Thirty years ago, women held only 3% of the seats in Congress, 11% of statewide elected offices and 10% of state legislature seats. Today, women have more than doubled those numbers to 16% of Congress, 24% of statewide elected offices and 24% of state legislature seats nationwide.
Yet, currently the United States ranks 70th compared to other nations in terms of women in elected office. Women comprise 52% of the US population and 9 million more women than men voted in the 2004 presidential election, yet we still have a rather dismal record in terms of proportional representation of women officeholders. What will Sarah Palin mean for trying to attract more women in office? My prediction is that she will not be a big draw to attracting more women and actually may serve as a deterrent as unfortunately Palin has dug up old stereotypes about women that we thought had been buried long ago. Palin also exacerbates many of the barriers that face women running for office.
First, by decrying the way in which the press has treated her, Palin only serves to reinforce negative stereotypes about women. She not only has been complicit in the McCain camp's strategy to shield her from the press -- as if she were a delicate or fragile thing that cannot withstand any scrutiny -- but furthermore she and her Republican handlers keep saying "unfair" every time the press asks her a legitimate question. In contrast, we saw how Hillary Clinton was able to project a real image of strength and power through her detailed and policy-laden answers on the key issues of the day. A woman candidate should be treated in the same way as a male candidate -- without crying "sexism" any time questions about that person's record or character are asked.
Second, through her debate performance and cringe-worthy press interviews she demonstrated that she fails to understand or grasp the critical issues that face our country. Palin thus infers that women can somehow get by on good looks and folksy charm alone. It is, however, more than her failure to not know the Bush doctrine (the preeminent foreign policy of the last 8 years), nor to be able to name any magazines or newspapers she reads, nor to be able to name any Supreme Court cases she disagrees with, it is her clear lack of interest in and desire to think critically about the big issues that affect our society.
For example, in responding to Katie Couric's question about whether there is a right to privacy embedded in the Constitution she said yes -- an antithetical position to conservative dogma which believes there is no privacy right in the 14th Amendment's Due Process clause. She clearly does not understand even the most basic principles of the choice argument. Likewise, her fundamental lack of understanding about the bailout, as evidenced by her non sequitur answer in the debate about energy and taxes, further displayed a lack of depth or intellectual knowledge about these core issues. Even in 2007 when asked as Governor of Alaska what she thought about the Surge in Iraq, she confessed to Alaska Business Monthly that "I've been so focused on state government, I haven't really focused much on the war in Iraq."
This disinterest and lack of knowledge is also reflected in the Troopergate report where Palin and her cohorts fail to have even the most basic understanding of the confidentiality of personnel decisions and the inappropriateness of having the Governor's spouse take on a "shadow" Governor type of role. Even yesterday in an interview, she proclaimed in answer to a question about the role of the Vice President , that the Vice President "controls" the Senate and helps the Senate make policy -- thus revealing a total lack of understanding of the Constitution and the function of the Vice President.
Her almost gleeful proclamation that she is just an average everyday hockey mom and that such experience is what we need in a Vice President, slams all the progress that women elected officials have been making for years. To argue that just because she is like other hockey moms, she better understands their issues, makes a mockery of the deep understanding, careful analysis and years of experience that successful women elected officials have and the battles they have waged.
Moreover, on issues that help to advance women's rights, her political views are so far to the right of most Americans and are actually detrimental to women. Her view that abortion is only justified if a woman's life is in danger, and not even in the case of rape and incest, is truly abhorrent. Her opposition to embryonic stem cell research that has the potential to save thousands of Americans from grave illnesses, her belief that intelligent design should be taught in school are all an affront to battles we have waged for years.
Perhaps most unnerving, however, and detrimental to our goal of encouraging more women to run for office is her decision to be the pit bull of attacks on Barack Obama's character. She gleefully rails at rallies that he is "palling around with terrorists" (to which a rallygoer yelled out "kill him!"), she claims Obama is un-American for saying that our troops in Afghanistan are "air-raiding villages and killing civilians" (to which a man in the crowd shouted "Treason!") After Palin decried the liberal media at these rallies people shouted racial epithets at an African-American TV crewman. Rather than inspire and lift up Americans nationwide, especially in these tough economic times, she has chosen to lace her speeches with fear-mongering and pejorative attacks. Research has shown that one reason some women do not enter the political arena is because of the fear of negative attacks against them, something Palin is serving to perpetuate.
Lastly, research on state legislatures nationwide by C.S. Rosenthal has shown that women legislators are 50% more likely than male legislators to "build issue coalitions", "pull people together" and "get people involved." The study notes that 59% of women legislative committee chairs earn above average ratings for inclusivity and power-sharing. Palin's anti-Democratic tirades just serve to foster partisan divisions and divide the nation further, thereby doing lasting damage to one of the key reasons why we need more women in office.
I fear that rather than encourage and inspire women nationwide to consider running for office, Palin has only served to turn back the tide on many of the advances we have made. For so many reasons, Palin is not "The One."