There’s nothing complicated about gender politics in America, at least as far as its two main political parties are concerned.
Everyone knows that Democrats are champions of women’s rights, while Republicans seek to demean women everywhere. Of the 16 women currently serving in the US Senate, 11 are Democrats and only five are Republican. The Democrats nearly made Hillary Clinton their presidential nominee, while the Republican primaries were, to put it politely, a sausage-fest. Democrats encourage women to go out and to join the workforce if they so choose, while Republicans contend that women should stay home and make babies and sandwiches.
Many Americans were understandably confused, then, when John McCain chose Sarah Palin, a woman, to be his running mate. But in the following days, Democratic commentators from across the political spectrum worked tirelessly to assuage this confusion, explaining how the choice of Palin was really nothing but an appendage to Republican Party’s grand strategy of misogyny.
According to Warren Goldstein of the Huffington Post, McCain’s selection of Palin was “cynical … insulting to women, and insulting to the entire American electorate.”
In the Baltimore Sun, Susan Reimer likewise hailed McCain’s choice: “Does McCain think [women] will be so grateful for a skirt on the ticket,” she asked, “that we won’t notice that she’s anti-abortion, a member of the NRA and thinks creationism should be taught alongside evolution?”
In a column that appeared on this page on Tuesday, Alexandra Schwartz (“Man’s idea of woman” 9/9) accuses the Republican Party of using Palin to advance a male-determined picture of femininity.
She compares the alternating masculine and feminine portrayal of Palin to pictures of busty models in bikinis sprawled on top of sports cars.
This body of responses leaves little doubt that the selection of Sarah Palin was intended as a ploy to disempower women everywhere. Yet it’s not so clear that McCain’s tactic actually achieves its objective. As it turns out, the vice presidency is a fairly high-profile job.
McCain has done his best to denigrate the position in the past — when asked some years ago if he would accept a vice-presidential nomination, he scoffed that the vice president has only two duties: to break a tie vote in the Senate and to inquire daily about the health of the president. But with McCain in office, considering his litany of war wounds, his melanoma and his advancing old age, an inquiry into the health of the president could one day meet with the reply, “He’s dead.”
If we recall that Palin’s precursor, VP nominee Geraldine Ferraro, ran on a doomed Democratic ticket that carried only 13 electoral votes against an incumbent Ronald Reagan, it becomes clear that Palin has already made the nearest approach of any woman in history to actually becoming president. And now, in order to justify this alarming contingency to its core voters, the Republican Party is forced to portray Palin as a strong, independent, tough-minded leader: the very antithesis of the image that it has always tried to market to women.
It seems, then, that the McCain campaign has severely outthought itself — in trying to insult the intelligence of women everywhere, it has accidentally advanced the cause of feminism. Why, Republicans, must be asking themselves, couldn’t John McCain have simply chosen a man? And if he was really trying to set women back a few decades, why couldn’t he have just chosen his wife, or still better, a bikini babe riding a sports car? Has McCain finally lost his edge?
John McCain used to really know how to insult women. In 1992, after a long day of campaigning, his wife jokingly told him that his hair was getting a little thin. McCain, infuriated, replied, “At least I don’t plaster on the makeup like a trollop, you…” followed by a name that I can only describe in print using an elaborate circumlocution, as follows: You know those Southwest Airlines commercials that end with the slogan, “You are now free to move about the country?” Well, sometimes they run out of time, accidentally cutting off the second syllable of country.
That’s what John McCain called his wife.
He still had that fire in 1998, when he boldly challenged attendees at a Republican fundraising event with the question, “Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly?” before explaining that it was “Because her father is Janet Reno.” Yet since then, he has apologized profusely to the Clintons, retracting his hurtful words about their 18-year-old daughter. It was a gesture that proved to be the beginning of the end.
By choosing Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate this summer, John McCain delivered an insult so weak, so pathetic, that it actually turned out to be something of a compliment to women everywhere.
And a man who can’t even fire off a good salvo against feminism anymore doesn’t deserve to be our commander in chief.
Michael Zink is a senior in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org