Friday, September 5, 2008

Wade Into the Water

One wades into politics at one's own peril. But this will get back to newspapers.

You would think that Sarah Palin's nomination would have ended the Mommy Wars: Yes, you can be the mother of five children and have a full-time job, such as governor or vice president. Wasn't that what the Mommy Wars were about: Working moms vs. nonworking moms?

Well, at least it was when I was younger. Clearly even "working full-time at an important job" has been removed from the equation, as this story from the New York Times makes clear. So one is left with: What are we talking about, anyway? What were we talking about?

Some quotes:

  • “I admire her intelligence and I admire her integrity, but first and foremost she’s a mom, and she has an understanding of what being a mom is.”

  • “I’m just going to vote for Trig Van Palin’s mom.”

  • “Sarah Palin is a different kind of feminist. She is a strong woman who can wear a skirt and be proud of it.”
I'm thinking back to the 1960s and what 1960s feminism was fighting. "Don't you worry your little head about it." Get married, and you lost your job. Unequal pay for equal work. Differences in legal treatment that I was too young to understand. Harassment in law school and medical school. A woman couldn't possibly be smart enough or rational enough to be president. A woman's only place is in the home. Your son can dream of being a doctor and your daughter can dream of being a nurse. The whole plot of "Mad Men."

It seems that in that sense, 1960s feminism in the end got four fruits across the slot machine and you can hear the silver dollars hitting the tray. So why is intelligent, successful, educated Hillary Clinton, who even her foes generally admit successfully raised a fine daughter, seen as a man-hating b---- and intelligent, successful, educated Sarah Palin, who has also raised fine children but has the unfortunate situation of having a daughter pregnant out of wedlock at 17, a wonderful example for our daughters?

I guess it has to be the cookies. I've often wondered if Hillary Clinton taped herself into a circle of hell by saying "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life." In that statement a lot of people heard: Come hell or high water, I'm a lawyer first, I'm a politician first. I may also be a wife, I may also be a mother, but my stars are set and I follow them. My personal ambitions are high and they come first.

And Sarah Palin? I may be governor, I could be vice president, but come hell or high water, I'm a woman first, I'm a mom first. I suppose I could have stayed home, but what I decided to do was enter politics full-time, but I bake cookies and I can have the other moms over for tea and not feel like my identity as a politician or an intelligent person is threatened. I was female before I entered public life, and those stars were set and I followed them. My personal ambitions are high, but being a woman brings certain responsibilities and I have them whether I want them or not.

In part this is an age difference -- Hillary Clinton had to fight and win battles so that Sarah Palin would not have to -- but it's a class difference as well. And although Palin worked as a journalist before entering politics, she didn't follow Al Gore into the city room of the Tennessean; she was a sports reporter on Anchorage television. That reflects changing times, but it also reflects the class divide that exists between print and TV journalism on the local level. As the New York Times story said of Wasilla, Alaska: “You’ve got to remember, we are not much bigger than a high school and she is the homecoming queen.” Print newsrooms have very few homecoming queens or BMOCs.

As Mark Bowden said in his Atlantic article, the journalists who entered the field in the heady era of Vietnam, Watergate and civil rights viewed themselves as "arbiters of style, taste and decency, who took upon themselves the tasks of keeping government honest and educating the public." That's slightly different from informing the public. Educating the public as arbiters means: We not only know more than you about what's going on -- which is our job, to find it out and tell you -- we know how we should live. We showed you the evil of Bull Connor, we showed you the truth of Martin Luther King, and you elected Lester Maddox, Frank L. Rizzo and Charles Stenvig. We showed you what was happening in Vietnam, and you re-elected Richard Nixon. We showed you how women were being discriminated against, and you bought Marabel Morgan. We are disappointed. So we're just going to keep showing you until you get it right.

I remember reading a story in my hometown paper years ago, a long interview with a woman who lived on Spring Mill Road, in a very upscale section of Indianapolis. She was in her late 70s, I believe, her husband had just died, and she wanted to tell her story. Her husband had physically mistreated her, but that was not all of it. He had made her give up contact with her friends. He had had her sit home during the day so she could be instantly attentive to his needs when he arrived. She regretted her life. She wanted younger women to learn from her example. Asked why she had put up with it, why she had not left, her response was: That was what women of my generation were told we had to do. That was our role as women.

The feminist women of my era said: Being female does not mean we have to fulfill any special role. We can do whatever we want. We can choose what we will do. The women who see Palin as their champion say, we can do whatever we want, we can choose what we will do, as long as we also celebrate our roles as women. I think that's why the stories that drive conservatives mad tend not to be about income redistribution or worker's rights or drilling for oil. They're the ones in which journalists look like sociologists investigating the primitive culture of those who say the desires of the individual should be at least balanced against, if not subordinated to, community standards.

Many people I know in newspapers are saying: You hypocrites! You cut funds for sex education, you preach abstinence only, and then Bristol gets pregnant and you say: Well, it's OK. If you just acknowledged that kids are going to have sex, we could be realistic and avoid some of these problems. To which comes the retort: You preach what is right, and then you support the sinner. You tell your kids what to do, and then you love them when they don't do it. But you say there is a right. A community can't exist without there being the "right," but the outliers of "right" will move around. Eisenhower said that America's system of government made no sense without there being a God, but it was to some degree irrelevant who that God was.

Many newspaper folks, with their curiosity, their desire to tell everyone's story, their desire to be reportorial and not judgmental, their belief that exposing hypocrisy shall make us free, and their general feeling that no one should be forced to do anything or denied the right to do anything because of sex, race, creed or color, simply can't understand the women who say "I'm not a feminist" and then proceed to support 95 percent of 1960s feminism's program. "I wouldn't burn my bra," when basically no one ever did. "I'm for a woman for president, but not that woman, Hillary." They see all this as a weird double standard that should be ended, a victory of cant over reality. The message that those who see Sarah Palin as their standard-bearer (and just for the record, I am not among them) come with is: A woman now can do anything she wants, but at the same time anatomy is still destiny. You can deal with any issue as well as a man can, but you still have to make the hotdish for a family funeral. You can wear the pants in your family as long as you don't think it's wrong to wear a skirt. Every circle doesn't have to be completely squared. It will be interesting to see if newspapers see this as progress or reaction.

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