Palin and gender

By Sara Hanson

In her run for the Democrats’ presidential nomination, senator Hillary Clinton made a commendable effort to change the face of American politics. While Clinton’s bid for the nomination was unsuccessful, her efforts to bring a uniquely female perspective to the top of the political chain have not gone unrecognized. Even the Republicans have acknowledged the potential political power of the female, evident by their appointment of a first-time governor as John McCain’s running mate. Despite being a Washington outsider and having no foreign policy experience, Governor Sarah Palin has successfully stolen the mainstream media’s spotlight from Barack Obama. However, the media’s sudden shift in interest should have many Americans questioning how much of a non-issue the “gender factor” really is when it comes to the presidential race.

Closer examination of Palin’s record reveals that the Republican’s selection is nothing more than a shameful exploitation of the gender factor in a desperate attempt to win the votes of those women who previously supported Clinton. What is even more disturbing is that Palin herself seems to be buying into the myth that gender is not an issue when it comes to the campaign trail. In her first television interview with ABC’s Charles Gibson, Palin gracefully danced around the question of whether or not she believed that it was sexist to ask if a woman can raise a family and be the vice-president of the United States, quickly responding that she was fortunate enough to grow up in a family and community where gender wasn’t an issue. But let’s face the truth: if Palin wasn’t a woman, she would never be asked such a question in the first place. Moreover, when compared to the Democrats’ vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden, the gendered and essentially sexist connotations of Palin’s nomination become even more apparent.

When Biden was first sworn in as a Democrat senator at the age of 29, he was never questioned about his ability to be a senator and a father to his two small children, despite the fact that his first wife and third child had recently been killed in a tragic car accident. In fact, Biden’s vice-presidential credentials have been boosted by claims that he has always been a father first, senator second. So while Biden’s ability to do double-duty has cast him as a hero, Palin’s ability to be both a mother and second-in-command has been approached by the media with grave scepticism. As this blaring contradiction becomes visible, we should be questioning why it is that Palin’s story has been approached through a gendered lens and what the consequences such an approach has on the American people’s understanding of her political capabilities.

When we understand that politics becomes gendered only when a woman enters the political arena, we begin to see how little American society has really progressed when it comes to breaking down the stereotypes of gender. The blatant exploitation of gender myths for political gain is even more frightening than society’s unconscious consumption and reproduction of these myths. Despite recently claiming that gender is a non-issue, upon accepting her nomination, Palin praised Clinton for leaving “18 million cracks in the highest, hardest glass ceiling in America,” thus alluding to the idea that she is determined to finish what Clinton started. By suggesting that she is capable of winning the hearts and minds of woman who initially supported Clinton, Palin not only undermines the ability of American women to make informed choices based on the issues that are most important to them, but also perpetuates another more frightening gender myth– all women are essentially the same.

At the end of the day, Palin’s ability to balance raising a family while governing Alaska makes her no more qualified than any other candidate. Her ability to communicate an understanding of the issues that are important to Americans– the fate of the economy and the future of the Iraq war– is what matters. Over the course of the next six weeks, the gender factor will undoubtedly remain one of the primary issues for the mainstream media as well as American voters. Come election day, though, the American people will be faced with making more than one important decision. In addition to deciding what change in Washington should look like from an ideological standpoint, voters will also have a chance to stand up and decide whether gender really has any political sway– in either direction– when it comes to the future of their nation.

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