Issues & Ideas, Wednesday, September 10, 2008, p. A20
'I Am Sarah, Watch Me Act'
Barbara Kay National Post
How I wish I'd been the proverbial fly on the wall watching the changing expressions on Barack Obama's face as Sarah Palin delivered her already-legendary speech at the Republican convention last Wednesday.
I imagine his pre-speech expression as alert, but relaxed paternalism, like a chief surgeon set to supervise a lowly resident's clumsy initial attempt at an appendectomy. Then puzzlement as the surgeon realizes that he's to be the patient, and finally horror as, strapped to the table and, before a nation of fascinated onlookers, he is subjected to ... a palinoscopy!
Oh, she got through to him all right. For eight months critics haven't really laid more than glancing blows on Obama, because they were jabbing away at his exterior. Sarah got him right in the gut.
Humour is permitted entry to dark cavities closed to straight criticism, so Palin used steady-handed wit as her probe. As every comedian and experienced public speaker knows, failed on-stage humour is first cousin to death. Factor in the supreme importance of the occasion, an audience of 39 million voters, the greedy gaze of slavering media hyenas and the enormous additional risk of "dissing" an African-American saint: What we witnessed on that Minnesota stage, my friends, was an awesome demonstration of raw courage.
Palin's mockery tickled Obama's worrisome polyps of swollen self-regard (the "styrofoam pillars"), his history of words over action ("two memoirs, but no major bills"), his curious pattern of risk avoidance (unlike community organizers, mayors have "actual responsibilities") and his tendency to solipsism(presidential journeys are not "voyages of personal discovery").
Peggy Noonan, doyenne of American political-trends commentary, was galvanized by Palin's performance: "It is starting to look to me like a nation-defining election ... This campaign is about to become: epic," she wrote in the weekend Wall Street Journal.
I agree. But win or lose the election, Sarah Palin has already altered the cultural landscape of America, possibly of the Western world. In years to come, social archeologists will mark her speech as the official beginning of an end to the gender wars, and, one hopes, a return to trust and collaboration between the sexes.
Because Palin proved you don't need the Sisterhood to pierce the glass ceiling. In her single calculated comment about women, she said, "This is America, and every woman can walk through every door of opportunity."
Got that? It wasn't Gloria Steinem that put me on this podium. It was my made-in-small-town-America traditional social values combined with old-fashioned patriotism and Alaska-instilled pioneerism.
Palin isn't "redefin[ing] the feminist ideal," as Jonathan Kay put it yesterday in his column's misguided paean to Palin as a kind of multi-function iFeminist for the postmodern woman. Ideologybased behaviour of any kind is irrelevant to Palin, and millions of other small-town women -- and always was. Love of family, community, country -- not conspiracy theories -- is what guides their political compass.
The ultimate American individual, Palin wasn't ever committed to any collectivity but America itself. She was never "I am Woman, hear me roar." She was always, "I am Sarah, watch me act." Palin represents what would have happened to American women without a feminist revolution. For legal and social equity for women was bound to arise organically through political and cultural reform, as more and more women entered university and the work force, a process well underway before feminism became an organized movement.
In a free society a cat may look at a king. Feminists thundering disdain at Palin's lack of experience (as a surrogate for their panic over her indifference to feminism) would do well to remember the trajectory of their own movement's cat that looked at the patriarchy.
Betty Friedan, author of The Feminist Mystique, the 1963 book that kicked off the modern feminist movement, was no Adam Smith or Karl Marx. She was a political nobody, a bored, disgruntled housewife who mistook her own tiny world of white, urban, middle-class, university-educated peers as representative of all American women.
In fact, Friedan's true acolytes always were, and remain, "dormitory feminists," a small, but noisily aggrieved iceberg calved from the real female masses Palin so brilliantly champions.
What were Friedan's credentials for changing the world? Friedan studied psychology at Smith College, dabbled in journalism, flirted with communism(it shows in feminism's Marxist stripes), mothered three children and gave domestically violent tit for tat to her husband in a failed marriage before writing her famous book. Some resume.
The "methodology" behind her "research" consists of her interpretation of a 1957 questionnaire she sent to former Smith College classmates. Friedan claimed that 60% of her respondents "could not honestly say" they found homemaking "totally fulfilling." From this she concluded that the home was a "comfortable concentration camp" for mothers, all of whom (even if they mightn't admit it) suffered from "the problem that has no name."
And yet she emerged from her utter political obscurity and academic amateurism as the matriarch of an enormously consequential movement. Following the book's landslide success -- one of its direct offshoots was the disruption of the Miss America pageant Mr. Kay details in his column-- Friedan became the guiding force for the National Women's Political Caucus and the National Abortion Rights Action Council (NARAL). Her reign had more impact on American life than the work of any 50 vice-presidents combined.
So feminists, enough with the hypocrisy. Show some respect for Sarah Palin, who is far more credentialed to advance America's interests than Friedan was for yours. (Note to Jonathan: There was no need even to think of waking up your daughters and "dragging them to the TV" for inspiration from Sarah Palin, as she'd probably be the first to tell you. Their own mother's achievements, and, more important, the reliable presence and loving encouragement of a strong father are the best predictors for women's self-confidence and worldly success. So relax.)
It may cause some "discomfort," the medical parlance for pain, but if, as I believe, we have just seen the curtain begin to fall on the sexually adversarial, anti-family wing of the feminist movement, Sarah Palin's -- er-- rear-guard invasion of Obama and, by extension, the feminism-marinated liberal establishment, will already have performed wonders for America's cultural health.
2008 National Post