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Madeleine M. Kunin

Madeleine M. Kunin

Posted: September 23, 2008 10:00 AM

Sarah Palin's Unnoticed Empowerment of Women


Governor Sarah Palin has been blown off the front pages by the financial crises, which has spread across six columns of almost every newspaper. Wall Street has overtaken Main Street. Her credentials slim to begin with, appear even more flimsy under the blinding light of a financial melt down.

Still, the Palin factor has not disappeared. Polls continue to show that after the Republican convention white women have been swept to her side with the force of a tidal wave. Obama had a strong edge with women before Palin became McCain's running mate. Now women are virtually tied between McCain/Palin and Obama/Biden. But "tied" is not good enough. In my recently published book, Pearls, Politics and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead, I note that women supported the Democratic candidate for President by as much as eleven points in the last twenty years, and that has made the difference.

Why aren't women more supportive of the Obama/Biden ticket which speaks to so many women's concerns--equal pay for equal work, health care, education, and of course, choice. What does the Palin factor mean, especially for white married and white working class women who continue to strongly support McCain/Palin?

There is a group of women whose support for Palin does not have much to do with the issues or whether she is qualified to be President. Only 3 percent of likely women voters deemed her most qualified and prepared to be President.

I hate to think that these women are supporting her just because she is a woman and "is like me." But to some extent that is true. Almost all women have experienced--in a wide variety of ways--life-long forms of gender bias, both overt and subtle, in their families, at work, and in society. Most women have not had the opportunity to express their frustration or, their outrage. Turning the other cheek, remaining silent, denial, or smiling sweetly has been the most common rejoinders for many polite, conservative and liberal women.

Now, with Sarah Palin, they have a chance to vent their frustrations in a positive way by cheering her, supporting a woman who is not "like them" in most ways, but is enough "like them" in some ways so they can see themselves in her, and share in her present triumph.

Some of these same women cheered Senator Hillary Clinton--who is in most ways the exact opposite of Sarah Palin. She was prepared to be President, and she was vetted in a 16-month primary campaign. She spoke directly to women's issues and was strongly pro-choice. But for some women these issues did not matter; they cheered her stamina, her grit, and her willingness to be in the political fight. In some odd, inexplicable way, Hillary made them feel stronger, more capable of standing tall at home and on the job. I got that message from a variety of women after I was first elected Governor in 1984. They felt proud to be women. They, to use a now well-worn phrase, felt empowered by my campaign, and my election.

A similar phenomenon is happening with Sarah Palin. Just watching her stand and speak before a huge cheering crowd, giving "them" hell, is rejuvenating. It is as if we are hearing a long exhale from women who have had to suppress their true feelings about being put down all these years. It doesn't make sense in terms of the issues; it is not logical. But it is a reality that whether she is prepared for the job or not, whether she is right on the issues or not, some women simply are enjoying the moment of seeing her there at John McCain's side.

Even I, a former Hillary supporter and now an enthusiastic Obama supporter, occasionally feel a little thrill when I watch her, even though I disagree with almost everything she says and would never vote for her.

What Democrats underestimated was the rumbling sound from women which could only be heard if you put your ear to the ground. Women have been waiting and waiting for their turn ever since Geraldine Ferraro was the vice presidential democratic nominee twenty-four years ago. Yes, she is the wrong woman at the wrong time, and if the McCain/Palin should win the election, it would hold women back, rather than enable them to move forward to further equality. And it is becoming increasingly clear that it is the wrong ticket for the country in these precarious financial times.

The Obama/Biden ticket is right on the women's issues, and the bread and butter money issues that are roiling the economy.

The challenge is to make these issues the focal point of this election--and not the fact that Sarah Palin is "like me."

Madeleine M. Kunin is the former Governor of Vermont and was the state's first woman governor. She served as Ambassador to Switzerland for President Clinton, and was on the three-person panel that chose Al Gore to be Clinton's VP. She is the author of Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead from Chelsea Green Publishing.