Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Hillary and Sarah

I've been thinking a lot about Hillary and Sarah and the emergence of women at the top tier of politics and how it's happened.

My first thought was, shouldn't Hillary Clinton be running for v.p. and not Sarah Palin?

Whatever your feelings about Hillary, hasn't she done the work? Put in the time? Handshake by handshake and french fry by french fry earned her 18 million votes--which is about 17.9 million votes more than Sarah's ever gotten?

Lately, when I think of Clinton, a Ray Bradbury story pops into my mind. In this story, a group of schoolchildren have grown up on the planet Venus, where it rains and rains. The sun comes out for one hour every seven years. The kids, who've never seen the sun, are excited. Especially one little girl. But she's a target for bullies. They lock her in a closet right before the sun comes out and leave her there until the rain comes out.

Is that how we treat Hilary Clinton? And if so, I wonder why. What did she do that was so wrong? Why does she have to be punished?

Was it that she dared to throw her glove into the presidential ring on her own gumption? Is Palin OK because she waited for an older white male to anoint her as second on the ticket? That she didn't make people uneasy? Is she still safely subordinate? Or has Palin lived in a way that has confounded the opposition?

I think it's about how Hillary and Sarah represent two different generations of feminism (and yes, I will call Palin a feminist). Palin's is the more successful model. And to be honest, perhaps because I'm closer in age to Palin, I'm more aligned to her paradigm.

So what are the paradigms?

The Hillary paradigm is one I've seen over and over again and it seems to be common among women of a certain age. These are women who grew up, roughly, between 1946 and 1956. I used to call it the "brown-haired girl" syndrome but it could probably better be called the "good girl" syndrome. These are the women who play by the rules, do all the right things and are careful, conscientious and goal-oriented. I remember encountering one such woman on my honeymoon, as we took a wagon ride across an elk preserve in freezing weather. When the wagon stopped for questions, this woman, her straight brown hair neatly center parted, earnestly asked question after question about the elk. The rest of us, turning to ice cubes, were shifting and glaring, but for her this was an educational mission, the rules said this was the time to ask questions, and she wanted all the facts.

My dear sister-in-law, a wonderful person, is like this. She was born in the late 1940s--I believe 1948-- and before she went out to do missionary work in Hong Kong, she planned everything with the utmost care. A retired schoolteacher, not only did she get her finances in order, she earned a master's degree in ESL and then a second master's degree in religion (she already had a master's in education) so she would be thoroughly prepared for her second career. Some of us may have rolled our eyes and said to ourselves, you really don't have to do all this, but it's the way she is. It's how I believe a mini-generation of dutiful, well-educated girls was raised. To follow the rules above else, even when you're breaking the rules. I think it's typified in Hillary having only one child. If you are going to play by the rules of the male world, you minimize your liabilities. You minimize your distractions so you can stay scrupulously focused on the straight and narrow path. You don't expect the world to bend around you. Even when you're not conforming, you conform.

Then along comes Sarah, exemplary new generation woman, busting down the walls with glee. She's not breaking the ceilings, she's reconfiguring the floorplan. While I have many differences from her, she comes out of a worldview I better understand, a world in which, as a woman, you make it up as you go along. Of course you have a bunch of kids--it's what you want and you figure it out. The world isn't about a straight trajectory into a male-paradigm career. You don't worry you'll be "derailed," because you know that as a woman you already are derailed. So you drop out to have children (why not?), then look for an opportunity to jump back in when you can. It's about finding the opportunities that wrap around your family life and not vice versa. It's about shooting through the crevices in the rules in order to construct a life on your own terms. It's about exploiting the possibilities that turn up around you rather rigidly adhering to a plan and a protocol that cover all the bases. It's postmodernism versus modernism.

So I wasn't surprised when I read that legislators in the Alaska statehouse wear "Where's Sarah?" buttons because Palin is so often absent from work to be home in Wasilla. I'm not surprised that she's seized opportunities that catapulted her forward rather than plodding along a predictable path. Sadly, as we've seen so graphically in the case of Hillary, the step-by-step method often seems to leave women bereft and betrayed.

