Last week, CNN reporter Campbell Brown called on Republicans to stop being sexist and expose Sarah Palin to the media for open questioning. What Campbell is calling sexism is the benefit of protection that docile white women receive from white men for performing their gender. Unlike Hillary Clinton, who stood firmly for women’s rights and was clearly an autonomous being, Palin stands for regressive policies that remove agency from women, thus affirming patriarchy.
Prior to the introduction of black women to America, white women were openly despised. In the theocratic culture women were blamed for the sins of man. It was the black female slave that resulted in the elevation of white womanhood, by allowing for another level of hierarchy. As long as white women supported white men, their lot in life was improved.
With the suffragette movement white women were again attacked by white men. The desire to vote and have a say in how the country was run was deemed threatening to patriarchy. They were called harridans, their femininity was questioned, and they were socially maligned.
Each time white women seek to achieve social equality with white men they are subject to slut-shaming and social discipline. As long as they are willing to accept their place in the social hierarchy, which is solidly beneath white male headship they are “protected” beings. This fragile wilting flower exists to uphold white male hegemony.
It may seem that Palin is thwarting the delicate flower ideology because she is seeking a position of power; however what must be understood is that her power is clearly subject to male control, whereas Clinton was seeking control in her own right.
It’s obvious by now that Palin’s job is to say what McCain tells her to say. Palin, in her role as VP, would simply be following the orders of John McCain, promoting his agenda and ideas just as women have been asked to do since patriarchy first asserted its right to rule. The tight control over her contact with the press makes this clear.
The idea that Palin is delicate and must be handled with kid gloves is sexist because it supports patriarchy, but it is also racist because women of colour are not accorded the same courtesy. If we examine the time of slavery where the wilting flower ideology in the United States began, it is clear that the category of ‘womanhood’ was strictly the preserve of white women. Black women were expected to work in the fields alongside black men, and no lenience was accorded in terms of their production based in gender difference.
Unless the master was raping the black female slave, or purposefully breeding her to increase his slave holdings, she existed on the same plain as black men, she was subhuman. Today the social construction of black women as the ultimate anti-woman is still very much in place, and it is maintained in part by women like Palin, who continue to support the binary division of women based in race by playing the wilting flower.
The anti-woman/wilting flower binary are dependent upon each other: when white women refuse to support the hierarchy they are also subverting the idea that women of color are not women. The anti-woman is constructed as such because she labours as hard as a man and is not allowed to fall back on her sex as protection. She further completes her tasks because she knows that she can, and thus develops a sense of resolve that is not based on needing the comfort of protection, the protection that Palin is presently afforded by the McCain campaign.
It is the wilting flower ideology that causes pundits to warn Biden that he must be careful when he debates Palin. A white man attacking a white woman who subscribes to the idea of a gender hierarchy is subverting patriarchy. If Biden voraciously attacks her suppositions, or validates her as a thinking being, he would be treating her as an equal.
Patriarchy does not seek a partnership with women to advance equality; instead it seeks to use women to maintain the sexist white supremacist state. Though the GOP refers to Palin as yet another crack in the glass ceiling, Palin is really a support beam for that ceiling by her willingness to play a secondary role to a white male who has repeatedly affirmed his race and gender privilege.
Palin’s body and its treatment continues to reify social constructions of femininity based in race and gender. Her attempt to become VP is not progressive, nor should it be considered a step up for women. It is in fact regressive.
Until such time as she is treated the same as male candidates, or even the same as black female candidates, she will continue to symbolize the “othering” of all women and bodies of color.
The social discipline of women in the election did not end with the exit of Clinton; it simply evolved to a form that we don’t openly recognize as sexist and racist very often because of its social normalization. “I am woman hear me roar” still needs to be internalized as a true belief because it supports the idea femininity need not give quarter to patriarchy and racism to alight the path to real power, something that Palin cannot claim to have.