what women want,” and Hillary Clinton garnered 18 million votes toward winning the Democratic nomination. The assumption was that these “18 million cracks in the highest glass ceiling,” as Clinton put it, would advance the prospects of female achievement and gender equality. It hasn’t exactly worked out that way.
In the grand Passion play that was this election, both Clinton and Palin came to represent—and, at times, reinforce—two of the most pernicious stereotypes that are applied to women: the bitch and the ditz. Clinton took the first label, even though she tried valiantly, some would say misguidedly, to run a campaign that ignored gender until the very end. “Now, I’m not running because I’m a woman,” she would say. “I’m running because I think I’m the best-qualified and experienced person to hit the ground running.” She was highly competent, serious, diligent, prepared (sometimes overly so)—a woman who cloaked her femininity in hawkishness and pantsuits. But she had, to use an unfortunate term, likability issues, and she inspired in her detractors an upwelling of sexist animus: She was likened to Tracy Flick for her irritating entitlement, to Lady Macbeth for her boundless ambition. She was a grind, scold, harpy, shrew, priss, teacher’s pet, killjoy—you get the idea. She was repeatedly called a bitch (as in: “How do we beat the … ”) and a buster of balls. Tucker Carlson deemed her “castrating, overbearing, and scary” and said, memorably, “Every time I hear Hillary Clinton speak, I involuntarily cross my legs.”
Career women, especially those of a certain age, recognized themselves in Clinton and the reactions she provoked. “Maybe what bothers me most is that people say Hillary is a bitch,” said Tina Fey in her now-famous “Bitch Is the New Black” skit. “Let me say something about that: Yeah, she is. So am I … You know what? Bitches get stuff done.” At least being called a bitch implies power. As bad as Clinton’s treatment was, the McCain campaign’s cynical decision to put a woman—any woman—on the ticket was worse for the havoc it would wreak on gender politics. It was far more destructive, we would learn, for a woman to be labeled a fool.
When Sarah Palin first stepped onto the national stage, I was, like many women, intrigued by her. Here was a woman who—even if you didn’t agree with her politics—seemed to have achieved what so many of us were struggling for: an enviable balance between career and family. She was “a brisk, glam multitasker,” to quote the Observer’s Doree Shafrir, with a good-natured stay-at-home husband at her side and several adorable young children in tow. She was running a state and breast-feeding a newborn and yet, amazingly, did not seem exhausted. There was something inspiring about seeing a woman so at ease with her choices, even as both liberal and conservative critics chided her for running for vice-president when her family needed her. Politics aside, when, at the convention, she delivered a politically deft speech like a pro, it was pleasing to witness the first woman on a Republican ticket perform so well.
Of course, the myth of Sarah Palin unraveled almost as quickly as it was spun. By now, her bizarre filibustering, discomfiting blank stares, weird locutions, and general tendency to trip over herself verbally are familiar. First, there was the painful Charlie Gibson interview, in which Palin adopted a Toastmasters-style technique of repeating her interlocutor’s name in a vain attempt to sound authoritative. Then Katie Couric, with a newfound air of gravitas, smothered Palin with her simple questions and soothing manner: Palin appeared stunningly uninformed, lacking a basic fluency in foreign policy and economic theory. Even if she had frozen up out of nervousness, or fell into the category of smart-but-inarticulate, it was still unacceptable that she couldn’t recall Supreme Court decisions she disagreed with or name a single periodical she reads. Time? Newsweek? Hello?