Sarah Palin and the Clarence Thomas Factor

Women tend to vote in higher numbers than men, so women—and especially Catholic women whose cohort is considered important to electoral victory—are of special interest in an election cycle enlivened by the presence of a female candidate. What do many of us think, and why are we not quitting our day jobs to work for her campaign?

The selection of Governor Sarah Palin as the vice presidential running mate with Republican presidential hopeful John McCain took the world by surprise. Religious feminists were as shocked as everyone else. “Never heard of her,” “Google her,” and “How odd” echoed in my office, a nonprofit educational organization where we work on feminist issues in religion, a place one might reasonably expect women to be excited by a female candidate. As a nonprofit we are by law nonpartisan. But we can and do rejoice as the glass ceiling shatters and women join the political fray as equals.

Nonetheless, the selection of Sarah Palin shows how shallow the Republicans, and perhaps the world at large, consider feminism. They act as if female anatomy were enough to qualify for our favor. In fact, feminism involves a commitment to the well-being of women and dependent children in a world where they are too often treated as less than human. I know many male feminists who fit the bill more snugly than certain women.

The selection of Sarah Palin is reminiscent of putting Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court as proof that racism has vanished. His long track record of opposing rights for many people now proves what opponents at his confirmation hearings tried to convey, namely that being black does not guarantee anti-racist views just as it is clear with Sarah Palin that being a woman does not guarantee feminist views. In both cases, competence and experience are in question in delicate ways given racism and sexism. Such is the pernicious nature of oppression. Now Hillary Clinton and her supporters know how Jesse Jackson and company felt when the gains they made through long, hard years of struggle were answered by a Supreme Court justice who was as unsuited for his task as Governor Palin is for the one proposed for her.

In this election there is the rhetoric of feminism with none of the content. The first clues were mentions of the candidate’s beauty pageant past and more information than we needed about her pregnancies, childbirth, children, and husband. All of these are the bona fides of a “real woman,” one who can also shoot straight, field dress moose (I shudder at what that means), and tear through the wilderness on a snowmobile. Heavens, one might have thought her a tomboy or worse without the glamour stats!

Her campaign accuses the media of sexism if reporters raise questions about these matters. But it is hard to have it both ways. Yes, feminists claim that the personal is political, but the private is still private unless you instrumentalize it to score political points with an electorate that favors your values. The problem is that when the private becomes public those who do not agree will also consider it fair game, as it were.

Religious feminists know this because we have been balancing our commitments and our families for decades, recognizing that their health, safety, and well-being inform our most deeply held beliefs. The whole point of feminism is to create a world in which people can make a variety of choices—not just any choices, but choices that build community, embrace Earth, protect the most vulnerable, and create peace. Our religions inform those choices and provide examples of how good people make them. It is on those scores that religious feminists part company with Sarah Palin.

Feminism is not simply about getting women into positions of power. It is about changing the fundamental power equation so that everyone thrives. I am hard pressed to understand from early glimpses of Governor Palin’s public policy how her candidacy does that. Cutting the state budget for housing for pregnant teens, hunting animals from helicopters and opposing protections for endangered species, suggesting that God wills wars like the one in Iraq, and signing on to the McCain economic policies that favor the wealthy with tax cuts inspire no confidence in me. It is not just that I long for Hillary Clinton’s passion for health care. It is that I will not be duped into confusing one woman with another, conflating feminist rhetoric with oppressive choices. I hope other voters will not be either.

Religious conservatives have been preparing the Sarah Palins for roll-out for decades. They provide scholarships and internships for young women, media training and how-to workshops for stealth candidates on school boards, city councils, and mayoral contests to build resumes. Apparently the power of Hillary Clinton’s politics, combined with the strength of Barack Obama’s following, finally pushed them over the edge to run one in prime time. There are plenty more women where Palin came from who are schooled in the ways of religious conservatism and eager to translate their views into public policy, separation of church and state to the wind.

Theirs is a religion in which God speaks directly to them on important issues like the pipeline in Alaska or the war in Iraq despite the destruction of the environment and the loss of thousands of lives. Their so-called family values leave aside rights for millions of same-sex families and unmarried people. Their gender is important insofar as it generates votes despite their economic policies that ignore the well-being of working women and their children. It is hard enough when religiously and politically conservative candidates are men, but when women are in the fray the lines get blurred, the words start to have an Alice in Wonderland quality, and voters get confused. I think that is intentional or at least focus-group tested as a tactic that has potential.

The taking over of feminist rhetoric with none of the content—women’s right to make reproductive choices; equal pay for equal work; an end to racism, heterosexism, colonialism, and war; and environmental concerns, among others—is what makes the Palin Factor so problematic. But it is not a new tactic nor is it guaranteed to work this time. Feminism is not, if it ever was, a one-dimensional analysis and strategy about gender. Rather, it is a multifaceted commitment to change the world so that all human beings, and animals too, are treated with respect.

The Republican platform—with its emphasis on defense and intelligence, anti-immigration policies, reducing government spending on the common good, preventing relational equality, and many other life-diminishing dimensions—is anything but feminist. A convention where people of color made up less than two percent of the whole and men outnumbered women by margins not seen in recent years are all signs that the “feministization” of the Republican Party is not at hand.

What is at hand is a challenge to those who understand that adding a woman and stirring will not change the fundamental power equation in which rich white men still make most of the world’s decisions. Nor will one more “God bless America” spoken by a woman who swallows and spits out the Republican rhetoric about drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge answer our runaway energy needs.

Religious feminists know better. Hopefully, so too will the majority of American voters when it matters most—in the voting booth.

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