Sarah Palin, liberal culture warrior

Sarah Palin’s surprise Friday announcement of her impending resignation proved to be a central topic of conversation among my nearest and dearest as we gathered for the Independence Day weekend. My large extended family includes members at virtually every point on the political spectrum, though most do tend to occupy the center. And among those of the blood and their guests, the Alaska governor had her vehement supporters and her equally vehement detractors.

I’ve always been ambivalent about Palin. I wrote two posts last year, well before the election: Shattering the glass ceiling of complementarianism: some thoughts on Sarah Palin, John Knox, and the difficult position of the Christian social conservative, and a few weeks later, “Backwoods Barbie” and white rural feminism: of Dolly Parton, 9 to 5, and Sarah Palin. In the first post, written the week she was selected as the GOP VP nominee, I wrote:

If you believe that women should submit to men, shouldn’t have teaching authority over men and so forth, then you are going to have a hard time accepting Sarah Palin as vice-president. To be a complementarian, after all, is to embrace the idea that men and women were created for distinct roles. Palin, who seems eager to court Hillary Clinton voters, sends a message with her life and her career that neither her sex nor her status as a mother of five should serve as a barrier to holding what could quickly become the most powerful post in the world.

That’s what excited me about Palin. I found her politics crudely reactionary, and still do. But I was and am troubled by the way in which some of my fellow progressives have failed to recognize that, in many ways, Palin’s popularity with the “base” reflects a radical cultural shift among our conservative brothers and sisters: with some notable and defiantly troglodytic exceptions, most on the right were and are quite comfortable with the idea of this woman, a mother of five, serving as president. This reflects nothing less than the happy truth that, for the most part, we on the left have won and are continuing to win the culture war. A generation ago, far more pastors and conservative pundits would have railed against a mother of young children pursuing a very public career outside the home. Her ambition would have been decried; her husband Todd’s primary role as caregiver to the younger daughters (Willow and Piper) would have been blasted as a tragic refusal to submit to God’s plan for the human household. And though some on the very fringes of the far right did indeed make noises to that effect, I was pleased that a clear majority of conservative voters repudiated those traditionalist sentiments.

I’m not in the feminist credentialing business. I do know that Sarah Palin has called herself a feminist repeatedly. And I do know that her life narrative in many ways reflects a feminist sensibility. Time and again, Sarah Palin has refused to accept the false dichotomy which says that a woman who chooses motherhood must of necessity absent herself from public life, at least while her children are young. Of course, Sarah Palin had considerable financial help; a great many mothers in this country don’t have access to the choices she has had. She has been, in a variety of ways, more privileged than her most ardent supporters (who delight in her lower-middle-class ordinariness) let on. But she has also been less privileged than most who have run on a national ticket with a major political party. The point is that Palin embodies in her choices, if not in her views, a vision of possibility for women more normally associated with the left than with the right. And the fact that so many on the right have welcomed her with nothing short of adoration strikes me — from my perspective as a middle-aged pro-feminist culture warrior — as a very good thing.

Much has been made within the feminist blogging community about the progressive reaction to Sarah Palin. Dr. Violet Socks is particularly vehement here in her defense of Palin from a left-wing perspective, and though I rarely agree with the other Dr. S, I think she’s mostly correct in her analysis. It’s certainly true that some on the left have said some outrageously sexist, classist and anti-feminist things about the Alasks governor. It’s also true that the feminist community has been, by and large, quite quick to criticize those among us who have been indefensibly harsh with Palin. The idea that the vast majority of public feminists have stood silent while the second woman ever to run on a national ticket was excoriated and slut-shamed is a bit of a right-wing canard. But it’s certainly true that not all of us have been as vocal in her defense as we ought to have been.

But let me wind this up by returning to my original point: whatever becomes of this fascinating, exasperating woman, she represents a milestone in American social and political history — and she represents further evidence that we on the left are indeed winning the war to create a more egalitarian, feminist-friendly culture. Whatever John McCain’s reasons for selecting her as his running mate, there’s no putting this genie back in the bottle. That genie isn’t Palin herself; I have no idea nor much interest in what will happen to her. (As a liberal Republican, I find her ideas abhorrent, and think her ilk want to take the GOP in precisely the wrong direction on foreign policy, social issues and environmental concerns.) The genie is the acceptance of the basic feminist principle that marriage and motherhood do not define a woman’s horizons, nor are hearth and home her primary loci of responsibility. The fact that so many self-described conservatives, folks who regularly express contempt for feminist values, are willing to embrace a mother of five as a political leader even if it means leaving her husband as the primary caregiver — this is indisputable evidence that to no small extent, we’ve won some major battles for hearts and minds.

