Like none before it, this presidential campaign is redefining what it can mean to be a woman.
That wizened Austrian doctor who famously asked, “What do women want?” finally concluded that he didn’t have a clue. Freud understood, like men before and after him, that women were a mysterious mixture of the good, the bad and the beautiful.
A women was not so long ago measured in categories, determined more by the loves and fears of men than by her own choices. She rarely had a room of her own to probe and measure the nature of her identity.
Women in art and politics reflected the longings and definitions of men. A woman was meant to be a nurturer and healer who softened the harshness of the lives of her family. She had to be tamed and guarded against and protected for the sake of men (and mankind).
Above all, she was different.
Sexual politics before modern feminism was about that difference. Gender politics, by contrast, argued that men imposed the “patriarchy” on women and dismissed the obvious biological differences to examine only sociological and psychological differences imposed by men on women.
Gender politics was about women defining themselves, about making choices for themselves. Contemporary feminism changed personal and public attitudes. The result was better for some women, not so good for others. No matter how things changed, however, we soon harked back to the old sexual politics of difference.
When Geraldine Ferarro, a Democrat, became the first woman vice-presidential candidate, she had to put up with questions about her recipe for blueberry muffins. Ultimately, it was questions about her husband’s business dealings that did her in.
When Bill Clinton first ran for president, he boasted that voters would get Hillary, too. But she soon was resented for her reach for unelected power.
When he betrayed her, she became the victim and rode “wifely vulnerability” into the U.S. Senate. When she came close but fell short of the Democrats’ presidential nomination, feminists cried “sexism” was to blame.
But all that was then. Now, John McCain has chosen Sarah Palin as his running mate. The first woman picked for a Republican ticket hasn’t been asked about her recipes but she joshes that she can make a mean stew of the moose she shot. She speaks movingly of giving birth to a baby she knew was afflicted with Down syndrome.
Then we learned that Bristol Palin, her daughter, 17, is five months pregnant, intends to have the baby and marry the father. Bloggers spread ugly rumors about the governor that were quelled only by the announcement of Bristol’s great expectations.
The Palin family has reignited the Mommy Wars with a vengeance. Can a mother of five, about to be a grandmother of one, have it allâ¢ In the abstract, she’s a feminist’s dream. In the particulars where most of us live, it’s harder to say.
So the wheel of sexual politics turns again. But Sarah Palin’s parents were right: This is America and every woman can walk through every door of opportunity.
Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times.