The Sarah Palin Symbol

This is a Sarah Palin post…

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Lest anyone be confused, this is not a post where I glorify the former vice-presidential candidate. I, like most feminists, can’t stand Sarah Palin. My politics fall radically to the left of hers and I find her to be hypocritical and ridiculous. Most of the time I like to pretend she doesn’t exist and if exposure is absolutely necessary, I prefer it to be in Tina Fey form. That being said, I do think Palin serves a useful purpose. (This is where the revoking of my feminist card comes in.)

There has been a lot of discussion in recent weeks on whether Sarah Palin can legitimately call herself a feminist. I am not here to rehash those arguments. There is little use in denying, however, that if Palin’s political views were incorporated into mainstream feminism they would dramatically change the movement as it exists today. Sarah Palin is feminism’s kryptonite; this is why many feminists reacted so viscerally when she invoked the term. But where she weakens the secular movement, I think she strengthens the Mormon feminist cause.

The Mormons I know love Sarah Palin. I can’t tell you the number of times somebody came up to me during the 2008 election and said, “Aren’t you just thrilled about Palin?” I have sat through more than one Relief Society lesson where the phrase “pitbulls in lipstick” was used. Despite living a very non-traditional life, Sarah Palin has become the heroine for the traditional woman. Somehow she has managed to capture the imagination of a not-inconsequential subset of American women. Those of us who have been less impressed can either gripe about her or we can use Palin’s national presence to our benefit.

Sarah Palin provides a model for ambition and assertiveness. Usually when a woman possesses these character traits they do not become the darling of a political party. Palin, however, has managed to avoid the pitfalls that many assertive women have fallen into and gained the respect of both men and women. I’m not so interested in how she has done this, just that she has.

Here is what I think Sarah Palin’s example provides for Mormons:

For women, Palin shows that you can be a good wife and mother and still be successful in your pursuits outside of the home. Sarah Palin is a model for female assertiveness; she knows what she wants and she goes and gets it. When somebody says or does something to Palin that she doesn’t appreciate, she calls them on it. Do you know how rare it is for a powerful man to publicly apologize to a woman? And yet Sarah Palin had gotten several of these apologies since becoming a public figure. I’ve already written about how Mormon women should stand up for themselves, I think we could really take this page out of Sarah Palin’s book.  But perhaps most importantly, Palin has not been afraid to use her voice. For better or for worse, her’s is an important voice in American society. This should prove to LDS women that speaking up is important and can make a big difference. Another important example Palin provides is in the strength of her voice and words. There is no simpering, no passive language, no Primary voice. When you speak like you know what you’re talking about, more likely than not, your voice is accepted and valued. I think we’ll find that the more we voice our opinions, the stronger we make our voices, the more our leaders will listen to what we have to say.

For Mormon men, Palin’s ascent into prominence shows that there is room for women in male-dominated spheres. Indeed, the excitement that Sarah Palin was met with from conservatives should signal to the male leaders of our church that people are hungry for powerful women leaders.

In a culture that prioritizes highly demarcated gender roles, I find it remarkable that Palin has such a big Mormon following. Here is a woman who has done anything but stay at home and glory in her domestic goddess-hood nevertheless she has been widely admired by many of the Mormon women and men in my acquaintance. Once members of the church begin to respect women’s voices in national politics it can’t be too long before this translates to Mormon culture and bureaucracy.

Our church would be stronger if we stopped treating women like children and allowed them to flourish into the powerful and divine beings that God intended them to be. If women were encouraged to develop their assertiveness and were truly made equals with men, at least on an administrative level, I believe the mass exodus of young women would stop. But currently our church has nothing to offer young women who have grown up in an era where strong and successful women like Sarah Palin are the rule, not the exception. Our young women will look elsewhere if we cannot offer this same kind of development.

And this is where Sarah Palin being good for Mormon feminism comes in. The person and politics of Palin are less important than the symbol that she is. For whatever reason, Sarah Palin is an acceptable symbol of a powerful woman to the conservatives who populate the American Mormon church. In the end, I don’t think most members of the church care about Sarah Palin’s politics, they probably even see through the mess of hypocrisy and contradictions. What I think they admire, even if only unconsciously, is the powerful woman who could do whatever she wants but  chooses to love and be interdependent with a family.

***Update: Originally I titled this “The post for which my feminist card will be revoked”. It was a joke. But in not wanting my title to derail the thread, I’ve decided to go with something less inflammatory in hopes of having a substantive discussion where you all are free to disagree with me.***


Mraynes lives in downtown Denver with her husband and four children. She spends her time lobbying at the Colorado Legislature, managing all the things and preparing Gospel Doctrine lessons.

