The irony of the U.S. presidential campaign is that the first woman nominee stands for regressive feminist opinion and her male rivals counter it.

Senator Hillary Clinton was interrupted, in one of her final campaign speeches before the New Hampshire primary, by two men standing up in the crowd, screaming, “Iron my shirt!” To which she paused, smiled and replied, “Ah! The remnants of sexism — alive and well, I see” to thunderous applause.

It was later found that the two men were deliberately stirring things up a bit to earn mileage for the Boston radio station they worked for but since then, the nomination of Governer Sarah Palin as the Republican candidate for Vice-President has brought up a whole slew of questions into the discourse.

Stereotypical gaze

Fashion has entered the political stage as a strong metaphor in addition to major themes that agitate the feminist mind like abortion, violence against women and constructs like “John Wayne masculinity and Doris Day femininity”. What it proves, however, is that a woman candidate is always seen as a woman with ‘womanly’ responsibilities and concerns as fixed by patriarchy. The male gaze over a female candidate rests on the external and the stereotypical even in the 21st century when it wants to be critical and/or derogatory.

Sen. Barack Obama, said of McCain painting himself as an agent of change, “You know, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig…” “You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change,” Obama continued, “it’s still gonna stink after eight years. We’ve had enough of the same old thing! It’s time to bring about real change to Washington. And that’s the choice you’ve got in this election.”

The McCain campaign called Obama’s comments “disgraceful” and demanded an apology. The campaign added that Obama, in addition to calling Palin a pig, might have also been calling John McCain a fish, which, of course, would also require an apology.

The zoological exuberance of this presidential campaign features remarks that are banal and prosaic to a boring degree but their interpretation exposes sexism as a useful weapon in the hands of those lacking better arms to fight with. Columnist Kevin Rennie wrote in the Hartford Courant that Palin’s critics “finally found something they wanted to drill for. Sweet crude vitriol gushed.”

“Cosmetics saleswoman at Macy’s”, “Veep in go-go boots”, “Shrill mouse-hunting Mom” and “Cocky whaco” are some of the epithets that have greeted her emergence on the scene and her unpopular views on many subjects directly affecting women led a group of Anchorage activists to organise a “reject Palin” rally.

A BBC rep seriously asked whether a mother of five could fulfil vice-presidential duties. She’s been called a five-day wonder and comments like VPs don’t decide elections and she’s “too dangerous a foe” present the wide spectrum in views between extremes in attitudes to this Hockey Mom from “unbaked Alaska”. But 37 million — a number similar to Barack Obama’s — watched her acceptance speech at least to appease their curiosity about this stranger from the Arctic, geographically and in their mental landscapes.

Susan Fauldi, the Pulitzer-winning journalist and author of Backlash: The Undeclared War on Women, has an interesting theory in her NYT article — that there are ‘political umpires’ who make the rules and never get hit and ‘participants’ like Hillary Clinton who ran all risks by transferring herself from refree (“so privileged that they don’t need to fight” — the “purse-lipped killjoy who passes straight-laced judgment on feral boy fun…”) to combatant on the field. In any case, in the present instance, who the literal straight-faced judge is self-evident apart from the metaphorical connotations. That Hillary and Palin are both middle=umpire class adds ballast to the argument.

Palin’s viewpoint

Sarah Palin sees her call to nation-leading as “a mission” and is a staunch anti-abortionist, against sex education in schools and all for abstinence and strictly against gay marriage. She wants “intelligent design”/anti-evolutionary creativism taught in schools and so the list goes on prompting some tongue-in-cheek facts called LKF (little known facts) on the Palinfacts website: “Sarah Palin’s suit is made from 100 per cent dead liberal skin. SP believes in change too. She takes it from your pocket after striking you dead. SP can divide by zero. She’s good at Math! SP has actually travelled backwards in time from after the rollcall to accept the nomination retroactively.”

A blogger sees a strong resemblance between Princess Diana and Palin in their inexperience which could be moulded into the job, their love of office and their instant acceptance when the avenue leading to it opened before them. At the end of his blog, he wonders whether “we’d vote in haste and repent at leisure”, inviting another blogger to reply “we’d be repenting not at leisure but in agony, gnashing our teeth and wailing pathetically to the God who delivered Sarah Palin on to our national election.” But the latter quickly moves on to say that the matter is far too serious and he would “dispense with the fantastic speculation of future regret”.

Inexperience plus incompetence giving them another eight years, possibly 16, years of a female George W. Bush IS a frightening prospect but all those who argue that her rightful place is “obscurity in the arctic” without dealing with her as a human being looking for a leader’s job and rating her chances based on her capacity to be an international leader in trying times are being unfair to her. One paper went so low as to demand a test of her amniotic fluid to determine who the mother of her youngest child, Trig, was.

Katherine Mangu-Ward, Associate Editor of Reason Magzine, suggests that Palin subverts all that KMW learnt at her feminist mother’s knee “about seeing female humans as more than just uterus-bearing beings”.

Gloria Steinem, writing in the Los Angeles Times, regrets the fact that voters should see her as incapable of doing the job because she has children who need her care, especially if they won’t say that of her father, but sanely cautions voters that “to vote in protest for McCain-Palin would be like saying ‘somebody stole my shoes, so I’ll amputate my legs”. Palin’s value is to the patriarchs, she continues, who “finally have support on a national stage from male leaders who know that women can’t be equal outside the home until men are equal in it. Barack Obama and Joe Biden are campaigning on their belief that me should be, can be and want to be at home for their children.”

If true, that is the final irony of this campaign — that ultimately the first woman nominee stands for regressive feminist opinion and her male rivals counter it.