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.
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.”
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.