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25 Responses

  1. z says:

    I think part of what bothers mainstream feminists about Palin is her perceived erratic behavior and lack of competence. For example, the Katie Couric interview, quitting the governorship, etc.. I think there’s a sense that that reflects poorly on all women and feeds into a stereotype of women being unprepared, not smart, unreliable, and so on, and it’s really aggravating to see it take place on the national stage.

    I had been really interested in Palin when she first emerged on the scene, because I was hoping to see some interesting discussion about gender roles– like if a woman is in elected office but she’s still supposed to defer to her husband, does that mean he’s “really” holding the office, despite never having been elected? Or if you’re going to obsessively valorize hands-on motherhood, does that mean women can only hold elective office if they lie about their childcare arrangements? But of course, we did not get to have an interesting national discussion about gender and patriarchal religion, just a bunch of sound bytes. Her exploitation of feminism is so cynical, it turns my stomach.

    I don’t really like talking about “revoking” anyone’s “feminist card.” It makes it difficult to disagree at all without seeming to imply that the author is just not a feminist. Kind of like a softer version of “I know you’ll all be mean to me for saying this, but…”

  2. mraynes says:

    Thanks for the comment, z. I remember when Sarah Palin was first announced as the VP candidate and I had the same thoughts as you, finally we’re going to have a substantive discussion about gender roles in this country. Yeah, that didn’t happen. Anyway, I think we have similar reactions to Sarah Palin as a person, I agree, she doesn’t do women any favors. And I agree with your assessment that her use of feminism is cynical. She certainly is a complicated character which is why I wasn’t so much interested in talking about her as I was interested in discussing what she represents as a symbol. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    As for my title, it was purely me trying to be funny, I don’t care at all if people disagree with me and I don’t think this post makes me less of a feminist. It’s just an idea that’s been floating around in my head for a couple of weeks that I wanted to discuss. But your point is well taken so I’m going to tweak the title.

  3. z says:

    Don’t feel obligated to tweak the title– no pressure. I think I’m as fascinated by Sarah Palin as you are! Looking back it I feel so silly for thinking any substantive discussion would result! The main thing is that I was so, so shocked and overjoyed to realize that we’re now at a point where the Republican party would think that nominating a woman was a good idea. That has to be at least a little bit comforting, no?

    I don’t really have a clue what she represents as a symbol… I did some election canvassing in the more conservative regions of Virginia but opinions of her were so mixed that I couldn’t really draw any conclusions. Maybe she stands for the proposition that women can do a lot of different things, as long as they pay lip service to conservative gender roles. But I don’t really understand why that would appeal to someone who actually substantively believed in conservative gender roles.

  4. jks says:

    Great post. I remember being shocked that fmh and the bloggernacle didn’t bother mentioning Sarah Palin for almost a week. I thought it was pretty exciting and I thought it was good for feminism for many of the reasons you mentioned.

  5. z says:

    On the other hand, you could also tell the story that Palin indicates very bad things for the progress of feminism. Something like… a woman can only be a candidate as a right-winger because that’s somehow bizarrely less threatening to the patriarchy, and Palin’s bizarre and erratic performance has made people think less of female candidates generally, and it’s sad that so many women are buying into the fiction that if elected she would still be spending a lot of time on childcare. The more I think about it, the more weirded out I get. I just can’t see how someone who actually believed in actually living out traditional gender roles, as opposed to just pretending to, would support Palin at all. Maybe the women supporting Palin don’t really buy into gender roles as much as they like to claim?

  6. Bones says:

    Z, you have mentioned some interesting things gender roles:

    “if a woman is in elected office but she’s still supposed to defer to her husband,. . . ”


    “I just can’t see how someone who actually believed in actually living out traditional gender roles, as opposed to just pretending to, would support Palin at all. ”

    Are there people who truly believe in and live their lives according to “gender roles” in such a limiting sense? I’m really would like to know if there is anyone, in this forum, who believes that women should defer to their husbands. Anyone?

    As to this great post about Palin, I loved it. I am not a fan of hers because of her too far right (for me) ideas, but I must say that this post illustrated some real benefits of having her around. Thanks for writing this.

