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The right thing: Reject sexist attacks on all women candidates

When John McCain first announced her as his running mate, the most common response — by Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike — was “Sarah who?”

The mainstream media quickly filled in the brushstrokes of Sarah Palin’s political career. She served on the city council and as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, population 5,500, and has been governor of Alaska for 20 months.

Of course, the media weren’t content with “just the facts, ma’am.” A deluge of information about Palin’s personal life — including her family-building choices, the names of her children, whether or not she was trying to force her pregnant teenage daughter into marriage … yada, yada, yada.

It is fair to challenge Palin’s politics. It is appropriate to consider her experience or lack thereof. It is proper to look into her ethics and political past, to examine every aspect of her political life. Those things are and should be fair game. Americans deserve to have a deep knowledge of a potential vice president. By running for the office, Palin opens herself up to a thorough examination by the media of who she is — politically speaking.

Feeding frenzy on personal life
What is not fair is the media feeding frenzy centering on Palin’s personal life, which began when she was introduced as McCain’s running mate. The frenzy reached fever pitch when Palin issued a statement that her 17-year-old daughter Bristol was pregnant and planned to marry the father of her baby. Pundits and activists alike unleashed a torrent of criticism, linking Palin’s opposition to sex education to her daughter’s pregnancy. Some bloggers referred to Bristol as a “slut.” Bristol’s boyfriend was hunted down and text from his “MySpace” page published in mainstream media.

If the exploitation of a teenage girl’s pregnancy was not enough, there were plenty of sexist attacks on the candidate herself, many by the mainstream media. Much was made of Palin’s past as a beauty pageant contestant. No less august a media outlet than the Associated Press ended its critique of Palin’s RNC speech with a description of her waving at the crowd “like the beauty contestant she once was.”

We can’t pick and choose
That makes me wonder why there are not similar analogies made about male candidates. Did the AP ever describe George W. Bush whipping up an enthusiastic crowd “like the cheerleader he once was?” I don’t think so (although Bush was indeed a cheerleader when he attended an all-male prep school). The sexism leveled at female candidates is unrelenting. Whether or not we support the individual candidates, women and feminists have to step up to the plate and reject the sexism that all female candidates face. We can’t pick and choose. It’s not always easy to defend those who stand for ideas we oppose-but it is necessary. It would be hypocritical, I believe, to call out the media for their sexism criticism of, say, Hillary Clinton, while snickering at the same behavior leveled at, say, Sarah Palin.

Many of us find it interesting to look into others’ personal lives. Behavior that contradicts stated beliefs can be fun to ponder. It’s human nature, and it can be especially gratifying when the person in question appears to say one thing and do another. The mainstream media feed this unhealthy obsession with plenty of red meat. But as women, we don’t have to eat it. We can, and should, reject the sexism that drives this frenzied invasion of privacy. Let’s disagree publicly with Sarah Palin’s anti-choice, pro-war statements and policies. Let’s say out loud that she is just not qualified to be vice president. But let’s leave the family, kids and personal life alone. We owe it to ourselves, our daughters and the women who come after Palin.

Michele St. Martin is the editor of Minnesota Women’s Press, where this column originally appeared.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Erik Ostrom on 09/24/2008 - 12:06 am.

    Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think, for example, that it’s any of our business that Bristol Palin is pregnant. But when the McCain campaign statement issues an official statement that Palin is “proud of Bristol’s decision to have her baby,” I don’t think it’s out of bounds to note that they don’t believe other people’s daughters have the right to make that decision for themselves.

  2. Submitted by John Olson on 09/24/2008 - 07:24 am.

    Michele, you can’t have it both ways. I have no issues with keeping family and personal lives out of the cesspool of a campaign. However, if the candidates (or his/her handlers) are going to bring it up on their own and open the proverbial door, c’est la vie.

  3. Submitted by Erik Ostrom on 09/24/2008 - 10:18 pm.

    And here’s one more take on the subject: CNN’s Campbell Brown calls on the McCain campaign to “stop treating Sarah Palin like she is a delicate flower,” “free her from the chauvinistic chain you are binding her with,” and “let her have a real news conference with real questions” like every male candidate in the race.

  4. Submitted by Michele St. Martin on 09/25/2008 - 04:02 pm.

    Erik, I agree that Palin ought not to be sheltered from the rigors of the campaign, and that includes unscripted encounters with media. But I think Campbell Brown is missing the point. I don’t think the McCain campaign is “sheltering” Palin because she’s female — I think they’re trying to avoid her embarrassing them by hiding her lack of knowledge.

  5. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 09/23/2008 - 11:58 am.

    I agree with the spirit of the article on separating personal life from public when running for public office if at all possible; be it male or female. But I must admit I learned more than I knew or cared to know about the personal life of Lady Sarah from the writer’s words…necessary I suppose in order to establish the premise; to establish her point of view.

    Yet…who was it who talked (gushed from the podium) personal over public virtues? Was it not Sarah…talking about pitbulls and lipstick and soccer moms? Personal indeed and one ugly image to titillate the media and soccer moms everywhere.

    And one could say, whether one skins a bull moose or its significant other (sexist, too whatever its gender) is a personal, private accomplishment and should be beyond the realm of the public arena or public policy also?

    Consider too,here is a candidate with few public qualifications, running for Vice P. or P.; one whose public, policy attributes are limited…then necessary credibility to establish her candidate-viability is the use of the private and it goes…

  6. Submitted by David Rasmussen on 09/23/2008 - 12:45 pm.

    Your point would be more poignant, but it was Sarah Palin and her campaign who chose to first give their exclusive first interview to People Magazine, and by agreeing to stroll and speak with Sean Hannity for her first long-form exclusive television interview, she has still not put her toes in the pool, much less her feet in the fire.

    It is fair to criticize the focus of the media on family issues, but if the candidate chooses to never engage in any substantive policy discussion, it may be difficult for media to speak about anything else.

  7. Submitted by Erik Ostrom on 09/29/2008 - 02:35 pm.

    Yeah, I actually made the same argument elsewhere on MinnPost. I just thought it was notable that CB made the sexism charge in that way and in that venue.

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