Today's Topic



Hester, Constance,
and Sarah

Natalia J. Garland

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Only a woman can become famous and symbolic, through a process of scrutiny and an attitude of scorn, for breaking the sexual morals or mores of society. Just look at Hester Prynne, Constance MacKenzie, and Sarah Palin. Two of these women are fictional, but their lives are representative of how society expects women to embody its sexual customs or else pay a dear price for using poor judgment, being immature, or choosing other options.

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter in 1850, although the story begins in 1642. It is a novel about Hester Prynne who commits adultery in a Puritan community. She consequently gives birth to her illegitimate child, Pearl. Although Pearl's father is the local minister, it is Hester who suffers the disgrace and shame of adultery as an immoral and criminal act. Her punishment is harsh. She must wear the letter A, embroidered in scarlet thread, across her chest. Hester does not reveal that the minister was her sexual partner. Her husband, who had remained in England and later joined Hester in the new land, is also provided with anonymity.

Grace Metalious wrote Peyton Place in 1956, although the story takes place during the years just before World War II. It is a novel about the lives of women, including Constance MacKenzie who leaves the confinement her small hometown in New Hampshire for New York City. Constance has an affair with a married man who dies shortly after she becomes pregnant. Then, Constance moves back to Peyton Place with her illegitimate daughter, Allison, and opens a dress shop. Constance lies to the townspeople, and to Allison who consequently idealizes her father, by presenting herself as the widow of a respectable husband.

In 2008, the Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, was a candidate for the office of Vice President of the United States. Sarah is married and has four children. The youngest child is a mentally handicapped, baby boy. Sarah is politically conservative, anti-abortion, and an evangelical Christian. Many political liberals dislike and fear Sarah for her views on abortion. Sarah is falsely accused of government corruption, she is mocked for her diction, she is overly criticized for making mistakes in adversarial interviews, and she is frowned upon for wearing nice clothing which was given to her.

How far have women advanced since 1642? Regarding the sexual behavior of both men and women, there has been little advancement. Society seems no longer to have a concept of sexual morality, but only of rights and personal choice--so long as the choice conforms to the current mores. President Bill Clinton could engage in oral sex outside of marriage and still maintain popularity within society. A female teacher can have sex with a 15-year-old male student and encounter only probation as a consequence. But, Sarah Palin was scorned because she did not do what many women have done: abort a handicapped or unplanned baby.

Let us assume that most women take the decision for abortion seriously. There is an emotional impact. Certainly, many women feel grief and guilt over the loss of their unborn child. Different women have different ways of coping with these feelings. Sarah Palin did not abort a type of child which some women would abort or have aborted. This fact has got to stir the feelings and coping mechanisms of women who chose abortion or who support a woman's right to choose abortion. Let us also assume that some women regret having chosen abortion. It must be heartbreaking to look at little Trig and realize what could have been.

It was much easier to discount the candidacy of Sarah Palin by reducing her to an arctic hillbilly and religious lunatic than to respond to her politics intelligently. As with Hester Prynne and Constance MacKenzie, society's tendency was to stigmatize Sarah for the consequences of her lifestyle. Unlike her female predecessors, however, Sarah is not in a desperate situation--and perhaps this is the significant change for women since 1642 and 1937. Sarah Palin can make a choice--in her case, a choice for life--that goes against society's mores or conventional practicality, and find her own spiritual strength and political re-direction. She does not have to keep secrets, tell lies, or run away. There is still opportunity in America, however diminishing, for her kind of leadership and example. (Written 11/17/08)


Allow me to add one more woman's name to today's theme: Caroline. Recently, Caroline Kennedy tried to explain why she was qualified to become Senator of New York.

And so, I, I'm an unconventional choice, I, er, understand that. I haven't pursued the traditional path. But I think that, um, in our public life today, we, you know, are starting to see there are many ways into, to, public life and public service and itís, uh, not as, um, all our institutions are....less, um, hierarchal than they used to be, and so, you know, I think that, you know, I bring, you know, my life experience to this and, you know, that includes, you know, um, being a mother, um I understand sort of those choices that women make that includes, uh, being a lawyer....
[End of quoted excerpt.]

Caroline seemed to have difficulty expressing herself spontaneously: something for which George W. Bush was often criticized and ridiculed. She also gave the impression that she really was not qualified or did not fully understand the duties of a senator. Sarah Palin was often berated by news analysts and talk-show hosts who seemed to think she was unqualified to become Vice President of the United States. Very few reporters or analysts, however, have given any significance to Caroline's awkward remarks. In fact, only certain cable T.V. programs and internet bloggers have discussed any concern over Caroline's presentation of herself and the fact that she has not met with the same scrutiny as Sarah Palin.

How does Caroline differ from Hester, Constance, and Sarah? (1) She will not suffer reproach for her mistakes. (2) The political and media acceptance of her is incidental to her being female. (3) She has not broken any sexual mores or politically correct opinions. (4) She will not be asked to clarify her qualifications.

The sad thing for Caroline is that without questions and challenges, she might not develop a more sophisticated self-understanding or reach her true potential for government service. Although she will not suffer the emotional pain of unfair judgment, she might discover that political favoritism is restrictive and rests on the willingness not to assert oneself. (Written 12/30/08: bibliography available.)

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2008 Natalia J. Garland