As the Sarah Palin phenomenon continues apace, I think I am starting to get it. An article in today's WaPo quoted a number of women about how they identified with her. I can only appreciate that intellectually; emotionally, I can never grasp that, because, as a straight white American male, I've never had to wonder about what it would be like to see someone like me in a position of power. Every president up to this point has been my gender and race.
Someone at work forwarded me an email with two pictures that clarified this for me. The top picture was of Sarah Palin standing next to a motorcycle. It's a huge thing, probably a Harley. Below is a picture of Barack Obama riding a bicycle, wearing a helmet. The message is obvious: Sarah Palin is tough, Obama is a geek.
What I realized after seeing this is that voters want to identify with politicians the same way they want to identify with movie stars: they want to live vicariously through them. If Sarah Palin is tough, then women who vote for her feel tough.
That's a powerful message. That message - that Sarah Palin is as tough as any man - has a strange relationship to traditional liberal feminism. On the one hand, Sarah Palin opposes traditional feminist values - she opposes abortion, etc. On the other hand, her success was made possible by feminists like Gloria Steinem. And no one can question Gloria Steinem's toughness. Even her strongest opponents have to admit that Gloria Steinem has fought long and hard for her ideals, and has dedicated her life to her cause.
So while Sarah Palin may disagree with Gloria Steinem and other liberal feminists, she owes them her career. If it had not been for the ground that they broke, she would not have been able to run for Vice President of the United States. She clearly understands that - she has acknowledged Hillary Clinton's groundbreaking campaign. Of course, many other conservatives don't want to admit that.
Where Sarah Palin's candidacy poses problems for Obama and other Democrats is that she is neither afraid of men, nor angry at them. In this respect, she is very different from some - but not all - of traditional liberal feminist groups. Traditional liberal feminist groups, like NOW, have a reputation for being anti-male. Those groups dispute that characterization as grossly unfair, and I think they're mostly right. But not entirely. I agree that the vast majority of feminists are confortable with men, and I know many, many women who call themselves feminists and have normal, healthy, relationships with lots of men - their fathers, brothers, husbands, friends, lovers, sons, bosses, coworkers, etc.
But there is a small percentage - maybe 1% - of feminists who hate men. For whatever reason - personal, political, ideological, whatever. The problem that traditional feminists have with people like Sarah Palin is that they don't admit that there are feminists who do hate men. Those women are tolerated within mainstream feminism. The vast, vast majority of feminists may be angry at men for various reasons, but they don't hate them. But there are some women who claim the title of "feminist" who do hate men, and they infect and discredit the movement. And wind up alienating women who have found, in Sarah Palin, a tough woman they can identify with.