By Ellen Goodman
What finally sent her over the top was the poster. There was Sarah Palin as Rosie the Riveter, flexing her biceps under the motto: “We Can Do It!” The image was the same on the T-shirt my friend had left over from the primaries. But with a crucial difference.
“They’ve Photoshopped Sarah over Hillary. And women are falling for this!” she bellowed into my voice mail, closing with an epithet that would never have been permitted by her feminist spell check.
This certified member of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuits is not the only one who has moved into a state of disbelief. If 17 percent of Hillary supporters have moved with enormous fanfare to McCain-Palin, how many more have turned their disappointment into high dudgeon?
There is the divinity school professor Wendy Doniger, who blogged that Palin’s “greatest hypocrisy is in her pretense that she is a woman,” a biological fact best left to a medical school professor. There is the admirable playwright Eve Ensler, who put aside her distaste for “raging at women” to call the choice of Palin “insidious and cynical” and “antithetical to feminism.” There are the readers in my in-box who echoed this sentiment: “Frankly I think the Republicans have found themselves a good ol’ boy and she happens to wear a skirt.”
Three weeks after the nomination of the Candidate From Nowhere, one week after the robo-interview with Charlie Gibson and days after the “Saturday Night Live” skit, there is still a flood tide of women choking on the possibility that Hillary Clinton paved the way for Sarah Palin. At the same time, there are snarky charges of hypocrisy and sneers at “sisterhood” from the right.
Ah yes, sisterhood. As this mind-boggling, gender-bending campaign races on, women are indeed bumping up against the warm fuzzy limits of female bonding. Again.
So for both those who dispute Sarah Palin’s chromosomes and those who cry hypocrisy, a brief pause. It’s time to remember the suffragists who worked their whole lives to win the vote for women, believing that their vote could change the country. And then despaired over those women voting just like their conservative husbands. It’s time to recall the civil wars of the second-wave feminists and the mommy wars of today. Solidarity is not forever.
During this primary, Democratic women were often divided by generation. Many edgy conversations and strained family dinners took place between older women supporting Hillary and younger women supporting Obama. Mothers thought daughters had abandoned the women’s movement. Daughters told mothers they’d been liberated to vote for the person, not the gender.
Now, with enough suddenness to cause whiplash, many of these mothers have taken up the cry of their daughters: “I want a woman in the White House, but not this woman.” Republicans are fighting for admission credentials to the sisterhood.
The first Republican woman on the national ticket brings something else new to politics, says Kathleen Dolan, a University of Wisconsin political scientist. Since the majority of women are Democrats, as are the majority of female candidates, women aren’t routinely asked to choose between their party and gender, their issues and identity. “For the first time in a national election,” Dolan says, “women are being asked to cross party lines to vote their gender.”
Much of the dismay for those who saw Hillary push the female limits is seeing a conservative benefiting, so far, from the old stereotype of women politicians as change agents and moderates. In a Newsweek poll, 60 percent of the targeted white women voters either believe Palin stopped the Bridge to Nowhere or “don’t know.” Nearly 50 percent think her opposition to abortion is less extreme than it is or “don’t know.” Less than a third know she supports teaching creationism alongside evolution.
So how to lower the dudgeon? How to save some heat for the man who chose Palin? When you meet “Hunter Chicks 4 Palin,” breathe deeply and, OK, read their lipstick: Women are not a monolith. We are divided by age, race, marital status, class ... and convictions.
After all, Sarah Palin may yet be the fulfillment of an old feminist prophecy that Texan Sissy Farenthold once described with her tongue firmly planted in her cheek. We will have achieved equality the day mediocre women take their place beside mediocre men. Check that one off the to-do list.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)globe.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group