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Cracked glass ceiling mirrors patchwork of questions

By Cynthia Boyd and Kay Harvey
Monday, Sept.

Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin addresses a crowd in Washington, Pa., on Saturday.
REUTERS/John Gress
Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin addresses a crowd in Washington, Pa., on Saturday.

Just about the time that most die-hard Hillary Rodham Clinton supporters accept they’ve lost their chance to see a woman in the Oval Office or even steps away, Republican John McCain taps a feisty female governor from Alaska to be his running mate.

Then Sarah Palin picks at the sore, thanking in her introductory speech and at every turn the women who came before her: Democrats Clinton and Geraldine Ferraro. “It turns out the women of America aren’t finished yet!” she said Friday, even borrowing from Clinton’s original line about leaving the race with “18 million cracks in the glass ceiling” that has kept women out of the West Wing. Palin invoked women across the land to shatter that ceiling once and for all by electing McCain-Palin.

What’s a woman voter, or one who pines to see a female in the White House, to do? Here’s another question: What will Minnesota women do?

Palin is no Clinton and no Ferraro (Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984), critics have pointed out.

Still, she almost certainly would appeal to a more conservative Republican voting bloc than a Democratic one. But there’s a complex wild card here, too. How will Palin’s gender play out — if at all — in the 2008 election? Further, is Palin where she is largely because of those Democratic women who went before her?  

Palin, 44, is an anti-abortion evangelical Christian and characterized as a “gun-packing, hockey-playing woman” by Republican strategist Karl Rove. Plus, she’s married and the mother of five children, one of them headed off to Iraq. That working-mother image, some say, may be her strongest suit.

Sarah Janecek
Sarah Janecek

Women to whom people can relate have been too long missing in U.S. politics, said political analyst Sarah Janecek, a Republican and publisher of Politics in Minnesota. “Don’t underestimate how many women will look at Sarah Palin raising those children and at nothing else — or how many women will vote for her.”

The forbidden question
There’s another mother factor here;  no, don’t even think it (though many moms are): How can a mother of five kids, including a baby with Down syndrome, also take on the job of governor, let alone the second-highest job in the land? Minnesota Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, a Republican, answers the query with another question: “Would you ask that if she were a man?” She uses the same retort, she said, when someone asks how she does it all.

That the question is asked at all bears out her observation that gender bias remains present in high-level politics at a time when some contend it’s on the way out. “As an elected woman, I can say gender’s always an issue,” she said. “People do look at it — whether we’re talking about a woman or a man — and make judgments as to whether it’s a positive or a negative. It may not be quite at the level it used to be. But I think it’s still a factor.”

Women will relate to Palin because she’s both competent and approachable, a trait that resonated in her acceptance speech, Molnau said. “It was like talking with a best friend from high school. Or the first neighbor when you had your little kids. She comes across as “a regular person. And people are looking for that.” Molnau calls her “a Washington outsider.”

Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau
Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau

She counters criticism of Palin’s slim experience in a visible office — 20 months as Alaska governor on the heels of managing a city of 9,000 people — with heroic accounts of what Palin has done in those jobs to enforce ethics and clean up corruption. “Nobody is fully prepared when they get into office. She’s a very strong-willed person, very smart, very focused. I don’t think she has to be a Washington insider.”

She’ll appeal to conservative and evangelical Republicans, and she “shores that piece up,” Molnau said. “If the party had a weakness, she’s the one who can pull it together.”

Toeing the party line
Yet even some Republicans who fervently support abortion rights are standing in line to vote for the McCain-Palin ticket. Count staunch Republican Sally Pillsbury of Orono among them.

That’s despite the fact she was a founder of the pro-choice Minnesota Women’s Campaign Fund, now called WomenWinning, and active in Republican Majority for Choice, a national group of Republicans who believe the party’s platform on abortion needs to change.

Interestingly, that group released poll results in August showing their moderate views are held by an “overwhelming majority of Republicans” and that McCain would be more electable if he chose a moderate running mate.

Palin hardly fits that description.

“I don’t like some of her stands,” Pillsbury conceded about the Alaska governor, “but there are a lot of Republicans who don’t like my stands. That’s politics for both parties. I don’t think she’ll alienate people. She seems like a very nice person and a very good speaker.” And, yes, being a “good Republican,” Pillsbury will vote McCain-Palin.     

A footnote, Pillsbury is one of a Who’s Who in the Republican Party to host a Tuesday night gala given by the self-named Republican Majority group. It’s meant to both honor the RNC slate and national leaders and remind them that moderates vote, too. Five hundred guests are expected. 

Voter surprises
Will Palin attract those voters still mourning the absence of Hillary Rodham Clinton on the ticket? “She might. She’ll bring in people who want to have a woman,” Pillsbury said.

On the flip side, Palin’s presence on the Republican ticket will likely lure some moderate Republicans in the state, especially those in the business community, to vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden in November, said business executive Lois Quam, adding that Palin’s conservative stance will likely swing some independents to follow suit.

Lois Quam
Courtesy of UnitedHealth Group
Lois Quam

“It’s clear that she’s a wonderful mother and wife,” said Quam, a Democrat who was a member of Sen. Clinton’s Minnesota Steering Committee. But Quam is among voters drawing a line between Palin’s personal life and her conservative politics.

Minnesota Sen. Tarryl Clark, a Democratic delegate who now sports a “Hillary supporter for Obama” button, doesn’t think Palin was the strongest choice to draw independents aligned with Hillary. “She (Palin) believes in teaching creationism in schools, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. … I just know if he had picked someone like (former Republican New Jersey Gov.) Christine Todd Whitman, I think he would have a lot of independents” switching sides, Clark said.

Sara Evans
Courtesy of the University of Minnesota
Sara Evans

Longtime University of Minnesota history professor Sara Evans said the vote in November will magnify a key point. Even when representatives of their gender are on the ballot, “Women don’t vote as a bloc. They come in all political varieties,” said Evans, who retired from teaching women’s studies this year.

Some people sensed that tensions might be stirring this week for Clinton supporters and feminist women who’ve long promoted equal rights for women in a week when not Clinton but a relatively unknown Republican candidate emerged as winner of her party’s nomination. Evans hopes that’s not the case.

Clinton and her camp created a huge breakthrough for women “that never again will anyone have to do in a major political party,” Evans said. She calls John McCain’s choice of a woman running mate “one more sign” that women can be elected to high political offices.

“This just confirms it,” she said of Palin’s spot on the Republican ticket. She thinks Clinton supporters and others who pushed equal rights for women through the years should take credit for the advances.

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Cynthia Boyd and Kay Harvey, both former writers for the Pioneer Press, write about a variety of topics for MinnPost. Boyd can be reached at cboyd [at] minnpost [dot] com. Harvey can be reached at kharvey [at] minnpost [dot] com.


Question for readers: What do you think of McCain’s choice for his running mate? Please comment below.