Sarah Palin’s views are hardly feminist. But her life narrative is, and the acceptance of that narrative on the right augurs well for us all; the rejection by some on the left of that narrative (rather than the entirely sensible rejection of her heinous ideological positions) is an embarrassment.

23 thoughts on “Sarah Palin, liberal culture warrior

  1. But aren’t most reactionary Republican female talking heads living a life that is more in accord with feminism than with their espoused political views on the proper relationship between the sexes? It doesn’t seem to change what they want to impose on everyone else.

    I agree with you that Sarah Palin running for VP with small children is a major step for feminism. And an important one. And brings up lots of feminist issues that are less often discussed about how to allow for women to have both a family and a fulfilling career outside the home.

    But I (perhaps skeptically) see the conservative embrace of her as just another instance of the cognitive dissonance that seems to plague conservative Republican career women. A sort of “do as I say not as I do” cop-out.

  2. Emily, true, but here the contrast is so obvious that even the talking heads can’t credibly raise it any more. They’re big on appearances, but Palin wasn’t discreetly hiding her reliance on daycare or her income being twice her husband’s; she was in office with five children (including an infant) and clearly and openly working full-time.

  3. You’re making a huge mistake, Hugo. The important thing about Sarah Palin, to the very strange people all the way over there on the other side of the room, was that she said the right things and said them very loudly. All else is immaterial. I can’t help but side with the “cognitive dissonance” argument here. I really can’t say I saw “the right” embrace the narrative of Sarah-as-working-mother; can you think of any examples of rapturous Sarahlatry where that angle wasn’t an afterthought?

  4. I’d like to think that the right’s embrace of Palin reflects an increase in their feminism, but instead I think it’s just another example of their complete lack of actual principle. It’s not that I think one should think that women belong at home – I certainly don’t – I just think that a lot of today’s leading Republicans think anything (torture, illegal wiretapping, etc.) is all right as long as their side is doing it, and female leadership is no different.

    And at the same time, a lot of Palin’s support seems to come from the working class, which I think for practical reasons has long abandoned the idea that women belong at home.

  5. I agree that the right didn’t center Palin’s feminism — but it’s an unmistakable part of the narrative.. to the brighter young women in the movement, her narrative undercuts the socially conservative message they get from the hard right.

    And yes, Maggie Gallagher and Ann Coulter lead or have led lives at odds with what they preach, but they aren’t running for office. A woman who said “I don’t care if I have a Down’s baby, I’m running for president and my husband is gonna help” is sending a very loud and clear feminist message, whatever other appalling thing comes out along with it.

  6. Eh. What you say isn’t wrong, but… It’s a bit like like having an out gay wingnut who is married to her same-sex partner and accepted by her fellow travelers… But who was nonetheless rabidly against same-sex marriage, in favor of DADT, against the ENDA, etc. This person has some political value by mere dint of her existence and visibility, but IMO it is more than undone by the damage she does with her policies.

  7. Palin wasn’t against women holding jobs, or arguing that women with little babies ought to be SAHMs. And I think the comment about her working-class support is 100% correct.

  8. I’d like to think that the right’s embrace of Palin reflects an increase in their feminism, but instead I think it’s just another example of their complete lack of actual principle.

    Yup … and what Daisy B. said.

  9. @Dev

    I’m very liberal myself, but most of my family is in the Bible belt and fairly conservative. I don’t think it is fair to say that they are completely without principle, I find them to be extremely principled. Usually in ways that are not to my taste, but principled nonetheless. This sort of statement is what is an example of a phrase I have heard repeatedly used by conservatives–”the intolerance of the tolerant”

  10. Emma, you’re right – I too know a lot of principled people on the right. But what I’ve also seen over the past 8 years is a lot of media conservatives embracing and defending completely anti-conservative principles (deficits don’t matter, torture isn’t illegal, people can be wiretapped without warrants) and contradicting themselves at every turn. I certainly don’t mean to indict every social conservative.

