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She wasn’t going to “stay home and bake cookies”, she was going to reform the health-care system: if we elected her husband, we were thus going to get “two for the price of one”. With those words, Hillary Clinton launched herself into America’s national consciousness, and began a political career that very nearly brought her the Democratic presidential nomination earlier this year. Though she lost that contest, along the way she succeeded in making herself into something more than an ordinary woman in politics. She became an archetype, the Female American Politician.
More than that: she became the archetype of the Powerful American Woman. She herself once explained the hostility she inspires as the misdirected fury of men who were angry at a “female boss” or other female authority figure. They felt bad about being subordinate to a woman at work, so they took it out on her.
Unlike Hillary and her contemporaries, the women of Palin’s generation are not feminists, but rather post-feminist.
This was not entirely accurate: some people disliked Hillary just because she was Hillary. But it’s true that her personal style–frequently chilly, determinedly frumpy, visibly calculating, pointedly humourless–did come to seem like a kind of norm. That’s why, when she lost the Democratic nomination, it wasn’t hard for some to see it as a defeat for all women. If Hillary couldn’t make it in national politics, her disappointed supporters declared, then no woman could.
As anybody who has been watching the news for the past week will already know, that statement turned out to be dead wrong. As it turns out, there are numerous ways for women to be politically powerful in America, and they don’t all involve wearing shapeless trouser suits and looking frosty: Sarah Palin, enter stage right.
In fact, despite the impression given in some British newspapers, not all American women are entirely enamoured of Palin. It is far from clear that she will be a successful candidate, and it is perfectly possible that there is a lot more to learn about her, not all of it positive. As I write this, a friend calls in to say she is off to buy a copy of the National Enquirer, the trashiest of American tabloids, because it carries a story about Palin’s alleged affair with her husband’s boss.
But that little story illustrates something important about the appeal of Palin, if appeal is the right word for it. Though American women don’t yet know if they like her, they are extremely interested in talking about her. As each new aspect of her extraordinary biography is revealed, hundreds of more conversations are sparked, thousands more emails circulate. Within minutes of the Republican campaign’s announcement of her 17-year-old daughter’s pregnancy, I had personally received five copies of the statement in my inbox, from people of varying political views and living in different geographical locations.
The interest in her and her life story is no fluke, either. Following the failure of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, Palin is suddenly, and flamboyantly, the most prominent female politician in the country. At age 44, she is also the most prominent representative of her generation of women–a generation which already looks set to be different, in important ways, from its predecessors.
Unlike Hillary and her contemporaries, the women of Palin’s generation are not feminists, but rather post-feminist. Born at the very tail end of the baby boom or after it had ended, the post-feminists grew up in a world in which the revolutions of the Sixties–sexual as well as political–were already taken for granted. These were women who came of age already knowing that professional success was at least theoretically possible. No one told them they couldn’t go to college, or shunted them off to secretarial school, or advised them to be nurses instead of doctors. Though not numerous, there were female role models to be found, mentors to be sought out.
But this was also the first generation of women that had to confront the conflicting demands of work and family. Though women had always worked in America, they had never done so in such numbers, in such traditionally male environments, or in such influential jobs. Some dropped out: in recent years American women, particularly wealthy ones, have left the workforce in large numbers. Reports published this week, showing that there are actually fewer women in top jobs in Britain than there used to be, indicate that this phenomenon is spreading in this country too.
Others chose not to have families at all or, like Hillary Clinton, to have just a single child. For political women this was a particular challenge, since Washington politics, or even state capital politics, is particularly hard on family life–work starts early in the morning, continues into the evening, and can require frequent travel across a large country.
Almost uniquely, Sarah Palin appears not to be bothered at all by this conflict–hence the enormous interest she holds for other women. Leave the politics out of it for a minute and look objectively. Here is a woman who has managed to raise five children, however chaotically, while becoming one of the most popular governors in the US. Along the way, she shot some caribou, drove her children to hockey matches, won a few beauty contests (she was a runner-up “Miss Alaska”) and learned to talk tough. At the Republican convention, she asked: “What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull?” Her answer: lipstick.
All of this while managing a personal life which sounds alarmingly like a Nashville country-and-western ballad: daughter pregnant at 17, husband once arrested for drink driving, sister married to an abusive husband, son on his way to Iraq. Everyone wants to know how she does it.
More to the point, they want to know how she does it while appearing utterly unbothered by the conflict at all–so much so that she fired the chef in the Alaska governor’s mansion, on the grounds that her children ought to learn how to make their own sandwiches. She has described switching between “breast pump and BlackBerrys” (note the use of the plural; she has two BlackBerrys) in the middle of the night, and there are photographs of her at her desk, baby Trig beside her. And all of this without looking at all frazzled, or badly groomed, or distressed. She positively radiates self-discipline and organisational skills, waving her freshly manicured nails, moving rapidly in high heels.
There are, of course, some explanatory factors here, number one being the unusually high living standards of Alaska–salaries are high, subsidies are vast, for those who can stand the cold–and number two, possibly, being the participation of Palin’s husband, who doesn’t appear to be entirely fully employed. At any rate, he has a lot of time for snowmobile racing.
Others point out that being governor of Alaska, population 670,000, may not be quite as time-consuming or stressful as, say, being a corporate lawyer in New York (though don’t say that too loudly around Palin: the centrepiece of her speech at the Republican convention was a vivid defence of local politics, local politicians, and the superior management skills required of governors as opposed to, say, senators, like Barack Obama or John McCain).
In the end, though, it is not just Palin’s large family and important job which have made her the topic of the day at every school pick-up queue in America. It is also the fact that she breaks the Hillary Clinton mould, not only in personality and lifestyle but in ideology as well. By this, I don’t mean merely that she’s a conservative, that she’s an evangelical Christian, or that she opposes abortion.
More interesting are the ways in which she shatters all of the stereotypes altogether: Left/Right, Democrat/Republican, liberal/conservative. In practice, it isn’t even easy to say on which side of America’s increasingly confusing culture wars she stands. Is it “Right-wing” to go back to work two days after having a baby, as she did while governor? It is “feminist” to support one’s unwed daughter’s decision to have her baby? Is it liberal or conservative for women to play sports or drive snowmobiles?
Or is it the case that, especially where women are concerned, none of these categories were never as rigid as politicians have sometimes made them seem? While I wouldn’t say that women like Palin are a dime a dozen, in real life there are plenty of conservative women with full-time jobs and post-feminist lifestyles, just as there are plenty of liberal or Left-wing women who decide to stay home with their children.
There is, at the moment, even a potential first lady who seems destined to break, if not glass ceilings, then at least preconceptions about what that particular job means, with all of its loaded cultural connotations. Michelle Obama is equally articulate, equally maternal, and no less well-groomed that Sarah Palin. She gave a convention speech which was, in its way, no less revolutionary–in her allotted half-hour, she portrayed herself neither as a traditional first lady, nor as a presidential substitute who would set up her desk next door to the Oval Office, but as rather something different altogether–a successful career woman as well as a mother, a dedicated activist and a wife.
Instead of a tough suit she wore a soft dress. Instead of telling the American public they would get “two for the price of one”, she seemed secure enough about her own identity to simply support her husband. As it happens, she, like Sarah Palin, is 44 years old.
None of this is meant to imply that Hillary Clinton’s generation is finished, let alone Hillary herself: she may well be back in the national game, in 2012, 2016, or later. But the appointment of Palin does bring the Hillary Era to an end–she isn’t the archetypal Female American Politician anymore, she’s just one of many.
Anne Applebaum is an adjunct fellow at AEI.
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