It is a truth universally acknowledged that the events of a particularly contentious campaign season leading up to a particularly important election warrant numerous comparisons to campaigns and elections past.For some people, 2008 has overtones of 1980, or 1960, or even 1932. But John McCain’s announcement of Sarah Palin as his running mate and her show-stopping introduction at the Republican convention took me back even farther than that, all the way to 1868 and the Women’s Suffrage Convention in Washington, D.C. That’s when Elizabeth Cady Stanton, prime mover and shaker of the early suffrage movement, told anyone who would listen what was really wrong with America.
The need of this hour is not territory, gold mines, railroads or specie payments,” she declared, “but a new evangel of womanhood, to exalt purity, virtue, morality, true religion, to lift man up into the higher realms of thought and action.”
One hundred and forty years later, we have our evangel at last. Sarah Palin seems to fit every item on the bill: Nothing could be purer than marrying one’s high school sweetheart, or more virtuous than standing up to the press to protect the privacy of one’s pregnant teenage daughter, or more truly religious than pledging to continue fighting a war as an extension of God’s own will. And the similarities don’t stop there. Remember, Stanton isn’t recommending that women take on the world alone. Instead, this new, politically empowered woman will “lift man up into the higher realms of thought and action.” She’ll be the guiding force behind his deeds, the brains to his brawn, the, shall we say, vice president to his commander-in-chief.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sarah Palin have taken stock of America, and, a century and a half apart, they know that what America really needs is a mother. As America’s self-proclaimed future First Mom, Sarah Palin will go after our bullies and tuck us in after a hard day, but she won’t shy away from disciplining us when we need a good kick in the seat of the pants. It will be kind of like Peter Pan and Wendy, if Wendy had gone after Captain Hook with a shotgun and then killed, skinned and served the crocodile for lunch.
A mere month or two ago, the idea of a woman on the ticket with McCain seemed laughable. The same Republicans who loved nothing more than to skewer Hillary Clinton for her unfeminine toughness and self-confidence are now going crazy over their very own Sarah Barracuda. But the interesting thing about Sarah Palin and the Republicans’ appraisal of her is not that her placement on the party ticket marks a step forward for women in America, or that she represents a down-to-earth alternative to Hillary: Neither is the case. The interesting thing about Sarah Palin is that in order to take her seriously, the party’s big boys are packaging her as the epitome of femininity and masculinity. It’s like those pictures of busty models in bikinis sprawled on top of sports cars. Sarah-the-hockey-mom, the logic goes, can act both as bait for women who want someone to look up to, and as comforting proof to men that their masculinity isn’t really being threatened by a woman in power. And the excitement over Sarah-the-moose-hunter smacks of relieved anxiety. This one won’t redecorate the White House in pastels and fill the bathroom cabinets with Tampax; plus, it’s kind of sexy.
At the Suffrage Convention, Elizabeth Cady Stanton noted that “people object to the demands of those whom they choose to call the strong-minded, because they say ‘the right of suffrage will make the women masculine.’ ” But, she says, strong, independent women aren’t the ones who imitate men. The real problem is women who pander to male approval, who believe that “to keep a foothold in society, women must be as near like man as possible, reflect his ideas, opinions, virtues, motives, prejudices and vices.” In a recent column in the New York Times, David Brooks wrote of Palin’s convention debut, “It was stupendous to see a young woman emerge from nowhere to give a smart and assertive speech.” Brooks could have been describing a high-school student who unexpectedly wins the debate match; the fact that he was speaking of the candidate for the second-highest office in the nation captures the attitude of condescension and tokenism that underlies the current Republican pseudo-feminist rhetoric about Palin.
Like Sarah Palin, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was mother to many children — five in Palin’s case, seven in Stanton’s. Like Palin, Stanton refused to choose between her family and her career. But while Stanton saw “womanhood” as a welcome alternative to the over-dominant masculinity of her era, Palin is happy to hide behind the prepackaged idea of femaleness that her party has created for her.
The truth is that Palin’s gun-toting, sandwich-making image says nothing about her and everything about her party’s cynical attempt to market a male-determined picture of femininity. Here’s hoping that America’s women and men won’t be fooled.
Alexandra Schwartz is a senior in Saybrook College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org