Lessons From Sarah Palin Are Lessons We Don't Need

Writing in The American Prospect, Feministing's Courtney E. Martin writes that Sarah Palin can teach us three important lessons about feminism. I disagree.

Lesson #1: Women across the country are hungry for their strength to be acknowledged, without sacrificing their femininity.

Martin writes,

The image of a pit bull with lipstick will go down as one of the most memorable images in American electoral rhetoric thanks to Sarah Palin's first populist performance at the Republican National Convention [...] Feminists across the country were still recovering from the shock of McCain's pick when Palin made that now-infamous quip, so we may have missed the deeper meaning. She was signifying that, though she's tough, she's still feminine.

Uh, yes, we got that. Martin continues,

Sarah Palin appeals to a broad need among contemporary American women who want to be leaders and demonstrate their intellectual strength, but also maintain their allegiance to traditional notions of femininity. Both her RNC address and her resignation speech were filled with this subtle duality and bold permission for women everywhere to flex their muscles while painting their fingernails.

I am typing this post with bright red (albeit badly chipped) fingernails, and I really do not need Sarah Palin's permission to do so. It's hardly news that some women want both equal rights and "a perky ponytail," and the stereotype that all feminists are braless Birkenstock-wearers is a pretty outdated one. Martin rightly says that feminism opens the door for "self- and societal analysis that leads to conscious choices about self-expression — male or female, conservative or progressive, hockey mom or butch dyke." But Sarah Palin is now such a celebrity that her pretty hair and makeup seem less like unbridled self-expression and more like a job requirement, as they are for A-list actresses. And, as evinced by this amusing edit of her resignation address (along with the address itself), she's hardly a role model for any sort of analysis.

Lesson #2: Defending women against sexism means defending all women against sexism.

This is Martin's smartest point. She writes,

As feminists, we must defend the right of every woman — progressive or not — to be judged on the quality of her ideas and the integrity of her experience, not the curve of her figure or the shape of her face. Whether it's a former beauty pageant contestant running for vice president (you know who) or a wise, old woman who has covered the White House since 1961 (Helen Thomas), we must advocate for unbiased treatment in the media.

Even though Palin's "politics are sexist," Martin says, we must "defend her right to nonsexist coverage." This is true — like Carrie Prejean, Palin deserves criticism for her ideas and the lack thereof, not her looks, her gender, or her family life. That said, Palin shouldn't get to hide from substantive criticism by calling it sexist, or lump all her critics together into one big ball of unprincipled, prejudiced Sarah-hate.

Lesson #3: We've succeeded in so many ways!

Martin says,

It may have made feminists squirm to see that the movement's fight produced a moment ripe for a soldier like Sarah Palin, but from another vantage point, her candidacy (and more importantly, Hillary Clinton's) prove we've won certain battles. Women are taken seriously as political candidates. Plain and simple.

It's true that the very idea that it might be politically expedient to have a woman on the McCain ticket speaks to the electoral power of women. But the choice of a woman whose beliefs are, as Martin says, sexist, shows that political operatives, at least on the right, are still pretty cynical about what women want. Luckily, the strategy of "take away their abortion rights, but give them a lady to look at" didn't work, but the fact that the McCain camp tried it — and with a woman who is inexperienced, incurious, and often inarticulate — shows that they valued symbol over substance. Palin's "maverick" reputation may have meant something to the Republican Party, but her vice presidential bid still had a whiff of tokenism. The right's not taking women seriously if it fields candidates who are anti-woman.

Martin closes her piece with the lines, "Ultimately, our discomfort with Sarah Palin is more about us than it is about her. No matter who she claims to be, we need to keep pushing ourselves to clarify who we are." The second statement makes sense, but the first? Sorry, it really is about Sarah.

Lessons For Feminists From Sarah Palin [The American Prospect]
Palin's Resignation: The Edited Version [Vanity Fair]