Love or hate Sarah Palin — and few people do anything but — one must admit that she's been simultaneously a boon and a bust for women in politics. My postmortem of her political career, after the jump.
1. She got conservatives talking about sexism
She got them talking about sexism coming from the other side of the aisle, true, but after last year's primaries, did anyone really think that such a thing didn't exist? Sarah Palin acknowledged the role Hillary Clinton played in breaking the glass ceiling — thereby acknowledging the existence of a glass ceiling in the first place. She got everyone from Rush Limbaugh to conservative women talking about sexism in the media after many of them spent quite a few months perpetrating it, from "nutcracker" comments to "first wife" comments and everything in between. And once you acknowledge that women don't have it the same as men in politics and the workplace, you can't exactly go back.
2. She forced conservatives to celebrate motherhood that is anything but stay-at-home.
In 1992, a common trope about Hillary Clinton is that she wasn't the "right" kind of mother because she'd worked when Chelsea was young — and Clinton's comment about not baking chocolate chip cookies didn't endear her to conservatives in the slightest. Fast forward to 2008 and, as Rebecca Traister pointed out last year, you had the Republican party Vice Presidential candidate standing beside her devoted husband holding their recently-born son after accepting her party's nomination to the penultimate elected office in the land. For a party populated by a fair number of acolytes who believe in outdated gender roles in marriage, it was a pretty striking picture. For a political establishment that has become more accustomed to powerful women either being childless or post-menopausal, it was a striking example (outside of now-New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand or oft-derided former Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift) that fertility and motherhood are not incompatible with high-powered jobs. And Sarah Palin's nomination forced conservatives to defend her right to motherhood and power.
3. She serves as a role model for young women.
They may not ever march in a feminist rally or carry a pro-choice sign at an abortion-rights event, but there's no denying that Sarah Palin has inspired conservative women to see themselves taking the reins of political power — and there's nothing wrong with that. Feminism is supposed to be about empowering all women, and not just those with whom we agree politically. If Sarah Palin inspires a generation of conservative women to think about more equitable marriages, supportive partners and combining motherhood and careers in ways that make sense to them and accord them political power, I fail to see why that's a bad thing.
1. She tends to reinforce existing sexual stereotypes (or encourage people to believe them).
From the winking to the wardrobe, Sarah Palin didn't just deny existing stereotypes, she encouraged the ones that were helpful to her and played into the hands of people who wished to reduce her to them. As a political woman, it's a difficult line to walk between playing Mark Penn's unsexed female candidate and Steve Schmidt's more flirtatious one, but Sarah Palin wasn't willing or able to walk the line, and swung too far in the Schmidt direction. Not every politician will wink or be pretty, and they shouldn't have to.
2. Her resignation plays into stereotypes about women.
If there's one rumor about Palin's resignation I am inclined to believe, it's that she wrote her resignation speech herself... and didn't allow anyone to correct or critique it. In giving the speech — and the obvious haste with which her withdrawal from political life was conducted, Palin looks flighty, disorganized, too weak to handle the pressures of political life and too closed-minded to accept assistance from people with her interests at heart. That is almost as bad a stereotype for women in politics as the one about women all being ball-busting harpies.
3. She reminded people of the level to which politics can sink in this country.
One of the reasons I always said I never wanted to go into politics was that I didn't need anyone interviewing my college boyfriends or digging around my closet for skeletons. With the state of Alaska spending upwards of $2 million on ethics investigations (which have turned out to have zero validity), the Palins spending a reported $500,000 on personal legal bills, people on the Internet posting rumors about the contents of her uterus (and that of her daughters') and night after night of jokes about her appearance, her family and her background — little of which was relevant to her qualifications for office, whatever one might think of those — I suspect that a lot of women who didn't start off high school planning to be the next Nancy Pelosi might think twice about politics after they consider what dirt their political opponents might dig out on them.