Monday, September 15, 2008

Palin Fits the American Mold

Maggie Gallagher suggests that Sarah Palin has established a new archetype for modern womanhood: the pioneer, oddly enough ("Sarah Palin's Pioneering Streak").

Generally, powerful female politicians fall into one of two archetypes: They are either Margaret Thatchers or Indira Gandhis.

Indira Ghandis come to power through their female family role, not in spite of it. They rise as daughters or wives in powerful political families to become mother figures -- playing off the "lady bountiful" ideal in traditional societies.

Margaret Thatchers are post-sexual figures. They're tough old biddies whose days as wives and mothers seem well behind them. Schoolmarms, crones -- they are classic female authority figures who can be trusted to exercise power "like men" because their disturbing and complicating female sexual persona has largely dissipated.

Hillary Clinton, as a pathbreaking female presidential candidate, struggled to combine both archetypes, and I think largely successfully. Hillary forged a way for a woman to appear tough and powerful enough to be president without altogether losing her female "brand."

But Gov. Sarah Palin is something completely new. She is still young, still beautiful, still in the middle of all the messy complications that the sexual role of being a woman brings -- a Down syndrome baby, a teenage daughter's pregnancy.

What we need here is a new sexual archetype for female achievement. And I think in Gov. Palin, we have an extraordinary one: pioneer woman.

A pioneer woman is a traditional figure. She stands beside her man -- not at war with him. She takes care of her home and her community. If her man is around, maybe she lets him kill the bear. But if he falls, or fails, she picks up the rifle and gets the job done, whatever the job is that needs to be done.

But Gallagher has it wrong. First, the pioneer wife did not "let" her man kill a bear. She would take charge quite capably if the man disappeared (death, long journey etc.), but while he was in the picture she was not in charge. She supported her husband. Palin's public service has had nothing to do with her husband. That's her husband (a man's man in every respect) standing off to the side holding the baby.

She does present a new model, but it's not the pioneer woman.

Her story certainly fits the classic democratic tale of universal opportunity. Despite your humble origins, perhaps a log cabin, if you work hard and have talent you can become President of the United States. Ronald Reagan was just a kid from Dixon, Illinois, who went off to seek his fortune and made his way to the White House. Bill Clinton was a boy from a broken home in Hope, Arkansas.

Barack Obama tried to package himself as an example of that American dream. It hasn't worked. The story has to start in an ordinary town. Yes, he was born in Kansas, and Hawaii plays a role at some point, but the story can't involve Muslim schooling in Indonesia.

Sarah Palin then steps into our American dream cravings that Obama had stirred but did not satisfy. She grew up in Wassila, Alaska (find that on a map). She married her high school sweetheart. She attended a non-Ivy League university. She has a big family. She started her trek to Washington on the PTA with a concern for reform. Americans can more plausibly look at Palin's life and say, "Her story is my story!" (not that I think that should make any difference, but that's our world).

And there's Barack Obama, standing at the side of the road with his baggage, watching the last bus to Washington leave with Sarah Palin sitting in what he thought was his seat. And all he has is Joe Biden to entertain him.

Note on the photos:

The photograph of the statue is from The base of the statue reads: “Dedicated to the Pioneer Women of Kansas.” On the website (Nov.17, 2006), Cheryl Unrah writes concerning this photograph, “A woman, a babe, a boy, a gun and a dog. I thought the dog lying at her feet was a nice touch. I'm sure many pioneer women were often left on their own for days at a time. They were toughened by the danger, by the wind, by Kansas blizzards. This monument is on the grounds of the Kansas Capitol.”

The old photos of gun-toting pioneer women come from the Women of Action Network website, a page on markswomen.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice Piece David.