Right at this moment, if we were to list the most powerful women in the world, two names from the US and India would surely be on it: Sarah Palin and Mayawati.
They appear a study in contrasts.
Is Sarah Palin like the Indian superwoman, and Mayawati the independent American career woman?
Overnight, vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has become America’s most famous working mother. Palin, the conservative governor of Alaska, brags about firing the governor mansion’s executive chef so she can whip up healthy meals for her own five children. The woman can hunt moose with one hand and pump breastmilk with the other. Her decision to take a business trip while in labour and give a speech has been dubbed “Broken- watergate”. Scrutinized on everything from her expenses to eyeglass frames, Palin Power has become the new phrase for girl power grown up.
And then there’s Mayawati, the Bahujan Samaj Party president and chief minister of Uttar Pradesh — and a nation’s hope that an underclass really will rise. She dons a short haircut but no husband. She wears diamonds and flaunts her wealth. She is not afraid to promote herself with posters everywhere, lavish birthday party celebrations and self-congratulatory press conferences and signs.
She is the epitome of how going “masculine” can help a woman get what she wants. And Palin seemingly represents the opposite, a once beauty queen who dotes on her husband and children.
There’s role reversal going on every which way here. Palin’s Republican Party has always been seen as more conservative when it comes to women’s rights, such as opposing abortion and allegiances to “family values” campaigns. Ironically, in their quest to knock down Palin and presidential candidate John McCain’s chances of getting to Washington, the allegedly broad-minded and liberal Democrats are now the ones asking questions, such as, “Should a mother of five be running for office? How can she be a good mom and politician?”
Public reaction to Palin not rooted in criticism of her politics or track record is something women in the West excel at: Bringing each other down. In a recent New York Times essay, author Hannah Seligson wrote about her shock about being the new girl at work: “...some women, instead of helping a new female colleague, tried to undermine her. Rather than giving ‘the new girl’ the tools to succeed, they might try to sabotage her advancement.”
But let’s come back to the cultural U-turn. Indians are uniting behind a single career woman, while the Americans are questioning if a woman can really do it all? What happened to India being Western feminism’s biggest punching bag, arranged marriage to dowry to widows in white? When did the US forget its many women’s movements, glass ceilings to equal work for equal pay?
How did Palin become the modern Indian superwoman, and Mayawati the stereotypical independent American career woman?
I see Mayawati and Palin’s parallel rises as a shift in the mindset of feminist politics in their respective nations. It is a useful lesson for women here in the midst of rapid change and ungodly expectations — worst of all, from themselves.
Look closer: both have incorporated elements of masculinity into their dealings with the public. They are unapologetic, sarcastic, blunt, aggressive. They are not afraid of who they are. But here’s the main element that I think is resonating with their respective constituencies: They are not the wives or daughters of existing politicians, not perpetuating dynasty. (Americans might point to previous vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro on the Democratic nomination in 1984 but actually, her cousin handed over her first major political gig. Here, we also have Jayalalithaa but picture her ascent without a relationship with chief minister M.G. Ramachandran?)
Both these candidates lack something that perhaps the US and India are ready to shed: legacy. Many in India have often gloated over the democracy’s ability to elect national-level leaders, but Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi got there largely due to patriarchy.
While pundits have made much of Palin trying to steal the women’s vote that would have gone to Hillary Clinton, former president Bill Clinton’s wife who lost to Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama, I suspect another reason women are gravitating towards her is because she has paved her path. She is not touting her husband’s years of experience in office as her own. Mayawati, similarly, brings up every chance she gets to fashion herself as self-made, one of the people. (But her recent gimmick with a secret successor ran counter to the dynasty she mocks.)
And so the world’s two largest democracies see independent, ambitious female politicians eyeing national office. Each has made her own way. Whether you agree or disagree with their politics, that’s worth celebrating indeed.