Head of the table

Sarah Palin isn't a feminist, she's a maternalist, using traditional gender roles for political advantage

October 16, 2008|By Sonya Michel

Shelly Mandell, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women, introduced Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin at a rally recently by saying - in an echo of Gloria Steinem a generation ago - "This is what a feminist looks like."

As a women's historian, I would have to disagree. Mrs. Palin, despite her membership in the organization Feminists for Life, is not really a feminist. She is, rather, a "maternalist"- a woman who accepts the gendered division of labor but uses her assignment to home and family to claim the right to public participation. Maternalism has long served women as an effective political ploy, and the Republicans are holding out hope that it will work now.

Maternalist politics first appeared in the 19th century, as Victorian women sought to escape from the private sphere by arguing that their responsibility for domestic order should extend to all of society. Women's "tender, watchful care ... now jealously secluded by each man ... is to be unloosed, expanded, spread far and wide throughout the world," wrote the pioneering economist Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1913. Denied the vote, activist women used philanthropic organizations to address maternal and child welfare, helping to build welfare states throughout the modernizing world.

Since then, maternalism has reappeared intermittently, linked to both progressive and conservative causes: during the Cold War, when Women Strike for Peace railed against the nuclear arms race and then the war in Vietnam; in Phyllis Schlafly's campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment and in Mothers Against Drunk Driving; more recently in Cindy Sheehan's efforts to stop the war in Iraq; and now in Mrs. Palin's bid for the vice presidency.

Like maternalists of the past, Mrs. Palin does not reject her gender role but turns it to her advantage. As a "hockey mom" as well as the mother of a son deploying to Iraq, a special-needs child and, yes, an unmarried, pregnant teenage daughter, she must enter politics to fight for her family. Using this gambit, she is trying to disarm several camps of critics simultaneously: religious conservatives who fear that she is abandoning her husband and children, male chauvinists who don't believe that a woman could or should fill public office, and the average concerned citizen who simply wants to know whether she has the requisite experience. Indeed, it is her motherly experience that, according to Mrs. Palin, connects her with "the American people." Her rhetoric is convincing in its concreteness and specificity. Like Mr. and Mrs. Joe Six-Pack, she and her family have sat around their kitchen table worrying about how to pay the bills, heat the house, fuel their cars and send their children to college.

Mrs. Palin's kitchen table politics not only strikes a populist chord but also addresses the gender gap more explicitly than any of the other candidates running this year. Sen. Hillary Clinton also spoke directly to women, but she figured them differently: in public settings - where they worked - rather than at home. Still, this was a major strength of her campaign, and had she, instead of Sen. Barack Obama, been the candidate, it would have been more difficult for the McCain camp to lay claim to the territory.

Does this mean that the Republicans now have a monopoly on the kitchen table? Not necessarily. The Democrats staked their claim to it during the vice presidential debate, when Sen. Joe Biden spoke movingly about his experience as a single parent, thereby indicating that one doesn't have to be a woman to have family concerns. But Mr. Biden cannot go to the well too often without risking the charge of exploiting personal tragedy for political gain. As for Mr. Obama, his cool manner and abstract rhetoric seem far removed from images of hearth and home - despite the fact that his immediate family is probably the most "traditional" of any of the four top-ticket candidates.

That leaves disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters casting about for someone to represent women's interests. Ms. Mandell's endorsement implied that this vacuum could be filled by Mrs. Palin, who stood by silently as Ms. Mandell portrayed her as a champion of women's rights. But Mrs. Palin has given no evidence of such commitments, and in fact has clearly demonstrated her opposition to abortion rights and equal pay, key tenets of modern feminism.

Mrs. Palin may be a woman in politics, but as her refusal to challenge gender conventions shows, she is no feminist.

Sonya Michel is a professor of history and director of the Nathan and Jeanette Miller Center for Historical Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her e-mail is smichel@umd.edu.

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