Gov. Sarah Palin has disappeared from national politics and returned to her governorship in Alaska—at least until the 2012 campaigns get going—and I couldn’t be happier. But while she eases back into the habit of elk hunting and oil drilling, I worry that that the impact of her candidacy on Washington will be a deeply negative one.
This election saw two women come historically close to our government’s highest offices. But while Sen. Hillary Clinton fought an ambitious and powerful campaign—and was more often accused of being too manly than too feminine—Sarah Palin coyly and repeatedly played into many of her gender’s stereotypes. As her political blunders added up, she revealed her complete unpreparedness for politics at a national level and became Sen. John McCain’s greatest liability in his pursuit of the presidency.
It seems clear that Palin tried to win the election by seducing the American public and playing up her feminine assets. Winking during the debate and blowing kisses at her rallies, Palin certainly did not shy away from her femininity. And while female candidates should not have to hide from their gender, as Clinton arguably attempted to do, it hardly seems appropriate that they should flirt their way into the White House, either.
After McCain’s presidential campaign ended in defeat last week, more incriminating details about his vice-presidential pick emerged. In a moment better suited to “Nailin’ Palin,” the pornographic film she inspired, than to a presidential campaign, Palin reportedly greeted staffers at the Republican convention wearing only a towel. Whether or not this instance fits into a pattern of Palin using her sexuality as a means to an end, it certainly doesn’t demonstrate discretion or self-awareness.
I’m sure Hillary Clinton—like many other candidates male and female—enjoyed the opportunity to buy nice suits and get cleaned up for her public appearances. But Palin took this indulgence to a whole new level. In a news item that exploded in the buildup to Election Day, Palin may have spent nearly $200,000 on clothes for herself and her family. One aide described the behavior as “Wasilla hillbillies looting Neiman Marcus from coast to coast.” The governor’s irresponsible shopping spree highlighted the risks of putting a credit card in the hands of the wrong woman—and did little to dispel the preconception that all women are born shopaholics.
Admittedly, the above stories were little more than superficial miscues overblown to some extent by the media. But Palin also showed a shocking lack of fundamental awareness on a number of important national and international issues. From her much-derided Katie Couric interview to her unfamiliarity with the Bush Doctrine that has governed our foreign policy for eight years, over just a few weeks she accumulated gaffe after gaffe.
While it would be unacceptable for any candidate to demonstrate such ignorance on these matters, as the Republican Party’s first woman ever on a presidential ticket, the stakes for Palin were high. Just as Sen. Barack Obama was held to an elevated standard as the first African-American candidate to approach the presidency, all eyes turned to Palin as she entered the spotlight. The result was disappointing—and quite terrifying.
I am thankful that women across America did not fall for the McCain campaign’s gender-politics pandering, but I also hope that the country will give women another chance at the presidency. As this nation moves into a new era with an African-American man in the presidency, let us not remember Sarah Palin as the folksy “woman candidate,” but rather as a maverickly mistake. After all, women are relatively new to presidential campaigns and thus are still looking for the right tone to strike—a way, perhaps, to transcend their gender identity without abandoning it. Palin’s overtly feminine, and ultimately disastrous, attempt may have served only to distract this progress and to reinforce the regrettable sexism of our society. All we may hope is that Palin’s candidacy will help provide some perspective on the truly historic (if imperfect) campaign of Hillary Clinton, rather than set female politicians back in the years to come.
Claire M. Guehenno ’09, a Crimson news editor, is a social studies concentrator in Adams House.