Lipstick on America's politcal (dog) collar


Sarah PalinThe American presidential campaign gives us much to reflect on. The faces of three very different women show us a lot about modern political discourse.

Hillary Clinton stands out. Once she became a qualified presidential candidate, rather than the humiliated wife of a president, she was cut off at the knees. Even a black man was preferable to a middle-aged woman wearing a beige pant-suit who reminded too many men of their mothers.

She must have expected sexism: it had happened before. When first-term President Clinton appointed 'my wife' to do a serious job, reforming the health care system, neither the media nor the self-appointed elites were willing to make the best use, or any use, of the proffered 'two for the price of one'.

By the end of 1994, Hillary Clinton had been sidelined by her husband's own administration. She wrote in her memoirs, 'I underestimated the resistance I would meet as a First Lady with a policy mission'.

Too punchy, too confident, too ambitious, too female — because being seen to have real power and authority, as a woman, invokes the Furies. Her failure 14 years ago led to her becoming a 'lightning rod for political and ideological battles ... and a magnet for feelings ... about women's choices and roles'.

Once wronged by her man, sympathy kicked in, and turned off again when she sought to lead in her own right.

Michelle Obama, on the other hand, enjoyed a short honeymoon as a beautiful, sassy, smart and loyal presidential aspirant's 'first wife'. But once Hillary was scuttled, and once the Democrats rallied behind her husband's campaign, the same media that lauded Obama's poise and style confected 'offence' at her comment  that she was "for the first time in my life proud of my country'.

As a future great man's intimate and domestic support at the Democratic Convention, Michelle was safely bookmarked.

Then John McCain anointed a former beauty queen and 'hockey mom' with negligible political experience, fundamentalist religious and right-wing political opinions (pro-Iraq, killing moose with machine guns, drilling tundra parklands for a few years more oil, but anti-choice — did her pregnant 17-year-old really have one?) as his vice-presidential nominee.

This small-town 'beauty queen' in her 40s, with big hair, great legs, short skirts and killer heels, delivered a strikingly well-written speech to the Republican Convention in which she ad-libbed only once: that the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull terrier is — boom-boom — 'lipstick'.

I support all women who aspire to politicking as women, rather than honorary blokes, and say no more about Sarah Palin, but have much more to say about her leader, McCain. He is no feminist. He said teenager Chelsea Clinton was 'so ugly' because 'Janet Reno is her father'.

According to The Real McCain, by Cliff Schechter, this crude bully went further in front of three reporters in Arizona: '[I]n his 1992 Senate bid, McCain was joined on the campaign trail by his wife, Cindy, as well as campaign aide Doug Cole and consultant Wes Gullett. At one point, Cindy playfully twirled McCain's hair and said, "You're getting a little thin up there." McCain's face reddened, and he responded, "At least I don't plaster on the makeup like a trollop, you c***." McCain's excuse was that it had been a long day. If elected president of the United States, McCain would have many long days.'

Hillary, Sarah, Michelle and Cindy (note, women are immediately recognisable by their given names, men by the patronymic) and 'Condi', too — all fill political roles. In modern western politics, such women are acceptable if they look 'youthful', wear plenty of makeup, never look tired, occupy subsidiary political roles (political 'wife', trophy 'vice president', presidential gofer) and are firmly attached to powerful men to whose authority they defer.

An 'old' political woman (50 plus — political men still apparently 'get heat' in their 70s), experienced in formal executive authority, in her own right, is acceptable only in a subordinate role, 'attached', and therefore safely feminine.

The big Western representative democracies seem unready for a Golda Meir. For a time, women like Imelda Marcos, Corazin Aquino, Eva Peron and Benazir Bhutto — women within powerful men's hierarchies — may rise, but can never be even honorary men.

And as to the honourable man who uses his women as props, perhaps paraphrasing both the man himself as well as Barack Obama, you can wipe the lipstick off a pig, but he's still a pig.

Q. 'In a world without women, what would men become?'

A (Mark Twain) 'Scarce, sir. Mighty scarce.'

Moira RaynerMoira Rayner is a barrister and writer. She is a former Equal Opportunity and HREOC Commissioner. She is principal of Moira Rayner and Associates.

Topic tags: moira rayner, michelle obama, sarah palin, hilary clinton, lipstick on a pitbull



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Existing comments

I agree with a lot of what you have said, but I think sexism is just one tool in the power-hungry polly's arsenal. They want power and will use every weapon they can legally (and sometimes illigally) employ. I don't believe they intend to offend, in fact, that would be counter-productive. Sexism is rife in politics, it is just that it is usually more subtle, and perhaps more effective as a result.
david akenson | 18 September 2008

You've said it like it is and what a poorer world we are for this state of affairs.

How can it be after so long that things haven't changed just become more vicious as women state their intentions .. little wonder the world is in the state its in!
Judy | 18 September 2008

Another fantastic piece from Moira Rayner - hitting the nail on the head and hammering it in!
nick agocs | 18 September 2008

Ms Rayner's piece carefully omits any mention of the one female politician who most spectacularly disproves her theory. What a pity for her that Margaret Thatcher was a conservative.
Ignatius Smyth | 19 September 2008

it's harder for women. but i have high hopes that Tsipi Livni, having been elected leader of the major government party Kadima, will soon become israel's ruling coalition prime minister. She may become a truly great peacemaking prime minister. we have strong women politicians in australia who gained real political power and public standing in their own right - julie bishop, julia gillard, maxine mckew ... we need more of them.
tony kevin | 19 September 2008

Ignatius Smith, if such be thy glorious name, with all the discernment at which it hints, may I point out that Mrs Thatcher married Denis the extraordinarily well-connected, self-effacing but active multimillionaire, through whose benefits she conducted her successful political career - as, indeed, a great queen did, once - as though she had "the heart and stomach of a king" (in other words, as and using the conversational rituals of aristocratic men. By whom she was ditched to her distress after she became their mother's age and doom approached ... the exception proves the rule, I think.
Moira Rayner | 23 September 2008

Of course, Ms Rayner could be right. Hilary's "failure" - if coming within a whisker of winning the Democratic nomination can be considered such - despite her marriage to Bill (not at all well connected) is evidence of a sexist polity. Thatcher's success is likewise evidence of a sexist polity: she would never have won all those elections without Denis. I guess if you close your eyes, stick one's fingers in one's ears, and say it often enough, it might feel true.
Ignatius Smyth | 24 September 2008

PS. I thought Clinton should have won the democratic nomination. In my view, she was the more impressive and credible candidate, and this assessment had nothing to do with her gender. From what Ms Rayner has written, clearly she also was hoping Clinton would win, so we have that in common.
Ignatius Smyth | 24 September 2008

What US is doing in the tribal belt of Pakhtoons is totally against the human rights values, UN charter, and norms of World Community.

XYZ | 25 September 2008

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