Palin Without Lipstick

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The New York Sun

“A man would seem a coward if he had the courage of a woman, and a woman would seem garrulous if she had the temperance of a good man.”

As men and women go, “his task is to acquire property and hers to preserve it.”

That’s Aristotle in “Politics.” We understand that the reason such a prodigy could breezily toss off such stuff is because he lived in antiquity.

I thought. But here we are talking about Sarah Palin in terms that are not as far from Aristotle as we might think.

I recently caught another “Politics,” a talkie of 1931 with the grand old actress Marie Dressler. She was large, homely and only became a film star as she was rounding 60. But she had a remarkable warmth and great humor, such that for a few years before her death in 1934 she was America’s favorite movie star.

She’s always been one of mine, so I was happy to catch one of her least shown films. The plot of “Politics” has Dressler as a humble widow swept up into being elected town mayor.

Yet again and again, the scriptwriters had Dressler hesitating to step up, despite being one of the most sensible and beloved people in town. “Oh, I can’t be mayor … I gotta tend to my preserves!” Today it comes off almost as unworthy of the character and by extension, Dressler, with her magnificent presence.

But it was 1931. Women had only had the vote for 11 years, and “The Feminine Mystique” was three decades in the future. The writers were clearly worried that if a woman, even a mature one played by the beloved Marie Dressler, seemed too eager to wield power, she would seem not to know her place. Her character’s best friend is running for mayor from the beginning, but she’s a buffoon trailed by a stuttering husband who wants her to stay home and darn his socks.

As antique as Aristotle? Then what’s this “hockey Mom” business?

Sarah Palin is the governor of a state. Yet we are supposed to keep front and center that she is a “hockey Mom,” a term with a redolence of gym shoes and bag lunches.

There is no set term “soccer Dad” or “hockey Dad” — or if there were, they would refer to the Dad playing the sports himself. Of course, there’s a reason, and it’s not just that men are more immediately associated with athletics. It’s because even in our supposedly post-feminist society, women are much more likely to be the ones staying home with the kids, or working part-time in order to be available for ferrying duties.

This is something we muse about with a certain regret. And yet Sarah Palin’s exemplifying it is being marketed as a selling point — as if on some level there’s still something sweet and true about a Mom driving her kids to hockey practice while hubby is forging a career at the office.

Or — let’s say that her husband was doing his half of the ferrying and the idea is just to show that Mrs. Palin always kept one foot in Mommyhood. What is even this saying? That however far she rose, she has always kept a foot in the humble position of a household servant.

And if you want to call that a harmless quest to make her seem “approachable,” then try thinking about a male candidate stressing his parenting skills as a marketing point. We know male candidates have kids, but we are much less interested in hearing about them. Mitt Romney’s penchant for highlighting his brood of sons even came off as a little icky.

In 2008, a significant portion of our electorate are apparently still caught up in a sense that an accomplished woman is only okay if she is also thinking about her preserves.

My mother was the kind of person who could plausibly have been swept up to become a town mayor. I cringe at the notion of her, with her two jobs and doctorate, making speeches reminding voters that she was, at heart, a Mom.

She did happen to make great preserves herself. But those little jars were not who or what she was, nor was the fact that she drove me and my sister to school.

Aristotle, across more than two millennia, urges us to realize ourselves to our ultimate capability, conceiving of virtue and happiness as lifelong efforts rather than as idle sensations. Lovely — except that to him, a woman’s ultimate capability was as household chattel.

In all of his wisdom, Aristotle would have nodded with ominous vigor at this “I’m just a hockey Mom” business. And I’m not sure how much solace I take in the notion that without lipstick, the chattel in question would be an angry little dog.

Mr. McWhorter is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

The New York Sun

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