When Sarah Palin was announced as John McCain’s running mate in the 2008 Presidential election, political analysts immediately pounced. Palin was unknown in outside of Alaska, had very little political experience, and had taken a very interesting path to politics. Furthermore, the fact that she was a Republican woman—in fact, the first Republican woman to be nominated for Vice-Presidency—drew attention to her religious views and values. The attention on gender in the 2008 elections, primarily focused on Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, brought discussions about feminism and gender equality to the surface of American politics. In this paper, I explore how Sarah Palin navigated the discourse surrounding the overlapping zones of religion, politics, feminism, and gender roles.
During the 2008 elections, Palin was challenged to create a discursive authority so that the American public would take her seriously as a politician. In crafting that narrative, Palin relied on Christian values, which state that a woman’s highest honor in life is to be a wife and a mother. However, Palin’s rhetoric, while influenced by Christian theology, did not rely on Christian terminology. By avoiding explicitly religious language, Palin used motherhood as the meeting point of her religious and secular values. I argue that this choice made Sarah Palin’s campaign rhetoric a good example of what Rogers M. Smith calls ethical public discourse.
Smith’s conception of ethical public discourse is created in conversation with what he argues is the unethical public discourse of George W. Bush. In “Religious Rhetoric and the Ethics of Public Discourse: The Case of George W. Bush,” Smith argues that following the 9/11 attacks, Bush increasingly used religious and prophetic language to justify controversial policy moves. Smith’s creation of the boundaries for ethical public discourse is closely tied to the debate over the role of religion in American politics, which continually asks us to locate where Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between church and state exists. During the 2008 elections, Palin needed to justify her authority as a conservative, female, political candidate, far before she even needed to consider justifying policies. Rather than using Bush’s explicitly religious discourse of divinely ordained politics, Palin used the rhetoric of motherhood to explain her authority as a political candidate. For Evangelical voters, her motherhood rhetoric can be read as a divinely ordained gender role—for liberals and feminists, Palin’s motherhood rhetoric had the ability to evoke the ideology of “choice.” Her image and authority were therefore expertly constructed in an ethical discourse that built from a more seemingly secular discourse of family values, which resonates with religious voters without alienating non-religious or less-religious persons.
In Sarah Palin’s biographies and speeches, many of her life decisions and defining moments are spoken of in reference to her role as homemaker and nurturer. For example, in Going Rogue, Palin reflects on her first son’s birth, stating: “On April 20th, 1989, my life truly began. I became a mom” (Palin, 51). This quote enforced the idea that Palin’s life as a daughter, wife, student, and worker was not truly complete until she had given birth. The narrative that Palin chose was strategic in that it made implicit references to Biblical mandates for womanhood without explicitly stating them.
Palin’s motherhood rhetoric reflects her purpose as John McCain’s running mate, which was to mobilize voters of the Religious Right along with conservative women who may have been reluctant to vote for McCain. Political scientist Jeffrey Broxmeyer phrased Palin’s purpose very interestingly when he wrote:
“…McCain strove to find a symbolical midwife to birth conservatism anew after the disastrous effects of the Bush administration on the electoral prospects of the Republican Party. After all, she was the mother of five children and yet a self-proclaimed political virgin, barely into her first term as governor of Alaska and virtually unknown on the national scene. Channeling the forces of sentimental populism, Palin fused the supposed inherent goodness and patriotism of market fundamentalism and heteronormative culture together with the possibility of a national-capitalist future [emphasis mine].”
Broxmeyer cleverly uses motherhood analogies here to discuss Palin’s role as John McCain’s running mate. In “Of Politicians, Populism, and Plates: Marketing the Body Politic,” Broxmeyer argues that “Sarah Palin… rode a wave of populist antipolitics” during the 2008 campaign (Broxmeyer, 142). Words like “midwife” and “birth” highlight her femininity and the importance that it played in what he views as the populist election of 2008.
By highlighting that her role as a mother comes first, Sarah Palin shared constituents’ skepticism of politics without attacking or denigrating any politician or party. In Going Rogue, Palin reflects on the moment when she received the call from John McCain asking her to be his running mate. Palin narrates her thoughts before answering the call: “…hoping it was my son Track calling from his Army base at Fort Wainwright…. But in case it wasn’t Track, I offered up a silent fallback prayer: Please, Lord, just for an hour, anything but politics” (Palin, 6). In this narration of a very important moment in her political career, Palin highlights her concerns as a mother of a soldier along with her impatience with politics, not her excitement to be asked to run for Vice-President. This moment in Palin’s biography was crafted to appeal to what Broxmeyer describes as the “wave of populist antipolitics” in the 2008 election.