  7. jks says:

    z – I think you are just too liberal to understand the appeal of Palin to people you don’t understand, like conservatives.
    I admit that she’s a little crazy and I don’t want her being President.
    However, as a somewhat conservative, I think that women conservative candidates are great and I tend to like them. There are many conservatives who:
    are willing to vote for a woman
    think women should be in politics
    think women are capable
    think women can choose to work
    I’ve been around long enough to remember Geraldine Ferraro and what a big first that was. It was awesome to see Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin in the last race. These are all exciting things to see and I realize that it accustoms people to having women in these kinds of roles. Maybe people had to “think” about it the first time around. But the exciting thing is that you had half the country thinking about it and actually casting a vote and actually voting for a woman as VP. I believe the next woman who is a serious contender will benefit from both Palin and Clinton’s paving the way.
    I also don’t get the idea that women have to buy into gender roles in such a rigid way. I’m a SAHM and I’m traditional in a lot of ways…..but I’m also feminist. I do not think my husband is more important than me, or smarter than me, or should have more power than me. I’m traditional because I have more kids and stay home to take care of them, but I didn’t consider quitting college to get married because I considered that my education was as important as my husband’s. I’m traditional because I appreciate my femininity but I’m feminist because I think femininity is not less important than masculinity. I went to my daughter’s ballet recital tonight (feminine) and it is important to me that things my daughters might participate in are not disparaged or thought less of than things my sons might participate in.

  8. anon says:

    You realize, of course, that the only reason she was picked was because she happened to have a pair of breasts and is pretty? That it was a cynical attempt to siphon off Hilliary supporters? There are plenty of competent, outstanding, and not crazy conservative women out there who would have made a much better choice. So how does this help feminism? You still need to be a cheerleader to break into the patriarchy? At least in the Republican party you do. All Palin does is reinforces the idea that you don’t have to think or have a coherent idea, you just need to wink and wear a form fitting outfit and you will be taken seriously.

  9. z says:

    Perhaps I am just too liberal to understand… but it would seem to me that if a person truly believed that all women should treat raising children as their primary job when children are small (and I realize not everyone in this forum believes that), then such a person would have a hard time supporting Palin. Because I just don’t see how it’s possible to be a good Vice President while treating childrearing as the main priority. Perhaps you who accuse me of not understanding conservatives can explain that one.

    Of COURSE there are tons and tons of people who believe women should defer to their husbands– not necessarily LDS, but plenty of Baptists, Evangelicals and Pentecostals, which is what the Palins are, right? Haven’t you ever heard of Prairie Muffins? I don’t really get how that principle would apply to affairs of state. Can those of you who “understand conservatives” enlighten me?

  10. Mraynes says:

    There’s a great conversation going on her, thanks guys!

    Anon, if you go back and read the post, I specifically said that Sarah Palin was bad for mainstream feminism. My personal feelings about Palin run similar to yours. This post, however, is not about mainstream feminism. In fact, this post really isn’t even about Sarah Palin. This post is an exploration into how any strong female voice, even one we disagree with and find ridiculous, is good for women in a traditional religion that is dominated by men on all levels. I’d be interested in your thoughts regarding this?

    Thanks for the comment, Bones. I tend to agree with you that most of the women who participate in the Exponent forum do not believe that they have to defer to their husbands. From what I understand, though, this is a common belief in traditional religions including the Evangelical Christian religion that Sarah Palin is a member of. So I do think z asks an interesting question. Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed the post and found a new way of looking at Palin.

    I’m glad your participating in this discussion, z, I think you bring an interesting perspective.

    “Maybe she stands for the proposition that women can do a lot of different things, as long as they pay lip service to conservative gender roles. But I don’t really understand why that would appeal to someone who actually substantively believed in conservative gender roles.”

    I think this is why Sarah Palin fascinates me, somehow she is given a free pass to do the exact opposite of what traditional women are supposed to do. Maybe you’re right and it’s because she pays lip service to the patriarchy. So I have a question for you, do you think it’s worth making verbal concessions to the patriarchy in order to advance the cause of women? This is what those of us who are working within traditional cultures have to figure out, how much do we affirm and how do we criticize? As to your #5, I agree that it’s a bad sign if women can only get elected to high office if they’re non-threatening to the patriarchy. Is this what happened to Hillary Clinton? If so, it’s proof that society has a lot further to go in relation to gender equality. And I think you’re probably right, those traditional women who love Sarah Palin probably don’t believe in as rigid of gender roles as they think they do.

  11. Mraynes says:

    To jks & z: I’ve wondered myself whether you have to be a conservative, traditional woman to understand the appeal of Sarah Palin. In the mainstream feminist blogs I read, they all seem completely perplexed by her. And in relation to both of your comments, perhaps traditional women let Palin slide on the traditional gender role thing because they view her as “one of them” and so they give her the benefit of the doubt? I guess it would be hard to understand this unless you were a traditional, conservative women. Anyway, just thinking out loud here…

    P.S. Thanks for your comment, jks, you’re too sweet.

  12. jks says:

    “I think this is why Sarah Palin fascinates me, somehow she is given a free pass to do the exact opposite of what traditional women are supposed to do.”

