10.04.09

Should Women Back Palin in 2012?

Obama garnered 56 percent of women’s ballots last fall. And they have precious little to show for it from this administration. Amy Siskind on why Sarah Palin deserves a second look.

As the Senate Finance Committee moves to pass health-care legislation this week, reproductive rights has been all but sidelined as an issue by the Obama administration. Should we therefore be surprised by a stunning Pew Research Center poll last week which revealed that 42 percent of Americans don't know that Obama is pro-choice? Maybe it’s time that women gave Sarah Palin another look. Palin, back in the headlines for rushing out a new book ahead of schedule this fall, is fresh, open-minded, a centrist and a party noncomformist. Hey, sisters in women's advocacy: Let's end the decades-long cold war with Republican women candidates. If we want progress to be made on issues of importance to women, our organizations need to master a skill at which men have always been adept: negotiation.

I am a lifelong Democrat who for the first time in my life voted Republican in the 2008 elections. I did this for one reason: McCain selected a woman as his running mate. For this act, I was accused of having lost part of my mental faculty: Some circa Victorian act of "voting with my uterus." Strange, that. The Democratic women were corralled to vote for Obama in 2008 because of one issue: reproductive rights. In other words, as my friend Cynthia Ruccia observed,  "voting with their uterus."

Sarah Palin did not have a governor's seat handed down to her, she earned it.  She understands what it is to be a woman having to fight obstacles—some overt and others subtle—that only a woman can understand.

Sadly, for women, things haven’t panned out all that well with this administration. Despite receiving 56 percent of women's votes, President Obama's record on women's issues thus far is sparse, and suggests something that he either has a tone-deaf nature—or, if you’re inclined to a more sinister view, that he may be uncomfortable with women.

He surely hasn't surrounded himself with many. Of his 24 Cabinet picks, only six were women. Perhaps even more telling are President Obama's czar picks, which do not require Senate confirmation. Of the 35-40 picks he’s made to date, only three have been women. That’s less than 10 percent.

There were harbingers of the Pew poll results—starting on Day One with Rick Warren, Obama’s choice to deliver his inaugural invocation. There was also the selection of Alexia Kelley, founder of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good to a major Department of Health and Human Services post. And there’s what Obama didn’t say in his health-care speech.

Also ignored in the health-care bills circulating are important women's issues such as gender-based pricing and domestic violence as a pre-existing condition. The advocate for these issues could have been Valerie Jarrett, who chairs the White House Council on Women and Girls. When President Obama selected Jarrett in March, I wrote an op-ed for The Daily Beast in which I argued that we should give Jarrett a chance, even though she has a scant record on women's issues. I received a lot of critical emails and blog traffic; mea culpa, my critics were right and I was wrong. Shortly after her selection, Jarrett took leave to focus on Chicago hosting the 2016 Olympics.

Indeed, since the glorious day on which President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act back in January (which was ushered through the Senate and House by women before it reached his desk), I'm hard-pressed to come up with much other action he’s undertaken to benefit women. Other than hosting the NCAA Champion U-Conn. women's basketball team at the White House.

Here's the difference: Sarah Palin played women's basketball. That's how she got the nickname "Sarah Barracuda."  And she’s had to maintain that same toughness and sensibility as she entered the world of politics—which is, after all, no less a contact sport.

For as we see time and time again, there is a double standard. A 2008 Brown University ">details the role that gender bias and sexism play for women in politics. Recall the initial objections to Sonia Sotomayor—that she was not bright enough to serve on the Supreme Court, where she begins service as an associate justice Monday. Recall that Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, the leading contender in the race to replace the late Edward M. Kennedy in the Senate, has had to endure questioning about her merit. And remember that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was accused of becoming a presidential candidate only because of her husband's affair.

Here's what we know: Sarah Palin did not have a governor's seat handed down to her, she earned it. She understands what it is to be a woman having to fight obstacles—some overt and others subtle—that only a woman can understand.

I know I'll hear from critics who claim that Palin would not share my policy views. But what makes them so sure? As governor of Alaska, didn't Sarah Palin appoint Justice Morgan Christen, who is pro-choice and a former board member of Planned Parenthood, to become Alaska's second female Supreme Court justice?  Granted, it’s only 2009, and we are three years away from the next presidential election. But doesn’t that give us ample time to open a dialogue and explain why women's issues are so important to our country's future?

Secretary of State Clinton has become a beacon of hope for women around the world in reducing violence against women and girls. Why couldn't Palin do the same for women in the U.S.?  After all, don't the vast majority of women's issues impact all women, regardless of political party?

As president of The New Agenda, I'll be the first to raise my hand, and ask Palin to address two important issues: First, what will you do to increase representation of women in government: starting with your own administration if elected? And second, what concrete steps would you take to reduce violence against women and escalating teen dating violence?

Let the negotiations over the 2012 campaign—and the battle for women’s loyalties—begin!

Amy Siskind is the president and co-founder of The New Agenda, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls. Ms. Siskind has appeared on CNN, Fox, and PBS. Ms. Siskind also writes for HuffPo and MORE.