The media is abuzz with discussions about what women think of Sarah Palin, how ironically, liberal women are decrying her decision to leave her special-needs child at home while she pursues her high-powered job and conservative women are supporting her decision to be a career woman at the same time as a mother.
All this discussion brings to the fore the point that we, as a society, just don't know what we want in a woman politician, in a woman leader. We aren't comfortable with women in power, and we aren't sure what would make us comfortable. Until now, most woman politicians who have run for high office have done so only after they have finished raising their children, after they are no longer in their child-bearing years: Ferraro, Pelosi, Hillary Clinton. In a way, this desexualizes them somewhat, makes their position of power less threatening, to men and women alike. Perhaps this is one reason McCain's pick of Palin, who just recently gave birth to her fifth child, and still is in her sexual prime, is such a lightning rod for our views on what are acceptable roles of behavior for mothers. Here is a woman who looks both maternal and soft, and yet strong and powerful at the same time, a frontierswoman, with the imagery of her hunting caribou and wolves and carving up a moose. She is forcing us to confront how we try to confine powerful women into certain limited archetypes: witch; Marie Antoinette-type leading a powerful man astray (here, too, she doesn't fall into type--her husband seems far less powerful, the stay-at-home dad to her Superwoman).
When you think about the imagery that Palin projects, that of a powerful frontierswoman, an independent, free thinker, a woman who gives birth and three days later gets back in the 'saddle', you realize that McCain's choice wasn't as crazy as the media is painting it to be. And that contrary to public wisdom, his choice isn't necessarily an attempt to reach out to disaffected women voters who wanted Hillary Clinton to be their candidate, but to reach out to the white working class voters that preferred Clinton to Obama, gender aside.
The imagery that Palin projects as a fighter is going to appeal to this group. In a May 8, 2008 editorial in the New York Times, Susan Faludi wrote about how Hillary Clinton had recently changed her image from the archetype of the "prissy hall monitor" upbraiding her fellow male candidates, an unpopular figure with men, who acts morally superior to them, to a more popular "fighter" archetype.
She wrote that "[t]he specter of the prissy hall monitor is, in part, the legacy of the great female reformers of Victorian America. . . they were regarded by men. . .as reluctant trespassers in the public sphere who had left the domestic circle only to fulfill their duty as the morally superior sex, housekeepers scouring away a nation’s vice."
This archetype of woman as rule-regulator is repellent in the national imagination.
Faludi wrote, "In that visceral subbasement of the national imagination — the one that underlies all the blood-and-guts sports imagery our culture holds so dear — the laurels go to the slugger who ignores the censors, the outrider who navigates the frontier without a chaperone. Deep in the American grain, particularly in the grain of white male working-class voters, [this fighter archetype] is the more trusted archetype."
Palin, the goddess of Alaska, captures this imagery perfectly. She'll capture the imagination of many white male working-class voters, those that Hillary Clinton had in her camp.
Ironically, in selecting Palin, McCain might not have been thinking of trying to bring Clinton's female supporters to his side, as it's widely thought, but those disaffected white male working-class men that aren't loyally in Obama's camp, and who will find Palin's frontierswoman imagery appealing.