  11. Or it could be that your fantasy caricature of what “Teh Right” is about is totally off base.

    Since I rarely hear anything but strawmen – however fervently believed – when trying to rubricize what it means to be conservative from the left, I’d say it’s the simplest and best explanation.

  12. As far as the “simplest” being the “best,” Gonzman, I’m inclined to agree with the spirit of what Mencken once said: “For every complex problem, there is a simple solution — and it’s usually wrong!”

  13. Since I rarely hear anything but strawmen – however fervently believed – when trying to rubricize what it means to be conservative from the left

    Still haven’t gotten that irony detector tuned, Gonz?

    People all tend to have a But That’s Different filter running (see above). We just tend to notice it more with the right, I think, because there’s not an ideology that you’re supposed to be nice to people.

  14. Well, Myth, I’d be more worried about the “irony” that conservative misbehavior is news, but not liberal, primarily because we don’t expect any better from liberals.

    And Ballgame – it’s not a problem, because I really don’t give a hoot what a liberal thinks a conservative should believe. Hugo, and most of you, erect a caricature of a “conservative position” and then sneer at it. Claiming a “Liberal Victory” over a right-wing position that really doesn’t exist ranks about six steps below pathetic.

  15. I think the idea that Palin’s life story is at odds with her politics reflects a failure to distinguish the very different goals of classic feminism and modern feminism.

    I don’t know any social conservatives who think women should be limited (by law or by custom) in their choice of occupation–as long as they are physically able to do the work, they should be treated equally to men. It is absolutely possible to believe in equality of opportunity without believing that equality of outcomes should be somehow enforced, let alone other tenets of modern feminism such as abortion rights.

    Granted, 30 years ago social conservatives (as well as moderates and even some liberals, I suspect) would have been much less comfortable with a woman running for Vice President. Feminists *have* won that battle, and that’s a good thing. I see that as part of the long progress toward equality, rather than the “culture war” which has been raging for the last 40-odd years.

    In fact, I think that’s part of why conservatives were so happy to embrace Sarah Palin. She embodied the fact that traditional values are compatible with women being strong and successful, and put the lie to the feminist assertion that if you don’t support unfettered abortion rights you’re trying to keep women oppressed.

  16. I hope you have been following this issue on “reclusive leftist” Long posts, hundreds of comments, bringing a bunch of hurt on (some) feminists.
    Reclusive also got a shout on Rantburg a couple of days ago, and neo-neocon.

  17. Richard,

    I’ve looked a little bit at those comments, and I while I wouldn’t go so far as to say the commentors weren’t “true feminists”, I do notice that there seems to be more of an anti-Obama motivation among that crowd than an enthusiastic affirmation of feminism. If I’m not mistaken, it’s basically a PUMA thread.

  18. A generation ago social conservatives seemed happy enough to let Phyllis Schlafly take a very public political role in opposing the ERA. Just sayin.

  19. Hugo, and most of you, erect a caricature of a “conservative position” and then sneer at it.

    Seems like a waste of effort to me when there are so many sneerworthy positions you don’t even need to caricature. Call me lazy.

  20. Hugo, thanks for the great post, for not expressing a “two minutes hate” for Sarah Palin, and especially thanks for the great link to the Reclusive Leftist post.

    I’m a lifelong Libertarian who registered Republican last election to vote for Fred Thompson, so I’m not a typical conservative. But here’s why *I* really like Sarah Palin:

    She’s a reformer who fought corruption in both of the major political parties, sponsored an ethics bill for Alaska, and she’s still not afraid to take on Republicans.

    She’s been to ANWR and understands that the country needs oil but that oil companies need to be held to standards.

    Finally, all the irrational hate directed at her (as opposed to Hugo rationally and calmly stating his disagreement with her politics) keeps me convinced that she’s on to something here. “If you’re taking flak, you’re over the target.”

    Hugo, I think you would have seen a different, more interesting campaign had Sarah Palin been at the head of the ticket. She kept silent too much where her opinions differed from John McCain’s. (Trying to be a “good soldier”.)

    I’ve been looking for an independent thinker, a politician who’s not a “corrupt party hack”. I like Jesse Ventura also. He can really call out the deficiencies on both major parties and I see this potential in Sarah Palin.

  21. Pingback: Palin’s Symbolism « American Footprints

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