With a Southern, Catholic mother who work for the anti-ERA movement while at the same time telling me over and over that there were no limits but my own on what I could accomplish, I have a paradoxical relationship with feminism.
My mother, like many women of her time, was worried about the ramifications of "equal = same" legislation.But it was not a fall-in-line, unthinking position. She's no shrinking violet. She made some courageous stands in the '70s South. She allowed me to be absolutely color-blind in my choice of friends and refused to attend functions -- even ones I know she really wanted to go to -- at the country club where blacks were not allowed memberships.
I have always struggled with that same equation. If "equal" does not mean "identical," why does it feel that way so often? That getting ahead somehow requires being less of a girl or that being a girl meant accepting a subordinate role?
I am becoming increasingly belligerent in my disgust for the residual work-place sexism that relegates women to being lieutenants [PDF] and cake-bringers. In my neck of the woods, the glass ceiling is 2-inch thick Plexiglass.
I favored Obama, but, as a woman, I was absolutely appalled at the double standard in the treatment of Hillary Clinton. My gawd, the beating she took over a moment of honest emotion. The ludicrous, insulting obsession with her personal appearance. Her defeat sparked a new wave of discussion about women and sexism. On the heels of hordes of disenchanted women voters, in walks Sarah Palin.
Palin's combination of media-dubbed "hotness" and political success portended a huge blow to the persistent idea that women can't be sexy and effective. I mean no disrespect to HRC, Nancy Pelosi, Condeleeza Rice or any other number of women who are exceptional examples of attractive, powerful women. Women who didn't abandon their feminity to be successful, but weren't flying the flag of hotness, either.
Palin's image has an aspect of sexiness that has been downplayed by many women trying to make it in a man's world. Downplayed aggressively because we were pretty much taught from the get-go that no one could take a woman seriously without a certain amount of intentional gender-neutrality. We would be seen as frivolous or we would give men the "wrong idea." In the days when public mores so dramatically skewed against sexually active women, it was probably good advice.
But even as a young woman, I rebelled against the Dress for Success ideas of women as mini-men, neutered and diminutive, looking like pre-pubescent boys. (Yeah, that helped us climb the ladder to boardroom success.) I resented that things I enjoyed about being a woman had to be muted in order to be seen as legitimate. As if wearing a flattering skirt and funky earrings interfered with my cognitive abilities.
Men, we were told, were so enslaved to biology that they became deaf in the presence of cleavage. I guess some could have been. Most of us who have been around awhile have had experiences with women who used sexuality as a tool to rise above their level of competence. We not only despised the men for falling for it, we -- or at least I -- resented the women who perpetrated it. I supposed the less charitable would call it jealousy, but, to me, it was just another dragging anchor on women's ability to be judged on their merits straight up.
It was more, too, than women dressing in imitation of men. I wanted successful women who didn't use feminine "wiles" or behave like men, but channeled the traits of the archetypal goddesses in concert. Wisdom. Ferocity. Compassion. Vulnerability. Strength. Sacrifice.
We bring a chromosomally different perspective on the world, in addition to the cultural and social experiences of being female, a perspective that should complement and enhance that of men's, not be reshaped to imitate it. Feminine power should be respected in its own right, not as some sidebar to more potent male authority.
Palin seemed to have dispensed with some of that studied muting of feminine sexuality. She seemed to be a woman who had made it on her own terms, playing the games necessary in the male-dominated field of politics, but not compromising on her womanliness, for lack of a better word.
Seemed became the operative word. She's starting to look now like that petty, vindictive stereotype of a spoiled little girl who got by on her looks and daddy's doting. Someone who didn't do her homework and says the test was unfair. Who didn't learn the routines but still wants to be head cheerleader. Who spreads rumors about her rival so she can be prom queen.
Not because she can change things for the better, but because the tiara will look nice on her shelf. I admire ferocity, not ruthlessness. I admire power not payback. I admire ambition, not arrogance.
But maybe, I've got it all wrong. Is she being constrained by more powerful men? Is she just a pawn in a misguided bid to get the womenfolk's vote? Is she just in over her head and we should feel sorry for her?
Rebecca Traister at Salon.com says forget it.:
When you stage a train wreck of this magnitude — trying to pass one underqualified chick off as another highly qualified chick with the lame hope that no one will notice — well, then, I don’t feel bad for you.
And, I agree. To allow Palin to escape as some poor thing who didn't know what she was getting into is to relegate her to subordinate status. To allow her off the hook for her incendiary comments at rallies is to suggest that she is not up to full responsibility. To not hold her fully accountable for everything she has said and done is to perpetuate the myth that women, and in particular sexy women, are incapable of the tasks of leadership. If women want to be leaders, then they will have to take the heat.
We've been in the kitchen a long time, we ought to be just fine.