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The Exacting Standards for Female Politicians: Sarah Palin’s Torments

July 15, 2009

First off, and for the record, I have never belonged to a political party in Canada, and my voting record has been all over the map. I love following politics, but have more or less remained an objective observer. But what really irritates me is the double set of standards that the media and elements of the public have created for female and male politicians, the latter being perhaps the most ferocious.

Canada has seen its share of ugly events where female politicians have been disproportionately attacked for decisions or statements they have made. Flip the event around to that of a male politician’s behaviour and it would have been ignored by the media or blown over quickly. It would be fascinating, for example, to see how the media, male politicians and the public would have reacted had Eliot Spitzer and Mark Sanford been females. Imagine!

But the worst public beating of a female politician I have observed is the one that Sarah Palin is enduring. I’m no fan of Ms. Palin, and I was personally shocked at John McCain’s poor judgement when he chose her as his Vice-Presidential nominee last fall. Following President Obama’s election, I figured that Ms. Palin would assume a low profile and then rise again to run for the Republican Party’s leadership in 2012. How wrong I was on that account, as were many other commentators. Ms. Palin’s life is now in shambles: she and her husband Todd have accumulated half a million dollars in legal bills; her family is stalked by the paparazzi; opponents continue to attempt to dig up political dirt on her; and her past achievements in working with democratic politicians on Alaskan issues are no longer possible.

No doubt there are some who believe that under her magnificent head of hair lie a set of horns. Sorry folks, but Ms. Palin is a simple, mortal human being who naively got sucked into the maelstrom of American politics. Indeed her ego and limited, parochial view of the world added to her problems. Now that she has resigned as governor of Alaska and poorly articulated what her political plans are, it’s open season once again – but with a vengeance this time.

This week’s The Economist (Lexington) provides a balanced and illuminating look at Sarah Palin and U.S. politics. Noting that a recent Pew poll found that 44% of Americans dislike Palin while 45% like her, with 73% of Republicans approving of her, she has managed to split the United States politically. While Canadian politics has become more combative in recent years, U.S. politics have become a feared blood sport. Witness the confirmation hearing that Sonia Sotomayor is undergoing, replete with accusations in the media of her being a bigot. Does anyone remember the public drubbing that Anita Hill took at a Senate confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in October 1991? By raising the bar for ethical standards for female politicians – or just elevating it because of their gender – it will be decades until women are properly represented in Congress and the Senate. But we, too, have a ways to go north of the border.

The seemingly inexorable slide to bloodsport politics will contribute to declining American competitiveness, and by association its standard of living, as newly emerging economies focus on strenthening their innovative capacities. If the American public does not speak up and insist on changing the tone of politics and demand that female politicians be treated as equals, who will? The media? Male politicians? Don’t count on it. These groups have too much invested in maintaining the status quo. You get what you give.

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