Sarah Palin may be today’s Elvis, but that doesn’t mean she’ll be the Queen. Vice presidential nominees rarely change the course of presidential politics, and despite last week’s Google records, Palin may well take her place in the nation’s large pantheon of would-be veeps whose names history has forgotten. Still, beware of underestimating Palinsanity, as blogger Ann Althouse has described the storm of comment that the Alaskan governor has aroused. Whatever Palin’s political impact, her cultural significance is profound. For better and for worse, she introduces a new and likely long-running cultural type to the national stage—the red-state feminist.
Of course, the feminist commentariat, primarily coastal and upper-middle-class, has been quick to deny that Palin is any sort of feminist at all. Yes, Palin can boast political success, activism, authority, and self-confidence in front of an audience of 37 million, and, though less widely discussed (perhaps because so profoundly envied), an egalitarian marriage of the sort that has become the foundational principle of feminist utopia. But in most other respects, especially her position on abortion, she has struck female media types as something more like the Anti-Feminist. She is a “humiliation for America’s women” (Judith Warner for the New York Times) and a tool of the “patriarchs” (Gloria Steinem for the Los Angeles Times).
But the crucial point here is that Palin never wanted to be part of Steinem’s club, and in that respect she speaks for many of her sex. The large majority of women—surveys have put the number at somewhere around 75 percent—shy away from calling themselves feminists, even while supporting some movement goals like equal pay. The primary reason for their coyness: feminism’s ambivalence at best, and hostility at worst, toward motherhood and marriage. The refuseniks may or may not remember that Betty Friedan described full-time motherhood as a “waste of human self” and home as a “comfortable concentration camp.” They may or may not be able to quote Steinem on fish and bicycles. But on some level they understand that the framework of establishment feminism has motherhood, and often marriage, as the menacing 300-pound security guard whom men have hired to stand in the way of women’s achievement.
Palin represents a red-state version of feminism that completely deconstructs this framework. Sure, part of the red staters’ identification with Palin is a matter of lifestyle. Blue-state feminists live in big cities and suburbs; Palin lives in South Podunk. Blue staters’ kids play soccer; Palin’s play hockey. They have WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER bumper stickers; she’s a member of the NRA. They dine on sushi; she eats salmon that she caught and gutted. If you’re an Iowa toll collector married to a refrigerator repairman, Palin may well be your gal by reason of her origin and leisure activities alone.
But central to Palin’s red-state appeal is her earthy embrace of motherhood. She differs from mainstream feminists in that her sexuality and fecundity are not in tension with her achievement and power. If anything, they rise out of them. Instead of holding her back, her five children embody her energy, competence, authority, and optimism. Maybe she’s annoyed at the way the First Dude, as her husband calls himself, forgets to fold the laundry or call the pediatrician, but she’s not going to make a federal case—make that an Alaskan state case—out of it. “She’s a real woman, she’s a real feminist but she’s not strident—she’s like us,” Cheryl Hauswirth, a middle-aged mother from Wisconsin, told Politico writer Jonathan Martin. “She’s strong, powerful and opinionated, all the things a woman should be, while still retaining her femininity, her womanhood.”
The contrast with Hillary Clinton couldn’t be starker. For much of her career, though less so since she became a senator, Clinton was in a defensive crouch vis à vis her sex—a tendency symbolized by her frequent changes in hairstyle, which often seemed as though planned by the Committee to Elect HRC. (Palin’s hair usually looks like she was putting it up with her left hand while spreading mayo on the kids’ school sandwiches with her right.) In fact, Clinton’s persona in general struck many as forced, a product manufactured for public consumption and driven by a combination of ambition and wariness of those who might question her life choices. When during the 1992 presidential campaign she snarked about not being the type to bake chocolate-chip cookies, she revealed a contempt for women primarily focused on their husband and children. It was a comment that red-state types never forgot.
To be fair, some of Clinton’s defensiveness was generational. She clearly adored her own daughter. But during the emergence of Second Wave feminism, women were either wearing aprons or reading briefs; the two identities seemed at war with another. Palin grew up in a generation more at ease with the idea that women could bring the class cupcakes and still run a spreadsheet. The larger problem was that Clinton’s ambition—not to mention its tie to her marriage—seemed grasping and calculated. Red staters love the fact that Palin’s activism grew out of her motherhood. She wasn’t looking to be a big shot; she didn’t even seem to aspire to “have a career.” In their eyes, she’s simply a mother who wanted to make life better for her kids, her neighbors, and as it followed naturally, even organically, her fellow Alaskans.
Still, whatever the appeal of red-state feminism, it should bring no comfort to anyone in favor of a more mature political culture. Red staters share with their blue-state counterparts a tendency to sentimentalize and trivialize politics. They heighten the salience of Lifetime Television–style personal stories and gossip. They reduce candidates to personalities, lifestyles, and gonads. Some blue staters got behind Clinton because she was a woman; red staters want to vote for Palin because she’s a mom. Both positions are misguided. Multitasking your kids’ homework and dinner is nothing like weighing contradictory advice from your advisors for a decision that will change world history, and estrogen levels do not correlate with experience, judgment, and wisdom. In the long run, the blurring of celebrity and politics hurts everyone, women and men.