Jessica Phillips with a Young Feminist’s Take on Sarah Palin

Palin, Palin, Palin. The mainstream media is obsessed and the feminist blogosphere has been very interested in the choice of Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate. On many feminist blogs you’ll see questions like "Is Sarah Palin a feminist?" or "Can someone who was given a free ride break a glass ceiling?" and an old favorite "Can someone who doesn’t support reproductive choice be a feminist?" The Palin pick may cause a feminist identity crisis just as the Obama-Clinton primary season did.

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The response to the Palin pick from some self-described social liberals and feminists has been appalling. I’ve witnessed some such people decry Palin for choosing to ambitiously go after the second highest office in the land instead of staying in Alaska with her newborn child who has Down’s Syndrome. I’m dismayed at this kind of scrutiny over Palin’s work-life balance. It’s nothing like what we would see if a man with a similar situation was running. And even if a male was questioned on work/family balance issues, as John Edwards was for his decision to campaign after his wife’s was diagnosed with cancer, it would be much less strident and the candidate in question would eventually be seen as some kind of self-sacrificing hero. And while some women are criticizing Palin for not supporting reproductive choice, they’re forgetting that she represents something very rare: a woman who has not only reached high achievement in her professional field, but done so while being a mother to a large and seemingly normal and happy brood who just seem like an average American family. Palin has managed to have a great career and a great family. Is she the evidence that women can, in fact, and after long-last, "have it all?"

I doubt we are quite there yet, and of course Palin’s life isn’t perfect. Some are pointing to her teenage daughter Bristol’s pregnancy as evidence that her family was sacrificed to her ambition, but this is clearly stupid. Plenty of stay-at-home devoted mothers have teenage daughters who become pregnant. Anyway, there is nothing shameful about being a teenage mother. It may have unpleasant outcomes on a woman’s later earning power and as such may be something that career-minded teenagers want to avoid, but there is nothing inherently immoral or shameful about it. Basically, Sarah Palin has seemingly achieved what feminist women say they want to be the reality for all women: not having to choose between having a career and having a family. And that in itself makes her a very interesting figure to young feminists like me, who are keenly aware of the decisions we are going to have to make in the near future and how they are going to affect the rest of our lives. Studies show that spending three years out of the work force results in losing as much as 40% of your earning power. I hate the idea of spending my 20’s building my career only to lose a large chunk of my professional currency if I have a child and for whatever reason do not work for the first few years. For these reasons, the Sarah Palin’s of the world intrigue me.

As for the question of whether a woman can be a feminist while also being against reproductive choice, I personally believe that you can, but with certain conditions. I did not always feel this way. This is a controversial thing to say, but just as I have come to respect (and usually agree with) horrified animal rights activists who believe innocent creatures with an inherent right to life are being tortured and murdered all around them, so have I come to respect (while disagreeing with) those who view abortion as mass murder of innocent creatures who have an inherent right to life and as something that must be stopped. I can understand the world view of people who oppose choice though I vehemently disagree with it because I understand that most of these people are motivated by a kind of love. And if that person also supports the funding of pro-family programs like state and federally funded childcare and health care for children among other programs to help families and women be successful, I think they can oppose reproductive freedom and still call themselves a feminist. And obviously Sarah Palin does not support programs like that, and has a history of cutting such programs during her time as Governor of Alaska, including slashing funding for programs that supported teen mothers (okay, so there is some debate over whether or not what she did counts as slashing funding or not. Regardless, the Republican agenda isn’t promoting the idea of expanding federal funding for these kinds of programs). So my own criteria would seem to count Sarah Palin out as a feminist, though I still find her admirable in many ways.

As a young feminist, the idea of a female vice-presidential candidate on a major party ticket seems like the kind of thing I’d be over the moon about. But honestly, it hasn’t excited me in any real way. The Palin pick doesn’t represent an authentic shift in the gender power balance in Washington. It seems to obviously be a purely political choice designed to help McCain win the election. He has picked a running mate instead of someone he would like to have as a partner for the next four years. I made the reverse criticism about Obama, who failed to make the best, most politically shrewd choice for running mate, focusing instead on who would be the best partner once he was elected. I’m not sure which of them made the best choice-I guess the next few months will tell.

But until we find out who made the best choice, I hope the mainstream media and the frenzied blogosphere can both calm down a bit over the Palin pick and try to froth at the mouth a little bit less. (I won’t be holding my breath…)