While focusing on her role as a mother helped Palin gain the trust of the Religious Right, her motherhood rhetoric also appealed to those who were skeptical of the contemporary state of politics. In her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 2008, Palin used anecdotes that were borne of her motherhood rhetoric to court party members and convince them that she was not another politician full of empty promises. Palin stated, “I was just your average hockey mom and signed up for the PTA… I signed up for the PTA because I wanted to make my kids’ public education even better” (Palin, RNC). Palin framed her entrance into politics as an almost accidental event influenced by her instinct to nurture and protect her children. In this way, Palin exploits her gender to avoid the trope that all politicians are looking for fame, respect, or power. While this appealed to a religious crowd that valued motherhood for theological reasons, it similarly appealed to populist ideals of the “everyman,” or in her case, the everywoman.
The particular form of motherhood (and womanhood in general) that Sarah Palin’s discourse referenced was heavily influence by popular conceptions of working mothers in the 2000s. In the article “Negotiating Work and Womanhood,” Gail Landsman argues that “popular media represents commitment to work and to motherhood as contradictory” (Landsman, 33). This highlights the main point of contention between feminism and conservative women. While most conservative women enjoy the gains of feminism, from voting rights to education to access to fulfilling careers, they rally against feminism because they believe that the movement inherently denigrates women’s role as wife, mother, and homemaker.
It is in this supposed biological role that religion begins to play a part. Many conservative women adhere to biblical mandates regarding the essential differences between the sexes. John Piper, a pastor and leading advocate of Biblical gender roles, states, “…the Bible reveals the nature of masculinity and femininity by describing diverse responsibilities for man and woman while rooting these responsibilities in creation…” (Piper, 20). Piper is one of the leading authorities on complementarianism, the view that God created the sexes for separate roles that complement each other. The complementarian view of gender roles assumes a biological determinism. Piper writes: “When the Bible teaches that men and women fulfill different roles in relation to each other… it bases this differentiation not on temporary cultural norms but on permanent facts of creation” (Piper, 20). With his nod to “temporary cultural norms,” Piper addresses the belief that feminism is a failed fad and that God’s creation of gender roles is inerrant as well as biological.
Along with differing roles, Biblical gender roles also mandate that a woman be submissive to her husband’s leadership. Many ask: How can women effectively be politicians or leaders while still being evangelical Christians? Doesn’t that go against the mandate for wifely submission? Sarah Palin often skirts around addressing the subject of wifely submission, which supports my argument that her rhetoric is crafted as ethical public discourse. For many conservative voters in America, that form of Biblical womanhood may seem too extreme. However, Palin does not ostracize those who may advocate for submission. In America By Heart, Palin speaks about her husband Todd, noting: “He has been a partner to me in every conceivable way…. He is a wonderful father, a wise adviser, and the love of my life” (Palin, 93). The terminology Palin uses here is very deliberate. The word “partner” appeals to feminist ideals of equality, while “a wise adviser” makes a very sly but motivated reference to wifely submission. In What’s The Difference, John Piper comments on the nuances of wifely submission. Piper says: “…we define submission not in terms of specific behaviors, but as a disposition to yield to the husband’s authority and an inclination to follow his leadership” (Piper, 52). By calling her husband her adviser, Palin reminds conservative constituents that while she is the politician, she acknowledges his authority and leadership in her life.
However, Palin has refused to speak publically on the subject of submission. When a reporter confronted her about fellow conservative politician Michele Bachmann’s views on wifely submission, Palin agreed that respecting your husband was good but said: “I can’t imagine my husband ever telling me what to do, politically” (Bloomberg). Palin smartly avoids bringing religious belief into this discussion, while her rhetoric regarding her husband does not alienate religious voters who may believe in submission.
Palin’s application of motherhood rhetoric in political spheres reconciles the contradiction that “the women’s movement has scorned mothers and homemakers, while conservative Christianity values that role and realizes how hard it is” (Manning, 57). Palin’s particular form of Evangelical feminism counters the belief that “by insisting women go out and have careers… feminists have denigrated their choice to be a homemaker” (Manning, 170). Palin’s rhetoric of motherhood mixed with politics declares that she can have her cake and eat it too–that her true calling as a woman is to bear children, and that her political involvement is merely an extension of her motherly instinct to protect her children’s futures.
