Phyllis Schlafly was probably the most prominent poster woman for patriarchal conservatives in the 1970s -- a conservative anti-feminist activist who, despite being a successful lawyer, newsletter editor and all-round career woman, maintained avidly that women should be full-time wives and mothers. She was perceived by many progressive women and men alike as a woman who wanted to strip other women of all of the opportunities and benefits that she had enjoyed for herself.
Now we have Sarah Palin, whom John McCain picked as his vice-presidential running mate in a brilliant political move that energized and consolidated his party's base in a way that he was unable to do until the Republican convention early this month. Instead of picking a legitimately qualified conservative woman like Senior Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson from Texas, McCain chose to run with Sarah Palin -- or Phyllis Schhlafy Version 2.0.
One goal of the move was to pull disgruntled Hillary Clinton supporters still reeling from the Democratic primaries into McCain's fold. Interestingly, though, the surge in support for the McCain-Palin ticket came more from men than women, by nine percentage points. Palin ran primarily on the basis of being a "values" candidate, a hockey mom, and the mother of five children -- the youngest of whom has Down syndrome; a significant portion of her convention speech revolved around her family. She put her family out there, made them the nucleus of her candidacy, and then somehow placed them off limits, allowing them immunity from any kind of criticism or scrutiny. Yes, families should be off limits, but a candidate's policy decisions should not. Palin's teenage daughter's unwed pregnancy should not be a press target, but her stringent support of abstinence-only sex education, which leads to increased unwanted teenage pregnancies, should.
Palin has only consented to be interviewed by a major network once; this interview was with Charlie Gibson from ABC news. Anyone who has criticized her has been charged with being sexist or condescending, including Charlie Gibson. Female Clinton supporters still wondering about whether they should vote for McCain-Palin because there is now a woman on the ticket (that would be about 17 percent of them), should consider the following: Palin is running with John McCain, the candidate who opposed the Fair Pay Act of 2007, which deals with equal pay for equal work for women. He didn't show up for the vote. T he Fair Pay Act was co-sponsored by Barack Obama, as was the Paycheck Fairness Act. The bill was defeated in 2008 by the Republicans, who cited high lawsuit potential as their rationale for turning it down. Even more startling was McCain's comment on the issue: "They need the education and training, particularly since more and more women are heads of their households."
Second, John McCain voted -- twice -- against the landmark Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), passed in 1994 under Bill Clinton. Under the VAWA, states receive federal funding for sexual assault and domestic violence prevention and treatment programs. States that receive funding are barred from charging rape victims for their own rape kits. The VAWA was authored by none other than Joe Biden, who has been called a champion for women by the National Organization for Women (NOW). Palin's home state of Alaska adhered to the law in 2000, under Tony Knowles, who was governor at the time. But before that, as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska in the 1990s, Sarah Palin actually cut funding for sexual assault victims, requiring them to pay for their own rape kits, which can cost up to $1,500, either themselves or through their insurance companies.
Biden's selection as Obama's running mate triggered NOW to endorse the Democratic ticket, instead of the Republican ticket with a woman on it.
It is convenient for McCain to have a poster woman like Sarah Palin to hide behind, given his pro-women facade, and it has worked so far. Hopefully, in Sarah Palin's October 2 debate with Joe Biden, women's issues such as equal pay, domestic violence, and sexual assault prevention and treatment will figure as prominently in the dialogue as foreign policy. Hearing the woman on the Republican ticket defend John McCain's positions on these issues could significantly change the game.
The legitimacy Palin gives to the conservatives' abysmal record on women's issues is dangerous. For a presidential candidate with that kind of record to hide behind a poster woman like Palin may be good political strategy, especially in a year where Hillary Clinton's candidacy shattered historical barriers for women. But the novelty of Palin's candidacy is unlikely to last long.