Perhaps it's generational, the benefits of seeing the Hillary group's successes and failures, but my life has been much more like Sarah's. I had three children because that's how it happened and I worked work around it. I fell into a second career that wrapped (usually) around my family. I've been fluid about dropping in and out of the work force. I haven't played by the rules. Like Sarah, an intentional faith life, including a radical change in denomination, has been a major part of my life story.

What about you? How have you navigated career, children, life?


Viola Larson said...

I enjoyed reading this posting and I relate to it. I had six children and then did college, with two BAs and one Masters. I wanted to teach but it was to late but I am still doing the thing I love, writing.

Funny thing is one of my daughters is doing the same thing. She has six kids, one of them married and about to make my daughter a grandmother before she is forty, and me a great grandmother. My daughter is working on a BA.

I like a lot about Palin and like that she is pro-life. But I agree with you a lot of this, the way she has made her journey has to do with a different viewpoint about how things are done. However, I am not sure the dates, 40's, have anything to do with it, I was born in 41.
Anyway thanks for an interesting post and something new to think about.

Liz said...

I appreciated this post because it touches on some issues I've thought about a great deal. I've had a successful career and raised two children with my husband, but my career trajectory has been anything but linear. I finished my master's degree four months before Chris was born and stayed home with him for two years because my husband was traveling for long periods of time and we lived in a rural area without a lot of support. We moved to the city and I worked full time - often taking him to the office with me on weekends as I caught up with paperwork. When Lauren was born, seven years after Chris, I started my own consulting firm and worked a flexible schedule from a home office for nearly 10 years. Three years ago, when she was in high school, I went back to work full-time. I was ready for a bigger challenge and she was ready for more independence.

I think of myself as a middle generation of feminist. Many of my older role models during my career have been women who felt like they had to choose between family and career or play the man's game by men's rules. Many women of my daughter's age/generation don't see gender as a career-related issue at all - they expect to be judged on their capabilities and expect to be able to create whatever career & family family life they want - no questions asked. I was born in 1959, so raised in the 60's & 70's. I've been able to create the life I want, but there have been trade-offs in compensation or advancement at times. It's been a continual process of (as you say) seizing opportunities as they come up and exercising creative problem solving along the way.

I was really dismayed by the outcry of "how can she be a good mother and a good governor?" when Sarah Palin was nominated and the accompanying assumption that she must be bad at one or the other. I had hoped we were way past that discussion.

Diane said...

Viola and Elizabeth,

Thanks for responding. I love hearing people's stories. Viola, I visited your blog and hope to be able to spend more time there! Elizabeth, I couldn't get to yours if you've got one.

Viola, my whole "good girl" age range is entirely ancedotal, and I'm sure not representative. But maybe you are sassier because you were born earlier and partially grew up before the 50s conformity fully took hold! Elizabeth, you and I are very close in age and like you, I absolutely feel like a middle-generation feminist. I spent my childhood in the 1960s imbibing the rigid 1950s stereotypes, then saw them increasingly dismantled during adolescence. And had a generation ahead of me doing the initial hard work.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Thanks for your take here. Quite interesting. Sarah Palin was here in GR this evening. I caught some of her and McCain on tv for a townhouse meeting. She is a go getter and opportunist for sure. She probably resonates more with a generation like that. So it will be interesting to see what votes she pulls, if they're able to measure that.

Bill Samuel said...

A very insightful post. It's interesting to see the reactions of the more Hilary model feminists. Some of them are mad as hell at Sarah (I even saw one's commentary that argued you must choose between having children and success in the world, and angry at Palin for refusing to choose between those), and others admit a certain level of admiration while they don't like her politics. Hilary and Sarah have been quite respectful to one another. That may be politically advantageous, but I think there is something deeper going on. I think they do see each other as sisters, and the mutual respect is genuine.