When Is It Sexism?

In Sarah Palin’s case, it was (sorta). In Caroline Kennedy’s case, it isn’t. Here’s the difference.

Left: AFP/Getty Images; Right: Reuters

What has become of feminism? A fine mess is what it seems to be in: In 2000, New York elected Hillary Rodham Clinton to be its first female senator—and her primary qualification was her previous position as first lady. Now that she’s moving on, Caroline Bouvier Kennedy is likely to replace her—and her primary qualification is her previous position as first daughter.

In the meantime, Gov. Sarah Palin, the only prominent female political figure this year with good liberated bona fides—which is to say, she draws a salary in her own name—went down with Wardrobegate. The GOP will probably never forgive Palin’s cross-country shopping spree. While Sen. John McCain might have been foolish enough to say the fundamentals of the economy were sound, Palin was dumb enough to act like that was true, partying with someone else’s Amex like it was 1999. This is likely to be the final word on Palin’s tombstone: Went shopping, R.I.P. Even stories about her attending campaign meetings in her hotel room—mind you, it was her hotel room—wrapped in nothing but a bath sheet and a hair towel, or tales of her believing that Africa is a country, or the latest news of Bristol’s would-be mother-in-law getting caught with crystal meth will all fade before the fashion bill is paid, psychically if not literally.

Sarah Palin is the sole occupant of the Venn diagram of those smart enough to be governor of Alaska and dumb enough to be vice president.

When people said the Palin-palooza was all just so much sexism, they were only sort of correct: After all, any woman knows it costs us way more just to dry-clean the clothes we already do have than any man would willingly spend on his grooming—John Edwards and his $400 Fekkai notwithstanding. But no one would have cared about those really quite gorgeous Oscar de la Renta suits if it weren’t for the perils of Palin all over the place: She was in over her head, being offered a job she wasn’t ready for by a presidential candidate who had missed his own moment in 2000 and was now in need of some cool Wasilla steam. Despite the misguided decision to include Palin on the ticket, McCain may have done the Republicans a favor: He pushed the party ahead into the future, he imagined the next generation of leadership, and if he had chosen the already acknowledged Gov. Tim Pawlenty or the also-ran Mitt Romney, there would be nothing new out there from that tired old party.

But perhaps the real problem is simply that the women who catch our attention in the policy arena tend to feel like novelty acts, pop idols who came from out of nowhere, who didn’t work the workaday ranks of their male competitors. This is, of course, the precise criticism that’s being leveled at Caroline Kennedy these days, and the dismissive greeting she’s received from so many in the press is being likened to the Palin experience. Now, of course, about the only thing these two women have in common is that they are two women—not nothing in a man’s world—but to say sexism is the issue is an insult to sexism. If Sarah Palin was the sole occupant of the Venn diagram of those smart enough to be governor of Alaska and dumb enough to be vice president, Caroline Kennedy is not even on the chart.

The truth is, Kennedy long ago made choices that so many women make—she opted out of professional life, perhaps to be a mom and perhaps because she could—and now she’s hoping to reenter the commercial world at a level that far surpasses her exiting locale. All women who take time off to mother their children face similar sticker-shock when they decide to work again. Not only have they lost their qualifications by remaining dormant for a stretch, they also find that their earning power is much less than it was when they went into labor. In fact, studies show that there is salary penalty on motherhood: A woman with children will typically earn 10 percent less than any man doing the same job. In the meantime, a man with a stay-at-home wife gets a nice premium—he will usually earn 30 percent more than the husband of a working wife because he has “zero-drag” at home. Just the same, a woman who works a 40-hour week still spends about 86 percent as much time with her children as a nonworking mom—not much of a difference at all—and she is still the primary parent, delegating tasks to the father, who needs a list of instructions before he doles out child care.

A career woman with children works a daily double-shift, which can be both exhausting and demoralizing—and many smart ladies decide it’s just not worth it. This explains how it is that well into the Third Wave of feminism—and despite the visibility of Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman—women are only 16 percent of the corporate executives in this country, 17 percent of the big-firm law partners, and in all, we hold only 8 percent of the white-collar managerial positions. It is, simply, impossible to take a timeout to raise kids and still compete in a man’s world.

Palin, to her credit, understood this. After a couple of days of maternity leave when her special-needs baby was born last year, she was back in Anchorage, running Alaska. Powerful female friends of mine with kids who maintain a high position in a man’s world all did the same thing: brief leave and back to the grinder; they didn’t want office politics and the forward propulsion of time itself—time the avenger—to put them out to pasture. For all the crap talk of “ choice feminism”—whatever the hell that means—we are never going to feminize the world. Women who want to succeed pretty much have to work as long and as hard as men typically do, and that’s that. What does Kennedy know of this hellishness? She hasn’t held a paid position since her children were born, nor did she have a proper job even before that.

Kennedy is entering the political fray under exceptional circumstances: she’s a former first daughter, and her family functions as American royalty. No other women with less blue blood could even attempt to get away with what she seems to in fact be getting away with. This is not sexism; this is reality.

Elizabeth Wurtzel is author of Prozac Nation, Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, and More, Now, Again. She has been popular music critic for The New Yorker and New York, and the film reviewer for Nerve. Her work has been widely anthologized.