By addressing the personal importance of her role as a mother and wife, Palin implicitly communicates to religious voters that although she is active in politics, she has not forgotten that her true, God-given role is already defined by her sex. Palin addresses this convergence of her religious beliefs and her acceptance of the gains of feminism in her biography, America By Heart. Palin writes:
“…I consider myself a feminist. I believe men and women have God-given rights that haven’t always been honored by our country’s politicians. I believe that men and women have important differences, but those differences don’t include the ability of women to work just as hard as men (if not harder) and to be just as effective as men (if not more so). I also consider myself a grateful beneficiary of the movement for female equality, particularly Title IX… So I proudly call myself a conservative feminist” (Palin, 139).
While she courted religious voters with her divinely ordained motherhood, Palin’s acceptance of the feminist label created a more open dialogue between liberal and conservative women. By insisting that her religious beliefs did not completely dictate her political beliefs, Palin opened the Religious Right up to working mothers and moderate feminists who may have been previously ostracized by the explicitly religious rhetoric used by members of the Religious Right.
Sarah Palin’s particular vision of womanhood is also informed by her pride in her home state of Alaska, known to the “Lower 48” as the last great frontier. In fact, one of Palin’s famous quips revolves around the “mama grizzly” metaphor. Palin reflected on this in America By Heart, saying, “In Alaska, the only thing we take more seriously than a grizzly bear is a mama grizzly with cubs to protect… when the ones she loves are threatened, she rises up” (Palin, 127). In the mama grizzly metaphor, Palin reinforces her image as a populist candidate with her state patriotism while simultaneously evoking a motherhood rhetoric that is based in instinct and biology.
Concurrent with Palin’s references to motherhood is her more specific pioneer woman rhetoric, which emphasizes the strength of early American women who helped shape the country but were not afraid to be women. Palin remarks, “…mama grizzlies have been with us for a long time. These are the same women who settled the frontier, drove the wagon, ploughed the fields, ran cattle, taught their kids, raised their families—and fought for women’s rights” (Palin, 129). In her pioneer woman narrative, Palin locates the source of her brand of conservative feminism. This narrative is heavily reliant on the tropes of neoliberalism, as Palin emphasizes that women are not victims of oppression and that they can have it all if they just tug on their bootstraps.
Palin describes her new, conservative version of feminism in America By Heart. Palin writes: “Together, the pro-woman, pro-life sisterhood is telling the young women of America that they are capable of handling an unintended pregnancy and still pursue a career and an education. Strangely, many feminists seem to want to tell these young women that they’re not capable… The new feminism is telling women that they are capable and strong” (Palin, 153). Here, we see the neoliberal tropes that play a role in Palin’s reworking of feminism with a conservative and religious lens. Palin marries the Religious Right’s disavowal of liberal feminism with American narratives of a strong individual to create a modern conservative feminism.
In America By Heart, Palin describes how conservative feminism is able to reconcile the gains of the women’s movement with the divinely ordained gender roles espoused by Christianity. Palin, reflecting on how liberal feminists often claim that pro-life women cannot be feminists, writes: “…this new crop of female leaders represents a return to what the women’s movement originally was…. it used to be about respecting women’s unique role in creating and sustaining life” (Palin, 156). In defining how her conservative feminism operates, Palin advocates a return to First-Wave feminism, which recognized the differences between men and women but still wanted to afford them equal rights. It is in statements like these that Palin uses motherhood rhetoric to speak to conservative women—the women who often cherish the gains of the original women’s movement while criticizing how feminism has evolved to be incompatible with Christian womanhood.
I have argued that Sarah Palin created and utilized a rhetoric of motherhood to establish her authority as a political candidate and negotiate gender role dichotomies that equally challenged the belief systems of the Religious Right and the Secular Left. Palin’s rhetoric, while using the strongly secular discourse of motherhood, had the ability to appeal to very religious voters through its implicit references to Biblical womanhood. Similarly, her avoidance of explicitly religious terminology allowed for greater support from less religious but still conservative voters. In crafting her authority through the rhetoric of motherhood, Palin also attempted to reconcile the inherent contradictions between evangelical Christianity and the feminist movement. Palin relied heavily on tropes of motherhood as well as traditions from first-wave feminism to define a new, conservative feminism where pro-family and pro-life women could feel comfortable expressing their strength. The many facets of Palin’s motherhood rhetoric in the 2008 elections provide an example of ethical public discourse that may help define the ways in which religious female politicians create their images in the future
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