Femocracy ’08

“I understand the Republicans are excited by her,” said 23-year-old Niki Castle the other day. “It’s why all my South Carolina friends have ‘I want to be Sarah Palin when I grow up’ as their Facebook status updates! She’s a mother of five and she’s making a run for the biggest house in the world.”

Ms. Castle, who grew up in Greenville, S.C., works in Manhattan as an assistant at a literary agency. “For all the faulting that Obama gets for being such a charismatic speaker, she’s got that same charismatic ability,” she said. “My conservative friends, who think abortion should be illegal, think Sarah Palin is on the forefront of standing by that policy in her own family, with her pregnancy and her daughter’s. The part where I sort of shake my head is that she doesn’t agree with birth control, but she does agree with forcing her daughter to get married?”

Since Aug. 29, when John McCain announced his selection of Alaska’s governor, Sarah Palin, as his running mate, the news cycle has been consumed by Ms. Palin’s politics, her family, even her eyeglasses. The speech she gave at the Republican National Convention was perfectly calibrated to appeal to two core constituencies: the evangelical base that Mr. McCain has had so much trouble attracting, and women—hopefully former Hillary Clinton voters among them—who might look at balancing her day job (governor!) with her five children, including a baby with Down syndrome and a 17-year-old daughter with a baby on the way, and think that in Ms. Palin they had finally found someone in national politics whom they could look up to and admire.

Even those who completely disagreed with Ms. Palin’s politics—those who nodded this week when Joe Biden said, “I assume [Palin] thinks and agrees with the same policies that George Bush and John McCain think. And that’s obviously a backward step for women”—couldn’t help feeling a thrill, albeit an uneasy one, when confronting this new kind of Republican woman: not the gracious, pearls-wearing hostess of yore (Liddy Dole, Georgette Mosbacher, the ladies Bush, Cindy McCain) but a brisk, glam multitasker who enjoys an obviously active sex life with her hunky, agreeable husband. With Sarah Palin, a female voter didn’t have to do that funny math in her head that went, “Well, Hillary made certain choices in her marriage, and I respect those choices—women have to compromise somewhere if they want to get to the top.”

In the days after Ms. Palin’s saucy Minneapolis salvo, underneath the giddy left-wing blogosphere blowback and smug IM banter—she looks just like Tina Fey! Imagine what Saturday Night Live is gonna do with this!—there were distinct rumblings of self-doubt. Had the feminist narrative suddenly been seized from the Democrats, who in their anxiety to “inspire,” have been not thrilling but simply inspiring—i.e., exhausting (and clunky-shoed in the bargain)? Where was the Democratic version of this fully actualized glamour-puss? Yes, Democrats have Michelle Obama. But she’s not on the ticket.

And in particular, how would that special subset of Democratic women—New York women—see Ms. Palin? After years of hand-wringing over “having it all”—balancing work, husband, baby, work, work, work, more babies, more work—would the snipey posters on UrbanBaby and the owners of the double-wide strollers rally around a candidate who, while she may not share their political views or background, shared something more intangible: the understanding and the experience of balancing work and motherhood and making it as a woman in an old boys’ club?

It may have played in Sterling Heights, Mich., about 25 miles north of Detroit, where Ms. Palin and Mr. McCain spoke to 7,000 supporters, or in Colorado Springs, where they encountered a larger-than-expected crowd of 10,000 people, or Lebanon, Ohio, and Lancaster, Pa. But the women of New York City seemed, mostly, unimpressed. Here’s a woman who seems to regard her climb from PTA president to vice presidential candidate almost as a happy accident, as though admitting that she was ambitious or competitive was, somehow, unladylike. As the women’s Web site Jezebel noted last week, “For a certain kind of feminist, Palin is a symbol for everything we hoped was not true in the world anymore. We hoped that we didn’t have to hide our ambition or pretend that our goals were effortlessly achieved.”

Recall that Hillary Clinton was compared—negatively, mockingly—by Slate and others to Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick, the ruthlessly ambitious high-school class president candidate in the 1999 movie Election. The message, of course, is that women who are too overtly ambitious risk caricature as shrill, conniving bitches. It’s more becoming to subtly maneuver your way to the top.

Coupled with the Republican Party’s shrewd reappropriation of the Culture Wars, harking back to Richard Nixon’s strategy of painting the Democrats as the party of the “elites” and welfare queens and the Republicans as the party of the down-home, down-to-earth, libertarian-inflected, pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps red-blooded Amurrrricans—well, it’s no surprise that Ms. Palin received such an enthusiastic reception at the Republican National Convention. And as the candidate pursed her perfectly glossed lips and opened up with both barrels on Barack Obama, many New Yorkers—who have spent the past eight years feeling like they live on a small island off the coast of America—had the queasy feeling that, rather than this election offering jubilant and undeniable validation for the New York state of mind, they were suddenly watching the mainland recede even further into the distance.

“When McCain introduced her as his running mate and she invoked Hillary’s 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, and that she, Sarah Palin, was going to finish it—I was enraged that she would invoke that feminist lineage that her policies as governor have gone against,” said Quinn Latimer, 30, an editor at an art magazine in Manhattan. Ms. Latimer and her co-worker, Lyra Kilston, sent an e-mail to around 40 female friends last week, outlining their opposition to the Republican vice presidential candidate. They encouraged people to send it around to more women, and also to send them reasons why they were opposed to Ms. Palin’s candidacy. On Saturday, Ms. Latimer and Ms. Kilston, 31, launched the Web site Women Against Sarah Palin, at womenagainstsarahpalin.blogspot.com (womenagainstsarahpalin.com was already taken; Ms. Latimer and Ms. Kilston suspect it was a preemptive strike by the McCain campaign). Since sending out their initial e-mail, they’ve received over 33,000 responses.

Femocracy ’08