    I just don’t get why “traditional” women are so narrow in your view. Do all feminists refuse to have children? No, of course not. Do all “traditional women” refuse to work? No, of course not.
    Sarah Palin apparently has enough about her to make your so called traditional women identify with her or be excited about her. How about that she has 5 kids? How about that she is a conservative?
    Why does ANY conservative like her? She’s not an ivy league liberal intellectual? She seems like someone that understands them?
    Traditional women have always accepted that women do work. Women have always run the PTA and are respected for it in all those middle states. “Traditional” women accept this and are very comfortable with women in many roles (teachers for instance?) I don’t know any conservative, traditional women who refuse to go to a doctor who is a mother. And they would happily go back a doctor who is a mother and who understands them, their lifestyle, their values as they discuss their health! Why would VP be any different? Politics fits in well with traditional women’s professions.

  13. Caroline says:

    great remarks, mraynes. Like you, I have big problems with her political stances, but I do find her an interesting figure — a mom of a large (and still young) family who has flourished in the cut throat world of politics.

    I also find it interesting that so many Mormons have embraced her. To me it’s just one more instance of disconnect between the everyday lives of Mormons (who interact daily with female bosses, coworkers, judges, police officers,etc.) and the strict gender demarcated lives we lead in the Church organization.

    When will more Mormons acknowledge that disconnect and grow uncomfortable with it? Why don’t they? These are the questions I just shake my head over.

  14. z says:

    jks, Because being VP is way, way, way more time-consuming than any of those other jobs, leaving almost no time at all for mothering. It involves relentless travel, extremely long days, the real possibility of being assassinated, potentially inappropriate media attention on the family, and other things that are really not so great for the kids. And it involves a truly staggering amount of power, being just “a heartbeat away” from being president, much more power than having even a high-paying job.

    I realize that not ***all*** self-identified “traditional” women believe that society and government should be mostly controlled by men, but that is undeniably the “traditional” state of affairs in that it has existed for many centuries, and I think it really is true that ***some*** “traditional” women do think that 1) all mothers should spend most of their time raising their children; and 2) men, not women, should have most of the power in the family and in society at large. So do you think those women hold a positive view of Sarah Palin? That is what’s baffling to me.

    #11, mRaynes (and thanks for the compliment!), I think it depends on what you think actually “advances the cause of women.” I think for all time there have been women who cynically use the patriarchy to advance their own personal interests, often at the expense of other women. Given Palin’s policy platform (to the extent it exists), her election would be a mixed bag for women, to say the least. I’m tempted to conclude that any woman the patriarchy could so enthusiastically endorse is likely to be a net negative for women.

    I wonder if Palin would have been so successful if people actually thought she and McCain had a real chance of winning the election. It was probably fun to be along for the ride but contemplating her as Vice President, winking and botching TV interviews, might have given some people cold feet.

  15. z says:

    Do you really think she has “flourished,” Caroline? Quitting the governorship doesn’t really sound like flourishing, and she’s become popular with a somewhat narrow segment of the population, but to do so she has had to alienate almost everyone else. “Former half-term governor” doesn’t really sound that great and I think the problems in her VP campaign will be really hard to live down if she tries to run for any other major office. I think she may be popular and successful only as long as she can’t actually accomplish much other than fundraising and publicity for others.

    On the other hand, it appears that Sharron Angle is actually the Republican candidate for the Nevada senate race, so it’s not like really strange people can’t win elections.

  16. Mraynes says:

    You’re right, jks, “traditional” is a poor choice of words. I’m specifically talking about women who belong to religions where gender roles are strongly defined as women stay at home and men provide. I don’t expect women who participate in this system to reject others who don’t, I think it would be wrong if they did. But I don’t think there is anything wrong with asking, without judgment, why these women consider Palin to be one of them when she’s clearly not.

  17. z says:

    Sometimes I wonder if they just think God has made a special exception to gender roles just for Sarah Palin, because it’s just that important that she be VP or whatever. That doesn’t really seem so unreasonable to me– it’s pretty well-accepted that God will in rare instances select certain individuals for a very different life experience in which the normal expectations don’t apply.

  18. z says:

    Upon reflection, she reminds me of no-one so much as Phyllis Schlafly. Not that I am really old enough to actually remember her heyday, such as it was. An interesting post for the future, maybe?

  19. Jack Mormon says:

    In #14, Caroline wrote, “When will more Mormons acknowledge that disconnect and grow uncomfortable with it? Why don’t they? These are the questions I just shake my head over.”

