Election 2008

Charles Dharapak/AP
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin

Sexism and Sarah Palin

September 10, 2008 05:42 PM
by Liz Colville
The same women’s group that defended Hillary against the media’s sexism in the primaries is defending Sarah Palin. But skeptics challenge sexism’s role in the campaign.

Battling Media Sexism

According to Politico, the women’s political organization WomenCount, cofounded by Hillary Clinton fundraiser Susie Tompkins Buell, has made a statement to the press corps to “back off” Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whom they believe has received sexist treatment by the media.

The question of whether Palin can juggle family life with such an important role has come up repeatedly since her selection by Ariz. Sen. John McCain. WomenCount responded, “The very notion that Sarah Palin should not have accepted this nomination because she is a mother with demanding challenges underscores just how far we have to go.”

Politically, WomenCount does not support Gov. Palin, but thinks it “will be good for America to watch Sarah Palin on the campaign trail—bouncing from parenting to politics. That’s how most women function—multi-tasking, leaning on friends and family, and waking up each morning and doing it all again,” as the group’s communications director Rosemary Camposano wrote on its Web site.

Last week, two aides of Sen. Clinton spoke out for Palin, with Georgetown University professor Deborah Tannen telling Politico that she “agrees with complaints that Palin skeptics—including prominent voices in the news media—have crossed a line by speculating about whether the Alaska governor is neglecting her family in pursuit of national office.”

A gender issue on the campaign trail this week comes not from the media, but from Ill. Sen. Barack Obama and his use of the word “lipstick.” Notably used by Palin in her RNC speech when she said that lipstick is the only difference between hockey moms like herself and pit bulls, the word came up again when Sen. Obama likened Sen. McCain’s policies to those of the Bush Administration. “You can put lipstick on a pig,” Obama said on a campaign stop. “It’s still a pig. You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change. It’s still going to stink after eight years.”

The McCain campaign “accused Obama of ‘smearing’ Palin in ‘offensive and disgraceful’ comments and demanded an apology,” the Associated Press reports, and adds that “McCain himself used the folksy metaphor a few times last year, including once to describe Hillary Rodham Clinton’s health care plan.”

Background: Women’s groups accuse media of sexism

The Women’s Media Center suggested in a video earlier in 2008 that the Democratic presidential primary season was tainted by sexism in the media. The issues of the country’s readiness for a female president and media discrimination were also addressed by journalists like Katie Couric and Judith Warner. Warner criticized the “climate in which [Clinton’s] campaign was conducted,” drawing a contrast between the popularity of the movie “Sex and the City” and the “floundering” Clinton campaign.

When Palin was asked, months before her nomination as Republican candidate for vice president, whether she believed Clinton had been treated unfairly by the media, she implied that Clinton may have been playing the victim. “When I hear a statement like that coming from a woman candidate with any kind of perceived whine about that excess criticism, or maybe a sharper microscope put on her, I think, ‘Man, that doesn’t do us any good, women in politics, or women in general, trying to progress this country.’”

Opinion & Analysis: Governor, mother and potential vice president

The New York Times noted last week that Palin’s nomination has “set off a fierce argument among women about whether there are enough hours in the day for her to take on the vice presidency, and whether she is right to try.” The Times defines the battle lines as between “social conservatives, usually staunch advocates for stay-at-home motherhood, mostly defending her” and “others, including plenty of working mothers, worry[ing] that she is taking on too much.”

The issue of whether a mother of a four-month-old boy with Down syndrome should commit to a role as demanding as vice president has been the focus for many mothers blogging and commenting online, the Times article noted. But many have also defended Palin’s double role, which in her capacity as governor has included heading back to work three days after her son was born.

In the Statesman, the newspaper of New York’s Stony Brook University, April Warren asks, “If Palin was willing to leave her newborn at home to get back to work, wouldn’t that imply she will put our country before everything, even her own flesh and blood? Is it even our place to question her parenting skills?”

In the Calgary Herald
, Mark Milke notes how much media criticism of Palin has actually come from women, as The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd put Palin in the category of “fun, bantamweight cheerleaders from the West” and Eleanor Clift of the McLaughlin Group remarked that “If the media reaction is anything, it’s been literally laughter in many places across newsrooms.” Milke adds, “What’s curious is not the criticism of Palin but how acid-tipped it is.”

Some commentators believe the discussion of motherhood is steering attention away from Palin’s stance on other issues, intentionally or not. Frank Rich of The New York Times, writing ahead of Palin’s ABC interview this week, says, “We still don’t know a lot about Palin except that she’s better at delivering a speech than McCain.” But Rich adds to the motherhood debate by saying that Palin “defends her own pregnant daughter’s right to privacy even as she would have the government intrude to police the reproductive choices of all other women.”

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