ALEX COHEN, host:
Today, at the Republican Governor's Conference in Miami, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin continued a series of high-profile appearances. After two CNN interviews yesterday, Sarah Palin gave a press conference and later joined a panel to discuss her own future and that of fellow Republican governors.
(Soundbite of press conference)
Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska): I don't even want to talk about strategy within a campaign that is over. Just suffice it to say, I, like every other governor, understand that this is very important that we are speaking to constituents, we are speaking to the people whom we are serving, and you have to do that through the media. So happy to do it today.
BRAND: Sarah Palin is now being talked about as a future leader of the Republican Party. That, along with Democrat Hillary Clinton's bid for president, makes this year an important one for women in politics. And here to talk more about that, Dahlia Lithwick and Emily Bazelon, both of the XX Factor over at slate.com. Welcome back.
Ms. DAHLIA LITHWICK (XX Factor, Slate.com): Thank you.
Ms. EMILY BAZELON (XX Factor, Slate.com): Hi.
BRAND: Let's talk about that famous quote from Hillary Rodham Clinton, 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling. I mean, do you think that Sarah Palin added another crack to that glass ceiling?
Ms. BAZELON: I think she'd like to feel as if she added another crack, and in some ways, she did, simply by, you know, being out there. Having the Republican Party having a women in the vice-presidential nominee spot means that we're getting used to the idea of women out there.
But I think the problem with Palin was that she just didn't know a lot about really important things, and as a result, she just wasn't able to command the same kind of mastery and simple knowledge that Hillary Clinton did during the Democratic primaries.
Ms. LITHWICK: I'm actually pretty happy about Sarah Palin's run. I think that there's an enormous power in having not one, but two models out there on the stump this season. I think it was much more toxic when all we saw was Hillary Clinton and heard about the Hillary Clinton nutcracker and the cleavage and the tears, and there was such close scrutiny of her conduct as a woman. I thought that was very, very pernicious. Where suddenly, you had a second candidate, Sarah Palin, utterly different, small children, shooting moose from helicopters, what have you.
But I think there was a very, very powerful signal in having two very, very different women out there. And women were able to see something of themselves in one or the other or I think, if they're more honest with themselves, a little bit of themselves in both of these candidates.
BRAND: Although you could argue that that glare was just simply refocused to Sarah Palin, and by glare, I mean the focus on the clothes, on the hair, on the image, on the way she talked and not necessarily so much on the substance. Has the media changed at all in its coverage of women, or are we all still focused on what women look like?
Ms. BAZELON: You know, to some degree, the media's focus on Sarah Palin's clothes and her makeup was because so much money was being spent by the campaign. I mean, there was, you know, there was no way not to chase the story that $150,000 got spent largely at Neiman Marcus and Saks outfitting her.
So then the question becomes, you know, is that all the coverage? And I don't think that it was. I think Sarah Palin got covered - everything she did was news, and if she had been speaking substantively about a lot of issues, people would have covered that, too.
BRAND: Let's hear a little bit of her defense of herself. This is in a CNN interview where she has complained about being treated unfairly. In this quote, she's actually talking about how the McCain campaign is spreading rumors about her that aren't true.
(Soundbite of interview)
Gov. PALIN: That's cruel. It's mean-spirited. It's immature. It's unprofessional, and those guys are jerks if they came away with it - taking things out of context and then tried to spread something on national news that's not fair and not right.
BRAND: That's Sarah Palin talking about some stories that she didn't know that Africa was a continent, not a country, didn't know who made up NAFTA. Do you think that was fair that that was a news story?
Ms. LITHWICK: I thought that was a very, very gender-loaded criticism of her. I thought one of the parts of that particular story that came out after the election, where McCain aids were leaking all this dirt on Palin, it was very, very fraught in gender terms. She's a diva. She throws tantrums. She opened her hotel door in only a towel. It was inappropriate. I think those are the kinds of things that really push buttons, that make people think, oh, women are not qualified to be in politics. Look, they open the door in a towel. That did bother me.
That said, and I think this goes back to Emily's point, throughout the campaign, Palin or her handlers or the McCain camp made the decision not to let her talk to the media. And as a consequence, if she's not going to talk, if she's not going to put substantive discussion out there, we're going to focus on how she looks. So, I think it's a huge double standard for her to say, I'm being judged on my appearance; I'm being judged in these gender-loaded terms, where she's not willing to put herself out there and talk about substantive issues.
BRAND: Well, what about Michelle Obama? Let's talk about her. She strikes me as a pretty traditional first lady, at least so far.
Ms. LITHWICK: Rebecca Traister has a really interesting piece in Salon, I think they posted yesterday, Madeleine, where she talks about the, quote, "momification" of Michelle Obama and talks about, really, the failure of feminism because all the focus on Michelle since the election has been on her dress, then her other dress, how she's going to get the kids ready for school, how she's going to decorate the White House, and that the notion of this very powerful Harvard law graduate who has given up her very high-powered job has just disintegrated into this very, very Martha Stewart caricature of women.
Ms. BAZELON: To me, a lot of this criticism, though, feels premature. Michelle Obama has said that one of her big focuses in office is going to be working women and their concerns. And if she is able to accomplish something, you know, some step toward universal preschool or some greater subsidies for daycare, that is going to mean something real to, you know, working women of all economic stripes, as opposed to all this sort of obsessing over her image, which, you know, feels both to me like it's a little unfair to blame the media because I think that Obama has set herself up, that this is a strategy. She doesn't want to be the kind of first lady that Hillary Clinton was accused of being. She just can't afford that.
BRAND: Well, it's interesting that this does come back to Hillary Clinton, and that the strain underlying this is, we don't want to be like Hillary Clinton. Well, why not? Why doesn't - why wouldn't Michelle Obama want to be like Hillary Clinton, at least a little bit?
Ms. LITHWICK: I think America's terrified of strong women still. I mean, I think that one of the things I noticed yesterday was a post that said, when's the last time you saw a picture of Michelle Obama in a suit as opposed to a cute little shift dress? That she stopped wearing suits somewhere along the line, and, of course, you can't imagine Hillary Clinton in anything but a suit.
So, I think we have a long, long way to go in this country in terms of our fears of the Hillary nutcracker, of the emasculating, shrill, bullying woman, and I think Michelle has gone out of her way to paint herself as Jackie O, as somebody who is absolutely not a threat, who is not interested in male power or the male sphere of power, and I find that quite disheartening. I find it - the idea that America's afraid of women in suits suggests that we have a long, long way to go as women to clarify what it is about women in power that so terrifies us.
Ms. BAZELON: I think that's really interesting, but I keep trying to haul Eleanor Roosevelt into this pantheon of examples for Michelle Obama because there was something problematic about Hillary Clinton's role when she was first lady in the White House. She tried to take over healthcare reform. She failed at it.
She was this separate power center that nobody really knew quite what to do with, and I don't think simply reprising that role would be a good call for Michelle Obama at all. So, while I completely hope to see her in suits sometime very soon, I hope she also figures out a kind of middle ground to tread here.
BRAND: Dahlia Lithwick and Emily Bazelon, both at slate.com's XX factor. Thank you both very much.
Ms. LITHWICK: Thank you.
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