    I will provide some male input. We simply don’t see it as a disconnect. That’s because many of us don’t see church as an extension of everyday life, but as a refuge from it. We dislike politicizing our faith, the Prop 8 campaign not withstanding.

    We also don’t consider the gender demarcation as strict as you believe. For example, during the first two blocks of the three-hour Sunday meeting, men and women participate jointly. It is only during the third block that men and women break down into separate groups for Priesthood and Relief Society.

    Of course, there is that bugaboo about only men holding the Priesthood. But don’t forget, we come under greater condemnation than you ladies if we misuse it. Thus there’s always a flip side to every “advantage”. While this may not make you feel better about the situation, perhaps it will at least convey more understanding.

  20. Janna says:

    Jack Mormon- Your comment patronizingly oversimplifies an enormous conflict. Reducing the issue to a matter of splitting meetings for an hour a week and characterizing the Priesthood bias as a “bugaboo” perfectly exemplifies Caroline’s point – disconnection.

  21. jks says:

    OK, let me try again.
    Why do they consider Palin to be “one of them” when she clearly is not?
    My family was excited about her. I actually did think through the whole idea of her being a working woman with all those kids, how could I identify with that. The truth is I didn’t identify with that. However, I realized that I would happily choose a doctor who was a mother with four kids and LDS and I connected with on a personal level and I would be grateful that she was my doctor (my friend has such a relationship with her wonderful pediatrician and I am jealous).
    I think Palin’s candidacy helped many people be able to see that having women (even mothers with kids who “need” her) in the workforce wanted and needed and makes the world a better place. THAT is why I think Palin was a step forward for women. I made people think it through (perhaps those who don’t think it through as often because they don’t think about feminism as a positive thing).
    I also think that conservatives don’t define themselves as “we are conservative because we believe in patriarchy.” So many of the people who identified with Palin might belong to a religion that has rigid gender roles BUT they actually vote based on other ideas. Ideas like the government is there to take care of some things, but not to redistribute weatlh. Maybe they vote based on abortion or on the right to bear arms or having a strong, decisive military, or the idea that what is good for business is good for the little guy too. They could identify with Palin because she seemed to have all of these other qualities that said “my kind of American.”
    On many LDS feminist sites, feminism is the primary glasses in which some posters view the world. What is important to realize is that those on the “other side” aren’t necessarily going around with their primary focus being “against feminism.” For many of them it is far down on the list.
    When I look at myself, I am feminist. However, there are many things above it on my list. For instance, when I listen to someone speak in front of my children (or a TV show) I am judging whether it is something that is appropriate and teaching my children in a good way. I don’t want racial slurs or stereotypes. I don’t want dishonesty to be portrayed as acceptable. I don’t want pre-marital sex to be glorified and pushed. I want respect for laws, rules, authority figures to be shown. I want kindness to be shown as a virtue. I want looks to be unimportant because what is inside counts. I want women to not be spoken of as sex objects. I want women or the feminine to have status. So, I have a BIG list. Everyone has a different list in a different ORDER of priority. I think perhaps you mistake religious patriarchy as everyone’s top priority when there are so many other things that a religious conservative might place above it.

    Did they vote for her actually thinking she could win?
    Yes, of course. I actually voted for her and I actually thought she might win. (Please know that I was also thrilled when Obama won (I realize around here I sound very conservative but there are many places where I am considered quite liberal-it really messes with my identity feelings), since I thought it was a positive things in a lot of ways for our country. As far as I can recall, I had to go with McCain solely because of how I feel about judicial legislation).

  22. Mraynes says:

    Caroline, I’m with you, I don’t understand the disconnect at all. Maybe those who don’t have a problem with the rigid gender roles of the church are just better at compartmentalizing than we are? Thanks for the comment.

    z, I think you’re comparison of Palin to Schafly is apt. It always amazes me how many women throughout history have been willing to sell out their sisters for a little power. Of course, men have done the same thing, just more proof of the equality of the sexes. 🙂

    Jack, I think your comment is well-intentioned but as Janna said, it comes off as dismissive and patronizing. Those of us who struggle with gender roles in the church have heard all of those arguments before and they do nothing to ease the pain we feel.

    jks, your explanation makes a lot of sense to me. It’s similar to the idea I put forth in the OP, it isn’t what Sarah Palin actually does, it’s the symbol of family values which makes her attractive. Thanks for taking the time to further explain yourself.

  23. *~*~*Jilly*~*~* says:

    Can I ask what you mean by; to defer to her husband?
    Jilly oxoxo

  1. June 20, 2010

    […] The Exponent » Blog Archive » The Sarah Palin Symbol […]

  2. July 7, 2012

    […] cross-posted at the exponent […]

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