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Commentary: Is Sarah Palin a victim of sexism? Not in the way you might think

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: October 6, 2008 - From the presidential primaries to the general election campaign, the issue of gender has been placed front and center. The campaigns of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Democrat, and Gov. Sarah Palin, a Republican, raised -- and continue to raise -- the question: Can a woman be elected president or vice president?

Certainly some would vote against a woman under any circumstances, but how large that number might be is open to question. Both the Clinton and the McCain-Palin campaigns have leveled charges of sexism against opponents and against the media. Still, while Clinton experienced condescension at times, it was very rare to find anyone in the mainstream who questioned her intellect, her experience and her deep grasp of the issues.

Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee, presents a very different side of the equation. Although known on the Republican right, she was unknown to the rest of America when John McCain picked her to be his running mate. Unable to have his first choice, Connecticut's independent and former Democrat, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, McCain turned to Palin, seemingly at the last minute. A strong social conservative, Palin came from the last frontier state, Alaska. Her upbringing there alone would make her different from many Americans. Under the spotlight at the Republican national convention, she showed she could deliver a speech with aplomb. Many Republicans reacted to her candidacy with joy.

However, questions began to arise about her experience. She had held statewide office for only 18 months when she was selected and had little experience with most domestic and international issues. She began extensive tutoring from McCain's aides and experts. That she gave an immediate bump to McCain at the polls is clear and perhaps what he intended. He shook up the race by selecting her. The big question remains: Why didn't McCain select a more experienced Republican woman as his running mate?

Sarah Palin's perceived defects began to surface in one-on-one interviews. Answering a question about foreign policy experience, she said you could see Russia from Alaska. Her third interview with Katie Couric of CBS was the weakest. She seemed unable to answer a simple question about what news publications she reads. Some conservative columnists began to lament her selection, and Kathleen Parker called for her removal from the ticket.

The stage was set for her debate last week with the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Joe Biden. By that time, everyone from political commentators to late night talk show hosts had commented on her perceived deficiencies. On MSNBC before the debate, Howard Fineman of Newsweek said, "Most of the people in this room will be surprised if she utters a coherent sentence." Is this sexism or a reflection of her past performance?

Given the interviews leading up to the debate, Palin was quite impressive. Yet David Gregory of NBC said she stuck to her talking points and only answered the questions she wanted to answer. She was certainly folksier than previous debaters; she winked, smiled and acted the everyday mom who happens to be a governor. For his part, conservative Pat Buchanan was ecstatic, calling her performance a clear victory that relieved many conservatives. Yet Palin failed to enunciate McCain's policies and also failed to draw distinctions from the unpopular Bush administration. Two polls, one of independents, gave the debate to Biden. But Palin did not fall flat on her face.

Was the coverage of her overly critical? Was it sexist? Palin is intelligent and energetic. Perhaps she is not a victim of sexist commentary but of political demography, selected because she is a female social conservative. She has had a little more than five weeks to become articulate about national and international issues, a difficult task for anyone. She has also been sequestered and tutored in talking points. Yes, some of the coverage of Palin has been overdone, but perhaps the sexism ultimately lies in Palin's selection, not the comments on her performance.

Lana Stein is a professor emerita of political science at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.