Melissa from Shakesville saw the ABC interview, and hated it. Her one word verdict? Terrifying. (Shakesville has posted more of the video here.) She writes, “[t]his is not a person who’s remotely prepared to lead this country.” Me, I’m not so sure Palin was worse than other first-term governors like Tim Kaine (D-VA) or Bobby Jindal (R-LA) would have been–but they’re not VP nominees, and she is. Moreover–George W. Bush? Hello! Dems, please note: the more the campaign is about Palin, the better it is for John McCain. (Yes, Historiann is writing about Palin again, but please note: this is a women’s history blog, and like it or not, Sarah Palin is American women’s history. Strangely, neither political campaign has yet contacted Historiann for advice, so I think it’s safe to say that the conversation here will have little if any bearing on the fate of the republic.)
Here’s a case in point where attention to Palin works right into the McCain campaign’s strategy: Bob Herbert writes, “While watching the Sarah Palin interview with Charlie Gibson Thursday night, and the coverage of the Palin phenomenon in general, I’ve gotten the scary feeling, for the first time in my life, that dimwittedness is not just on the march in the U.S., but that it might actually prevail.” Oh, really? Have you been napping for the past eight years, Rip Van Herbert? What did they slip into your Knickerbocker Punch? It’s this kind of hyperbole–suggesting that Palin is uniquely stupid and/or unqualified–that suggests that Palin Derangement Syndrome is a real phenomenon. Herbert goes on to write, “How is it that this woman could have been selected to be the vice presidential candidate on a major party ticket?” Well, at least this time she’s the VP nominee, and not at the top of the ticket like in 2000 and 2004. Shouldn’t we celebrate the Republicans’ new seriousness because she’s not at the top of the ticket?
Shaker CE notes the unfortunate way in which Barack Obama talked about Palin recently in a post called “You’re As Good As Your Womb: Not Hopeful, Not Change:” “Look, she’s new, she hasn’t been on the scene, she’s got five kids. And my hat goes off to anybody who’s looking after five. I’ve got two and they tire Michelle and me out.” CE writes,
This has been a prominent, and troubling, feature of the discourse ever since McCain announced Palin as his VP pick: When people speak about Palin’s political biography, they talk mostly – or at least first – about her kids. Some argue that such is the case because Palin herself has made them an important part of her political biography. That is, I think, only half-correct, because it’s ignorant of the bigger picture: Sarah Palin defines herself to the public as a mother because she has to.
It isn’t really about ingratiating herself with the right-wing base, though that’s part of it; Palin wouldn’t be able to escape defining herself in large part as a mother even if she were the most progressive politician in the country.
That’s because we still define women by their childbearing status, and we look at children as a reflection on their mothers.
And speaking of mothers, Judith Warner attended a (totally mobbed) Palin campaign rally last week in Virginia, and says that Palin’s appeal to conservative women is “No Laughing Matter.” (The article gets better than it starts out–read through to the end, although even the passage here makes Warner sound like an anthropologist documenting her field work among a tribe of suburban Americans she’s never encountered or seriously considered before.) Warner notes all of the women who brought their children to the rally–and not just because many of them are probably their children’s full-time caregivers. She writes of a woman at the rally, who recounted a recent conversation with her daughter:
“My daughter asked me, ‘Mom, would you do that if you had the opportunity?,’” she recalled, as the six-year-old in question looked on. “I said ‘I don’t know. Maybe she was born to do that. Maybe that’s the sacrifice she has to make to serve her country.’”
The daughter lifted high her hand-painted, flower-adorned Palin sign.
“She’ll really be a big step forward for women,” the mother said.
No, it wasn’t funny, my morning with the hockey and the soccer moms, the homeschooling moms and the book club moms, the joyful moms who brought their children to see history in the making and spun them on the lawn, dancing, when music played. It was sobering. It was serious. It was an education.
“Palin Power” isn’t just about making hockey moms feel important. It’s not just about giving abortion rights opponents their due. It’s also, in obscure ways, about making yearnings come true — deep, inchoate desires about respect and service, hierarchy and family that have somehow been successfully projected onto the figure of this unlikely woman and have stuck.
Conservative women are jazzed about seeing one of their own in presidential politics, and it’s totally without precedent. They are just as excited about the possibilies for their daughters as many of Clinton’s supporters were about the possibility of a Hillary Clinton presidency for their daughters. You don’t have to like Sarah Palin, libs, but understand why others might reasonably support her. Insulting her as a strategy to win their votes will fail, because it will feel like you’re insulting them. (Kinda like most of the comments that this article by Warner attracted!)
Every day of this wretched campaign, I’ve come to a greater appreciation of Elizabeth I‘s political strategy: eschew marriage and motherhood, but hold them out as bargaining chips in diplomatic engagements. You won’t believe how long Gloriana was able to parlay the possibility of dynastic marriage and motherhood–well past menopause, by my calculation, and into her late 50s. (Maybe some of you early modern British historians can set me right on this, as it’s been a while since I’ve read on this subject.) But, the promise of a strategic marriage and the production of a new heir isn’t a card that women politicians in democratic republics can play–instead, marriage and motherhood are used against them in ways that men’s marriages and children are never used against male politicians. (Just ask Geraldine Ferraro, whose husband’s finances were a large part of her undoing during her Vice Presidential run in 1984.) It looks like our consensus on the Age of Revolutions–that while some men achieved greater representation, women lost what little claim to political power they had–still holds true. Modernity is all about the erasure of women from the public sphere, and we still haven’t found a way to beat that back or reverse it in any meaningful way.