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Sarah Palin Isn't Alaska's First Feminist

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My fellow American journalists,

I realize you have learned a lot about Alaska over the past couple of years, whether through getting to know our former governor, reading her ex-ex-ex-son-in-law-to-be's Vanity Fair tell-all, or watching a lot of episodes of "Ice Road Truckers." Maybe you even came up here for a few days during the post-nomination frenzy in 2008. We're all very excited that you care. It's flattering.

Here's the thing, though: You don't really know us.

"But," you might be thinking, "I flatter myself that I have an impressive understanding of the Alaskan political psyche and the complex ways in which a resource-based economy, remote location, culture of corruption and sense of rugged independence combined to make possible the ascent of one of America's most polarizing political figures." And that might be true. Yet you still don't totally get us.

How can we tell? You write things like this:

Sarah Palin may be the worst thing to happen to reasoned political discourse since Joe McCarthy, but teaching her daughter that women aren't born to play second fiddle is an impressive feat -- particularly in the macho environs of rural Alaska -- and one that many conventional feminists still have plenty of trouble with.

I'm going to bypass the McCarthy remark (we're as divided on Palin's ability to discourse as are the residents of any other state) and go straight to the idea that teaching a girl that "women aren't born to play second fiddle is an impressive feat -- particularly in the macho environs of rural Alaska."

To begin with -- by "rural Alaska," does Michelle Cottle, in a guest post on Jonathan Chait's blog at The New Republic, mean Wasilla? Wasilla, at the heart of the road system? Wasilla, where approximately 30 percent of the population commutes to Anchorage for work? Wasilla, in the Matanuska Valley, where 6,900 students attend 15 local schools? Sorry, mama, that's not rural Alaska. That's the fastest-growing population center in the state.

Then there's the real problem: the phrase "macho environs." I can think of no better way for a writer to effectively communicate the fact that their knowledge of Alaskan culture is based primarily on watching reruns of The Deadliest Catch.

Listen, America, I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on rural Alaska. But I can speak with some expertise on suburban and urban Alaska, where I grew up. When I was born, my parents lived in the Goldstream Valley, outside Fairbanks. Like many other women living in that neck of the woods, my mother was an equal partner who cleared land, hauled water, chopped wood, slaughtered chickens, cleaned fish, and worked with my father to build two houses. Growing up, my cousins and brother and I all cleaned clams and fish, varnished boards, hauled wood, fed the dog, mowed the lawn and shoveled the driveway.

As for Cottle's mysterious, masculine "rural Alaska," where instilling equality is an accomplishment akin to the miracle at Cana? Like I said, I don't have firsthand experience, but I can tell you that women are well-represented among the ranks of village corporations and tribal administrators; half the members of the executive committee of the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council are women, and a quick perusal of the state corporations database reveals that about 37 percent of regional Native corporation officers are women. Women represent 20 percent of the Alaska State Legislature, which, granted, isn't anywhere near half, but is still slightly better than the U.S. Congress, the membership of which is not quite 18 percent female.

If Cottle spent some time here, she might be familiar with the "Alaska Girls Kick Ass" bumper sticker we're all so used to seeing plastered to half-ton pickups driven by women who are as comfortable in a 16-foot Zodiac on the Kenai as they are in a beauty salon.

Is Alaska some mystical feminist wonderland where sexism is a thing of the past? Of course not. We still have the highest rate of sexual assault in the nation and an embarrassingly high occurrence of domestic violence. But that likely has more to do with alcohol abuse than Cottle's fabricated "macho environs" of "rural Alaska." There are people here who embrace traditional gender roles, and yes, you encounter sexism from time to time, but on the whole, I'd say Alaska is the kind of place where people don't tend to cling to outmoded ideas of what makes a woman a woman. Everybody looks equally silly in chest waders.

If you really want to see what life is like for Alaska women, America (you know, before you comment on how hard it is here to raise little feminists), here's a suggestion: Use the Internet. There are lots of strong, interesting, articulate Alaskan women out there telling the world about their lives. Read Finnskimo, Keeping It Real at 66 Degrees North Latitude, Iditarod musher Zoya DeNure's kennel blog, Anonymous Bloggers or Stop and Smell the Lichen to see what life is like for Alaskans who know that "women aren't born to play second fiddle."

It's been a long couple of years up here, America. We used to just kind of sit back, tucked away in our personal time zone, and do our own thing. Since the shock of August 2008 wore off, we've gotten used to hearing people who've never met us trying to explain who we are. It's no longer surprising to see Alaska pop up on cable news. But that doesn't mean we're OK with being misrepresented. What's that thing that one gal said that time? Quit makin' things up?

Read more of Maia Nolan's work at AlaskaDispatch.com.

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