This afternoon, a guest post from Amanda Marie Gengler, Visiting Assistant Professor in the School of Behavioral Sciences at Barton College in Wilson, NC. Here’s Amanda! -Deborah

While the election is over (hooray!) and we are at least temporarily saved, as Judith Warner wrote, from the “specter of Sarah Palin” as VP (or worse), her meteoric rise over the past 2 months is a stark reminder that we have a long way to go in gender and politics. Tuesday morning Palin appeared on the Today Show; back home, back in her kitchen, deftly navigating between the fridge, dishwasher, and countertop as she chatted with Matt Lauer and mashed food for the baby.

Some had suggested that the selection of Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate represented a strange milestone for women: the one where mediocre women can achieve the same success as mediocre men. For years unexceptional men have easily attained exceptional positions, while exceptional women have struggled to do so. So why doesn’t Sarah Palin mark this feminist “victory”?

Because Palin is exceptional in the area a woman must most be: her femininity. While Hillary Clinton was derided for her pantsuits and her age, Palin’s background as a beauty queen, a mother of five, and her lavish wardrobe of fitted skirts and stylish heels (eagerly subsidized by the RNC) remind us that whatever other assets a woman may possess, her proper gender performance trumps them all. A quintessential femininity is the highest card in the deck. While McCain’s motivations were likely complex, it would be difficult to argue that if the photos and biographies that accompany Sarah Palin and Kay Bailey Hutchison were reversed, his choice would have been the same. He rightly guessed that her smile, figure, and photogenic family would resonate with an American public still deeply invested in traditional and essentialist views of gender.

Yet we are to believe that the highest aims of feminism have been realized when a VP candidate can be deemed “hot” by Alec Baldwin on Saturday Night Live, and lusted after by male voters across the nation. We are again reminded, in 2008, that if we are not properly plucked, pinned, coiffed, rouged, and of course, lip-sticked, we may risk our very professional lives. It seems after all, that those exceptional “true” women–the ones who manage to be maternal enough, to smile enough, to stay slim enough, and to keep all the obligatory feminine balls in the air (never missing a deadline, a diaper change, or a bikini wax)–set the bar today’s girls are to strive for.

Funny how “progress” can look so much like the past.

–Amanda Marie Gengler is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the School of Behavioral Sciences at Barton College in Wilson, NC.