Palin was recast as the charmer, the glider, the dim beauty queen, the kind of woman who floats along on a little luck and the favor of men. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Jane Mayer recounted how a handful of conservative Washington thinkers became besotted with Palin during a trip to Alaska and subsequently began to promote her in Washington: The National Review’s Jay Nordlinger described the governor as “a former beauty-pageant contestant, and a real honey, too,” Bill Kristol called her “my heartthrob,” and Fred Barnes noted she was “exceptionally pretty.” While it’s obviously not Palin’s fault that men find her attractive, it is fair to criticize her for campaigning on a platform of charm rather than substance. In what Michelle Goldberg called a “brazen attempt to flirt [her] way into the good graces of the voting public,” she waved and winked and smiled—even during the debate—and called herself “just your average hockey mom.” (Never mind that it’s impossible to imagine a male candidate mentioning fatherhood as the source of his readiness to be the nation’s second-in-command.) Her running mate called her “a direct counterpoint to the liberal feminist agenda for America,” and her “Joe Six-Pack” fans seemed to appreciate her nonthreatening approach. To quote a former truck driver named Larry Hawkins who was interviewed by the Times at a Palin rally: “They bear us children, they risk their lives to give us birth, so maybe it’s time we let a woman lead us.”
It was enough to incense those of us who related to Hillary Clinton and her plight. “What’s infuriating, and perhaps rage-inducing, about Palin, is that she has always embodied that perfectly pleasing female archetype,” Jessica Grose wrote on Jezebel.com, in a post titled “Why Sarah Palin Incites Near-Violent Rage in Normally Reasonable Women.” Palin had taken a match and set fire to our meritocratic notions that hard work and accumulated experience would be rewarded. “As has been known to happen in less exalted workplaces,” Katha Pollitt wrote, “Palin got the promotion because the boss just liked her.” Her blithe ignorance extended from foreign policy to the symbolic value of her candidacy. By stepping into the spotlight unprepared, Palin reinforced some of the most damaging and sexist ideas of all: that women are undisciplined in their thinking; that we are distracted by domestic concerns or frivolous pursuits like shopping; that we are not smart enough, or not serious enough, for the important jobs.
In a rare moment of sympathy for Palin, Judith Warner, writing in the Times, noted that Palin’s admirers must “know she can’t possibly do it all—the kids, the special-needs baby, the big job, the big conversations with foreign leaders. And neither could they.” But many women do manage to do it all, or pretty close to all. They at least manage to come prepared for the big conversations and the critical meetings, no matter what they have going on at home. “Do we have to drag out a list of women who miraculously have found a way to balance many of these factors—Hillary Clinton? Nancy Pelosi? Michelle Bachelet?—and could still explain the Bush Doctrine without breaking out in hives?” wrote Rebecca Traister in Salon.com. Why then must Palin’s operatic failure be the example that leaves a lasting imprint?
And so, here we are, nearly two years after Hillary Clinton declared her candidacy. While it’s true that societal change comes in fits and starts and the Clinton campaign went a long way toward helping voters imagine a female commander-in-chief, I can’t help but think that our historic step forward was followed by more than a few in the opposite direction.
In August, after Clinton had dropped out of the race but before Palin was selected as the vice-presidential nominee, the Pew Research Center published a study on gender and leadership. A remarkable 69 percent of respondents believed that men and women made equally good leaders. In fact, women were rated equal to or better than men in seven of eight “leadership traits,” such as honesty, intelligence, ambition, creativity, compassion—the only quality on which men scored higher was decisiveness.
Two months later, when voters were asked to rate the leadership ability of one particular woman, the results were just as striking. According to exit polls, 60 percent of voters thought Palin was not qualified to be president if necessary. It’s true that Sarah Palin is only one woman, and we’ve seen male candidates of questionable readiness, like the oft-mentioned Dan Quayle, and even presidents of questionable intelligence, such as George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, whom Clark Clifford once called “an amiable dunce.” But because so few women are present at the highest levels of government, they carry the burden of representing their gender more so than men. In politics as in business, an unqualified woman does more damage than no women at all. She serves to fortify the stereotypes that the next woman will have to surmount.
In the end, women can take pride in the fact that we helped break another set of retrograde stereotypes and prejudices with the election of Barack Obama. Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson notes that “for the first time since enfranchisement, [women] voted in greater numbers, and more progressively, than men,” favoring Obama by a 13 percent margin, while men were almost evenly split. In doing so, we selected a candidate whose views on issues like health care and equal pay and reproductive rights align with our interests.
But among the darker revelations of this election is the fact that the vice-grip of female stereotypes remains suffocatingly tight. On the national political stage and in office buildings across the country, women regularly find themselves divided into dualities that are the modern equivalent of the Madonna-whore complex: the hard-ass or the lightweight, the battle-ax or the bubblehead, the serious, pursed-lipped shrew or the silly, ineffectual girl. It is exceedingly difficult to sidestep this trap. Michelle Obama began the campaign as a bold, outspoken woman with a career of her own, and she was called a hard-ass. Now, as she prepares to move into the White House, she appears poised to recede into a fifties-era role of “mom-in-chief.” It will be heartbreaking if, in an effort to avoid the kind of criticism that followed Hillary Clinton, the First Lady is reduced to a lightweight.
Many will say we’ve come a long way this year. The truth is we have a long way to go.