Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Woman in Full

How to explain Sarah Palin? How did this Alaskan huntress throw the presidential race out of kilter with a half-hour speech?

Prior to "the speech" Sarah Palin had been the subject of lurid rumors. The media had placed her at the center of an intense family drama. (I wrote about it last week in a post entitled: Drama on the Right.) Her speech did not make it all go away, but it did inoculate her against further attempts to obscure her record and confuse the Republican campaign.

Why so? Because she defied stereotyping and mythmaking. Is she the ultimate feminist, a post-feminist icon, or simply antediluvian?

Or else, why not say that Sarah Palin reached out to the American people, cut through the fog of media images, looked people in the eye, and became everyone's good friend.

The public liked Sarah Palin. They saw her as their friend and neighbor, a familiar presence they could trust. And this made it more difficult to criticize her. People do not take kindly to direct attacks on their friends.

Now the attacks are tinged with desperation. She has been called a witch and a dominatrix-- to each his own fantasy-- and even Obama, who knows better, seemed to compare her to a porcine being.

The attacks also did not work because, as Democratic consultant and columnist Kirsten Powers noted, they were disrespectful.Calling the governor of a state a mayor is demeaning.

Sarah Palin also resonated because she seemed to be something new and different on the American political scene. I would call her: a woman in full.

Up there on the stage, in the floodlights, surrounded by cheering throngs, she was not a persona. We were not watching an image crafted for the political stage. Here was someone for whom the ridiculous word personhood seemed largely inadequate.

She was who she was. The word that seemed to fit her best, as many noted, was: "real."

Sarah Palin is a woman in full in the sense that she has had a full life as a woman. Wife, mother, huntress, marathon runner, mayor, governor... she was all that, and she still had sex appeal.

"Sexy" is not the term people associate with very many female politicians. Some do not seem to have it; some hide it well. But few women with important jobs seem to exude sexual self-confidence, a sex appeal that is not contrived.

It's easy to understand why this should be so. People assume that feminine sex appeal is antithetical to the exercise of power. Women often believe that they will not be able to lead if they do not emulate male leadership styles. They fear that a hint of cleavage, a flash of leg, will detract from their professional demeanor.

To some extent they are probably right. In another, they are reinforcing a stereotype.

Sarah Palin broke the stereotype by being a successful and popular governor without being an ersatz man. She understood that you cannot show leadership by pretending to be someone you're not.

How many women would be more involved in their careers, and would compete for advancement more seriously if they felt that they could do it without leaving their femininity outside of the board room?

Leadership is about getting other people to do things. If you bark orders and no one follows them, you are not a leader. If you wink and smile and people do their jobs more effectively, then you are a leader.

For now Sarah Palin also seems to have redefined toughness.

It is not about macho bravado or empty assertions of self or constant criticizing and complaining. All of these make you look defensive and weak.

Toughness involves being good to your word and holding your ground. It involves saying what you are going to do and then doing it.

But toughness also involves confidence, poise, and composure. When you walk on a stage in front of tens of millions of people and deliver a speech, that as former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown put it, makes you sound like you are chatting with the meter maid, you are tough.

And her speech was political hardball. Palin might have used a soft touch, but she was certainly going for the jugular... with charm.

Where does the confidence come from? Surely not from an extreme makeover. I would assume that Sarah Palin shows confidence because she has accomplished some things as mayor and governor. Hers is not the empty self-puffery of the self-esteem movement.

In reaction, many pundits have been trying to ignore her record and her achievements. They have been trying to denigrate her as a woman.

Palin has been accused of not being a good mother, of not supervising her pregnant teen-aged daughter, and of neglecting her special need baby.

But why, pray tell, have they all assumed that only a child's mother can raise him or her. Didn't they read: "It Takes a Village" where the author famously argued that members of extended families and neighbors have always cooperated in raising children?

Some critics have argued that there is something essential to the bond a child forms with a mother. They have said that a mother's place cannot be duplicated or imitated by a father. Point taken. But have they forgotten that other women can and always have filled in for working mothers, and even for stay-at-home mothers?

And then there is the argument that if Sarah Palin takes a larger job than governor of Alaska, her family will suffer. As a friend once told me, you cannot be both a great mother and a great professional. Of course, it is equally impossible to be a great father and a great professional.

But who said that you have to be great at everything you do. Perhaps we make nurturance more decisive than it really is. A famous psychoanalyst once said that when it came to parenting, "good enough" was fine.

Even if parents do not spend as much time as they would like with their children, even if they cannot put as much energy as they would wish into raising them, this does not mean that their choice is merely a loss for their children.

Parents who work harder often succeed more than those who do not. And the advantages that accrue to a family from parental success in the outside world surely offset the disadvantages of not having Dad around to play catch after school.

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