The XX Factor

The GOP’s Woman Problem

Steve Kornacki’s analysis of the trap that Mitt Romney could step into if he has to run against Sarah Palin in the primary struck me as interesting, if a little unfair in singling out Romney as having specific “woman problems.” Kornacki’s not wrong to suggest that there’s political danger with Romney’s history of running up against female contenders and then coming off as less than a gentleman. I just don’t see how it’s really different for any male GOP politicians who are competing with female candidates. The Republicans have made anti-feminism their party platform and turned exalting a sexist kind of masculinity into one of their main rhetorical strategies. Simply dropping that because there’s a female candidate in the mix is too much to ask. Without a caddish disregard for women’s intelligence and right to real equality, there’s really not much that male candidates can run on, especially against female candidates.

This is why I’m skeptical of all the enthusiasm for this supposed surge behind Republican women. Never mind that women are far better represented on the Democratic side (though still falling well short of where they should be). The biggest problem for Republican women is Republican men.

Being a female conservative is about attaining power without threatening male authority. Sarah Palin’s popularity owes much to her ability to navigate these demands on a national scale, by not competing directly with men and by making it very clear to the base that she doesn’t make many decisions without running them by her husband first. She’s made being powerful while still playing the feminine role an art form. For instance, watch her interview with Bill O’Reilly . His tone is that of someone speaking to a child and his questions all have the answers he wants built into them, as if he’s a school teacher who doesn’t expect his particularly slow student to be able to handle more than yes-or-no questions. But she never indicates anything but sheer delight at being spoken to in this way. No wonder she has the ability to enchant so many men who long for an older America where condescending to women was just what you did, and no one called you sexist for it.

Palin’s fine in her role as the leader of the Ladies’ Auxiliary, and she’s even fine competing against Democratic men, whom her base has no respect for anyway. But the thin line she walks between traditional femininity and the demands on a politician will disappear if she starts having to take on men in her own party. If Palin is smart, she’ll just avoid the whole trap of running for president altogether, and instead use her fund-raising and speech-making talents in service of other politicians. As long as she doesn’t step out of the service-oriented female role, she’ll probably continue to be the golden girl of the GOP.

Photograph of Sarah Palin by Chris Hondros/Getty Images.