So Sarah Palin’s not running. She broke the news on her own inimitable terms, not with a press conference but through a written statement and a radio appearance, near the end of the day’s news cycle. “Not being a candidate, really, you’re unshackled and you’re allowed to be even more active,” she told radio host Mark Levin. Still, despite her promises to remain unshackled and influential, this is surely the end of the Palin reign; without the possibility of a presidential run in her near future, she won’t be commanding nearly as much media attention.
But even if you’re one of the many who feel grateful at the prospect of hearing less from a certain woman from Wasilla, it’s worth considering what we might owe Palin. Politics aside (a big aside, but let’s shelve them for the moment), Palin has excelled spectacularly at one thing that American women should feel grateful for: She is an exceedingly talented self-promoter. This is a big deal, because self-promotion is something that American women have historically been bad at, and they pay for that shortcoming in everything from mediocre salaries to thwarted ambitions.
Ever since the newly anointed vice-presidential candidate introduced herself to the nation three years ago by mocking Barack Obama’s lack of experience–"I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities”–a question has lingered in Sarah Palin’s wake. Who does she think she is? Never mind that Palin’s own lack of political experience was a liability for John McCain. She has rarely underestimated her own potential. Last month, the former Alaska governor corrected Sean Hannity for leaving her off the list of most viable GOP candidates, saying some polls showed her in the top three. She told another interviewer that although she could win the presidency, it might be too limiting. In her statement Wednesday, Palin suggested she could have just as much power without a “title,” effectively arguing for herself as a kind of national organizer, albeit without actual responsibilities.
Even when her logic is frustrating, even when she contradicts herself, Palin’s unselfconscious brashness is a good thing for women because it is so needed and so exceptional. There are simply not enough women willing to tout their own greatness, to correct hosts who underestimate their popularity, to predict that, yes indeed, they could be elected president. This is in great part because women expect to be punished for anything that smacks of self-promotion. In Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives, psychiatrist Anna Fels compiles a disheartening litany of quotes from successful women undervaluing their own achievements. Prominent architect Laurinda Spear describes herself as a “totally bumbling person.” Maya Lin says she’s lucky she’s so small because it means people don’t see her. Women interviewing for professorships at Harvard Law School routinely couch their responses in apologies.
“Conveying their strengths and attainments to others is so far from the expected female style of self-effacement that women experience it as ‘bragging,’ ” Fels writes. She points out that females are denied recognition starting as early as preschool, when studies show that boys get more attention, more direction, and more “physical and verbal rewards.” Science journalist Shankar Vedantam describes this extra credit given to men as the “invisible current” pushing boys toward the shore, persuading them that they are faster, stronger. Is it any wonder, then, that so many women internalize the notion that recognition does not rightly belong to them, that it their destiny to listen and nod and admire? Is it any wonder that they don’t ask for raises while their male counterparts do? A few years ago, Nicholas Kristof summed up the research on how people view ambitious women, pointing out that identical speeches are rated higher when they are believed to come from men: “A woman can be perceived as competent or as likable, but not both.”
There will always be notable exceptions to the unspoken rules that discourage female self-promotion, particularly in the field of entertainment. But in politics, which combines a conservative atmosphere with the job requirement of an inflated ego, the challenge for women is particularly acute. Earlier this year, a University of Chicago political scientist found that female members of Congress sponsor more legislation and bring home more federal projects than do their male counterparts. Why? Christopher Berry speculated that only an elite group possessed of uncommon talent and ambition are able to push through the biases against women running for office.
And even those select women who do run are not immune to limiting expectations. Pat Schroeder has said her entry into politics started as a joke, until “we realized it wasn't so absurd.” Barbara Boxer was described as arrogant last year by her female opponent, Carly Fiorina, for asking to be called “senator” instead of “ma’am.” And it’s no coincidence that Hillary Clinton, whose ambition is routinely lampooned, has garnered the most sympathy during moments of vulnerability—those slight tears in New Hampshire during 2008; the marital humiliations care of Bill; the pushy tactics of her Senate race opponent, Rick Lazio, during a 2000 debate—not during moments of brazenness.
In the face of all this, Palin’s public proclamations of self-confidence have been pretty remarkable. “You know, I do go rogue and I call it like I see it,” she told Greta Van Susteren last month. “I don't mind stirring it up in order to get people to think and debate aggressively, and to find solutions to the problems that our country is facing.” Whether or not she has the goods to back any of this up is in some sense beyond the point. Palin may not realize it, but her real legacy lies elsewhere: She has expanded the palette of permissible behavior for political women, hopefully for good.