Palin's Smart Move

Sarah Palin’s shocking choice for the Alaska Supreme Court has some asking if she’s pandering for 2012. Elaine Lafferty, former editor of Ms. magazine, on why we’re underestimating her once again.

Melissa Golden / Rapport Press

Back in October, I visited these pages to offer what I thought was a rather modest posit —the notion that Gov. Sarah Palin was not a complete moron. I suggested, further, that my sister feminists might consider the possibility that the woman was being treated rather harshly by the media in displays of unmistakable sexism, and that we might defend the woman even as we disagreed with her. (And oh the glee when it is a woman who hurts another woman! Brava Katie Couric! Hail Tina Fey!)

What did this mean? Was Palin now pro-choice? Or becoming cynically centrist as she plotted her path for 2012?

This wee proposition earned me—predictably—excommunication from segments of the Feminist Synod, cries of “traitor,” heartfelt suggestions from the blogosphere that were inarguably and imaginatively anatomical and—less predictably—furtive sotto voce communications from some feminists who said, in essence, “You go girl!” (To be fair, there was a smattering of reasoned and friendly disagreement… if two emails constitute a smattering.)

So yesterday morning the BlackBerry started insistently vibrating across the nightstand, and this time it wasn’t the usual overnight Wall Street Journal alert that the Asian markets were collapsing. No, this was bigger. Gov. Sarah Palin had appointed Morgan Christen, a 47-year-old female judge, to the Alaska Supreme Court, only the second woman to be named to such a position in the 50 years of Alaska’s statehood. But wait! Ms. Christen’s appointment had been opposed by the right wing, opposed by the state’s social conservatives, because Christen was a liberal who had served on the board of Planned Parenthood. The Alaska Daily News headline was “ Palin Bucks Pressure in Supreme Court Appointment.”

What did this mean? Was Palin now pro-choice? Or becoming cynically centrist as she plotted her path for 2012? I loved hearing from writer Katha Pollitt, “Cynical and opportunistic is better than a die-hard religious fanatic who sticks to her guns no matter what.”) Or Gloria Feldt, former president of Planned Parenthood, who wondered if we might be “witnessing the education of Sarah Palin” even as she doubted it.

So, of course Sarah Palin is not pro-choice. But she is now, as governor of Alaska, what she was before the presidential campaign: a pragmatic conservative politician who largely governs from the center. She is opposed to abortion, but it does not inform every decision she makes. Done with playing the good soldier for McCain’s right wing on the campaign trail, she is back to being who she is.

Here is the question then: Why do we demonize or worship certain charismatic female politicians, projecting either our most unrealistic hopes on them or our worst fears? Palin got caught in this, and the McCain campaign was clueless even as they watched it happen. This “love her or hate her” business isn’t good for women. It sidelines them as the now-familiar “polarizing figures.” If Hillary Clinton hadn’t had to focus so much on simply not being “polarizing” while she was trying to get her message out, she might be president today.

Gov. Sarah Palin appointed Morgan Christen to the Alaska Supreme Court because she believed Christen was the best person for the job. Feminists should be happy. Next month, Palin will probably do something we don’t like. Either way, she isn’t our nightmare any more than she is our dream come true.

Elaine Lafferty is a former staff correspondent at Time magazine and the Irish Times, features editor at More magazine, and editor in chief of Ms. magazine. She is co-author of My Turn at the Bully Pulpit with Greta Van Susteren.