We always knew that people paid more attention to what women politicians looked like than to what they said. Hairstyles, shoes, skirts, or pants, and now glasses or contacts—that's all the talk about Governor Sarah Palin. She's become an overnight rock star—unlike any female politician we have known.
The problem with these distractions is that we're not listening to what she is saying—and her beliefs make all the difference. She is to the right of George Bush and to the right of John McCain on just about every issue that we know about—and there is a lot we don't yet know. Palin's stance on reproductive choice, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and censoring books in the Wasilla town library are just a few of the issues that have surfaced. Yet, we have no idea of what she thinks about health care, the failing economy, or the world beyond Alaska.
As a Republican conservative woman she has accomplished what no liberal Democratic woman could. She was able to bring her four-month-old baby up on stage with her while at the same time showcasing her pregnant teenage daughter and tag-along boyfriend. I remember the days when women candidates debated whether or not to include family photos in their campaign brochures. We weren't supposed to let the voters know we had children because the question would inevitably be asked, "Who's taking care of your children?"
How does Palin get away with it? She has managed to combine two personalities: the beauty queen mom and the hockey "pitbull" mom; tough and soft at the same time.
Combining feminine and masculine characteristics has been a challenge for women leaders, sometimes called "the double bind" or "damned if you do, and doomed if you don't" dilemma as I describe in my book, Pearls, Politics, and Power. (Incidentally, Palin wore pearls in her announcement speech.) Remember when Hillary Clinton was considered tough enough to be commander in chief but not feminine enough to be likeable?
Palin has come up with a different formula. Conservative women who never approved of Clinton's ambition, swoon over Palin and assume she can be both a good mother (because she continued her pregnancy knowing she would give birth to a baby with Downs syndrome) and a strong leader. The conservative badge covers up any hint of feminism which is still threatening to many voters.
What voters have to do in the final months of the campaign is stop gawking at this new female phenomenon and listen to what she is saying. And we have to keep in mind the most important question of all: is this woman fit to be Vice President, and possibly, President? Remember what you were taught before you crossed the street? "Stop, look, and LISTEN!"
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.