Critiquing Steinem’s Take on Palin Pick

Originally published in The Tech on September 26, 2008

“She nails it,” was the consensus between IrresistibleBitch, JellyBean and Meow85 regarding Gloria Steinem’s op-ed piece, “Palin: wrong woman, wrong message” published on Sept. 4 in The Los Angeles Times. The first place I spotted the topic under discussion was, oddly enough, in the Politics and Religion forum of the Prince fan site,

For those who wonder: exploring Palin through Prince is an interesting experiment, not only because of the mix of perspectives of his very diverse audience, but also because he himself holds an intriguing position on women that combines misogynist-sounding lyrics and pioneering work opportunities in the music industry for his female band members early in his career.

“Gloria gets it. Go Gloria!” was the most audible conclusion on this particular thread. On this site, however — as elsewhere in cyberspace — I stumbled across a torrent of anti-Steinem posts, mostly from young conservative women. In her article, the famous feminist argues that Palin is the wrong woman for the job of vice-presidential candidate because she was most likely picked by John McCain in order to revitalize a party under a seventy-year-old’s leadership — and not out of loving support for women’s causes.

I must say I agree with Steinem, given that I have seen such tactics being used before. The calculated move to a top position of a little-known but young and physically attractive figure to bring some spice and life to a dormant or brand new system is a favorite formula in Russia, where I was based prior to MIT.

Imagine CNN’s entire news operation being run by a 25-year-old woman fresh from college. Margarita Simonyan was such a person when she was appointed Editor-in-Chief of Russia Today, a state-run English-language news and entertainment TV channel founded in 2005 to present the Russian point of view on events in and outside of Russia.

The Kremlin wanted to show the world a prettier face for Russia than the one generally painted by the Western media, so it chose the head for its news channel accordingly. Never mind that Simonyan had little work and travel experience. In her own words, “Russia needs a visual voice.” And it worked — so far the audience likes what it sees.

This is one reason I strongly suspect that McCain’s intentions in selecting Palin as his running mate run along those lines. Her gender and ‘can-do-it-all-superworkingmom’ status — shall I dare say ‘image’ — have been exploited to the max for McCain’s campaign purposes.

It’s quite clever if you ask me.

Whether the candidate and his running mate truly care about women’s rights and causes is an entirely different story. The candidate’s actions and their policy positions only can tell the true story. After all, we still know very little about Palin. I have a feeling that we — and the press especially — are still trying to figure out who she is behind the engineered hype and allegory.

Is she a good mother? How does she manage with a full-time job to be a mother of five? And what is a good mother anyway? There is ‘mother’ and ‘mother’ — the one who will sit every night with each child to read a bedtime story, and the one who will plant her progeniture in front of the telly while she attends to other tasks, or delegate 80 percent of her free quality time with them to a nanny.

These two models of motherly duties and parenting imply drastically different time demands and schedules. Which one is Palin’s?

It is interesting to watch it all from the legendarily-male-dominated-but-bent-on-changing-their-ways long corridors of this Institute. President Susan Hockfield’s stated intent on increasing the female staff and student population at the time of her appointment as first woman president of MIT in 2004 is encouraging.

The latest statistics are too. In fall 2007, 1,857 women were enrolled as undergraduates (44.5 percent) and as 1,822 graduate students (30 percent), according to the Office of the Registrar.

It takes more than beefing up the ranks, however. The recognition of women’s crucial roles in scientific research and industry should be next. Our government’s policies should reflect this. Those issues are conspicuously absent from the current campaigns, as they have been in past ones. This is one area Palin and her party could jump on if they truly care about women’s advancement. The communities of female scientists at MIT and elsewhere should push for this as a priority in Washington.

Now that I pace up and down these storied corridors in my high heels, a remnant of my days in feminine fashion-mad Moscow, I am even more aware of the ‘Palin Effect.’ The ripples her nomination sent through this election are palpable and a good sign for women in politics. It would be refreshing to see more women in government and I would applaud any effort in that direction. The current 10 percent of women in Congress is a disgrace. Equal pay and other rights and equalities would likely follow.

One thing is sure, Palin’s appearance has stirred things up. But as Republicans and Democrats are hotly debating ‘what women want,’ both claiming to hold the ultimate definition of ‘feminism and true role of women in society, some constants in this disrupted landscape remain:

1. The “zoo phenomenon” — forget those curious-looking beasts in cages in zoos and other animals in amusements parks: women are by far the most interesting and puzzling species to look at and analyze. As this Palin debate shows, we as a society are still grappling with some fundamentals: what do/should women want? Are they capable of having both a family and a career, how do they do it? I mean, what do they eat?! Having seen my own mother raising my six-year-old brother and 14-month-old me alone at the time of our father’s death from cancer, and successfully at that — the question of whether a woman — if given the social and financial resources to do so — is capable of combining work and family eludes me …

2. Men are conspicuously — or conveniently — absent from the picture or/and held to other standards: no questioning here of whether a man can have a family and a career.

3. A male-dominated rhetoric and assumptions dictate the debate from the start. For example: “unwanted” pregnancy — I ask: unwanted by whom? Our patriarchally minded societies or the girl’s own maternal feelings? I doubt it’s the latter.

4. The use of silly symbols, such as Newsweek’s cover last week which had the words “What Women Want” with a tube of lipstick below. Judging by Newsweek’s 2008 New Year special, which focused on energy and was nearly exclusively written by male writers, I am sure its editorial team has a good grasp of women’s issues.

There are signs already that Palin passions among the public are reaching a plateau and may soon wear off. Her recent success is Florida doesn’t count: she was speaking to an easy crowd of largely white military retirees who mostly vote Republican.

Concrete issues and solutions are what she should focus on. Policies are where she — as any candidate for that matter — can make an impact.

As for her lack of experience, all new jobs by definition require a certain amount of learning. In foreign affairs, Palin may have a point that Alaska’s proximity to Russia gave her an insight into that country. My own personal doubts aside, The Los Angeles Times seems to agree. Otherwise it wouldn’t have assigned its former Moscow Bureau Chief, Kim Murphy, to now report from Anchorage, would it?