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.***