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, â€œBackwoods Barbieâ€ 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, shouldnâ€™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.