And now, ladies and gentlemen, before the convention season comes to a close, let us pause a moment and suspend our partisan impulses. It is time to sing the praises of 44-year-old women. Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, from Alaska or Chicago, rural or urban, moose-hunting or gun-controlling, surely you can see that Sarah Palin and Michelle Obama, two of the stars of this year’s political conventions, have a few important things in common.
For one, both were born in 1964, putting them at the very tail end of the baby boom—so far at the end, in fact, that neither would have felt themselves to be part of the baby boom at all. Both missed the ‘60s, grew up in the gloomier ‘70s, went to college and then to work in the Reaganite ‘80s. I am convinced, in fact, that Michelle’s signature chunky pearls derive from that era: They were the height of fashion back in the late ‘80s when she got her first law-firm job, as I happen to remember, and she’s probably been wearing them ever since.
More important—for the purposes of this otherwise unlikely comparison between two women who probably don’t agree about anything at all—both of them belong to the first post-feminist generation. By the time they got to college, whether Princeton or the University of Idaho, it was no longer remotely unusual for women to be there. The path-breakers—the lone female students in the law-school class or the science lab—had already graduated, moved on, and were professors themselves.
Despite their larger numbers, it was nevertheless quite common, at that particular moment in history, for women to go on thinking of themselves as victims, and some chose to do so, encouraged by the reigning feminist ethos of the time. Though Palin, at the time gunning for the Miss Alaska title, appears to have resisted this urge, Obama, who was a black woman at a historically white male university, may have been briefly tempted—at least if her infamous Princeton thesis, which concerned Princeton and race, is anything to go by.
But—at least judging by her speech at the Democratic Convention last week—she got over it. I realize that this presentation was carefully crafted, with the assistance of a dozen advisers and spin doctors. Still, the story it told was important: Here is a woman who actually chose to present herself as simultaneously intelligent, ambitious, and maternal, eschewing both the Laura Bush/Cindy McCain “traditional first lady” stereotype (the “shadow in pearls,” in the words of blogger Danielle Crittenden) and the Hillary Clinton “I don’t bake cookies” stereotype. I have no idea if she’s actually a sincere or nice person—most people running for national office aren’t nice, so why should their wives be?—but that isn’t the point. The point is that she took the cards that were handed to her generation and played them beautifully. She’s not a victim, and she didn’t present herself that way.
Yet Palin is a woman who also confounds all the stereotypes. Leave the politics out of it for a minute and look objectively: Here is a woman who has managed to raise five children, however chaotically, while becoming one of the most popular governors in the country, shooting some caribou, and picking up some basketball trophies along the way. No less intelligent, ambitious, and maternal than Michelle Obama, equally civic-minded and physically fit, she is the perfect illustration, in the words of Slate “XX Factor” blogger Meghan O’Rourke, of the fact that the notion of a clearly defined, right-left/red-blue cultural war has become deeply misleading, since “the categories aren’t as tidy as they’re made out to be,” especially for women. Is it “right-wing” or “left-wing” that Palin went back to work three days after having a baby? Is it “feminist” or “conservative” to defend one’s daughter’s right to get pregnant before being married? There aren’t good answers, just as it isn’t easy to say whether Michelle Obama’s presentation of herself as both happily married and professionally successful was a “red” or “blue” piece of political theater.
I do realize that Palin is also presenting a carefully crafted package. We are talking, after all, about a woman who has been running for something, whether Miss Wasilla or vice president of the United States, since she was in high school. But it is no accident that this, too, is an image crafted by a woman born in 1964. Here is a prediction: The female political stars of this generation—my generation, as it happens—are going to defy predictions.
And now let the partisan battle continue—and may the best woman win.