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Sarah Palin vs. Mamabear

meowwalex's picture

            When our class watched the film Game Change to further our discussion on Sarah Palin, one of the most striking aspects of her portrayal was the public’s focus on her role as a mother, and further, as an “everyday person” who understands the needs of the average family. I quickly remembered that this depiction was incredibly true to reality, as Palin’s role as a mother and wife was continuously touched on, whether in a negative or positive light. When her daughter, Bristol, was announced pregnant during the race, the construct of Palin’s “family first” outlook was questioned by some and applauded by others. A question that arose for me was how Bristol’s pregnancy affected Palin’s already stereotypical gender roles that were being emphasized throughout the campaign.

            No matter what political position the media had, there was a definite focus on the fact that Palin’s primary role in her personal life aside from the campaign was that of a mother. When Bristol was announced pregnant, many citizens felt this was a direct reflection on her success as a parent. In this way, Palin’s actions (or lack thereof) as a mother became a way to see how she could stand as a political leader. Her identity as a mother was then also pushed onto her role as possible vice-president. While I was more than relieved after Obama’s win, I question whether it was justified to focus so intently on Palin’s role as mother as a determinant of her ability or inability to govern. If Obama had been in her position, would there have been as much of a discussion on the issue, would it have been pushed aside as a matter that belongs solely in a private sphere?

            In Erin Schmidt’s publication “Impregnating Politics: Gender Schemas and the Public/Private Paradoxes Surrounding the Bristol Palin Pregnancy Story” she addresses how, past and present, a woman’s identity as a mother has always been a critical part in her recognition as a woman: “Biologically and historically, the distinguishing feature of womanhood has been the womb. In both contexts, woman is demarcated from man by her ability to bring life into the world. As a result, Western notions of femininity are often informed by woman’s “preordained” role as mother. Brownmiller (1984) notes that to be good women, society requires women to be good mothers: “Evidence of a maternal nature, of a certain innate competence...becomes a requirement of gender.” The widespread acceptance of this gender schema in turn shapes cultural understanding of woman’s place in both the private and public sphere by defining her primary role as that of mother and caretaker. By reinforcing the assumption that a “good” woman is a “good” mother, this schema invites public surveillance of woman’s work in the private sphere as a basis for assessing her ethos in both private and public life (Schmidt 16).

           The way Palin was scrutinized over Bristol’s pregnancy can also be attributed to the fact that her politics included abstinence-only sex education, pro-life views and an intense attitude of focusing on the family. However, as Schmidt notes, society has “required women to be good mothers” and “maternal nature becomes a requirement of gender.” It is obvious that her attitude towards Bristol’s pregnancy was seen as an extreme negligence on her part especially because of her political views. But how much of the reactions were caused solely because having a female gender deems you a responsible, successful caretaker? I think while the hypocrisy of Palin’s beliefs stands as a reasonable rebuttal, the way women in politics are held responsible to be good mothers as well as good politicians is an approach that can be used in the wrong way.

            Other responses to the articles following the announcement of the pregnancy showed that many believed Palin had failed to instill the correct “family values” in her home that conservatives hold to such importance. In this way, she was also been criticized for failing as a caretaker, not instilling “moral beliefs” in her teenagers as well as not following one of the most important beliefs of the conservatives who supported her: “This is what happens when you teach abstinence and creationism. Your 17-year old daughter pays for it. Now on top of taking care of your own newborn and fifth child, you will have to teach your daughter how to be a mother when still a child. Good time to put your family on the back burner to pursue your own career ambition (17).

           In a way, all politicians choose to put their families on the back burner to stand up for a greater cause. Not only was the old-fashioned idea of a woman having to be a present and devoted mother figure involved in the discussions of Bristol’s pregnancy, but the balance of work and family that women have been faced with ever since the workforce has become more equalized between the sexes. The idea of having to balance ones work life and ones family in a way that allows each aspect of life to be given the right attention is something that is focused on in a woman’s career far more than a man’s. It is often more accepted for a man to be less present in the life at home, returning back to the old ideas of the male as the breadwinner. This is, of course, changing, but there are still remnants of that train of thought.

            Even Palin’s fans referred to this train of thought and the idea that a successful woman is one who can multi-task, which has been a “trademark of the competent domestic woman” (24). As an online blogger of Fox News responded: “Stuff happens even in the best of families...this will only prove Sarah will be a fantastic multi-tasker...campaign trail until November, planning a wedding, BEING ELECTED VICE PRESIDENT in November, planning the finishing touches of a wedding in December, inaugural in January, me a guy (Romney, Lieberman, etc.) who could successfully get through that ‘laundry’ list of multiple tasks and keep it together...” (24).

            The way this reader’s comment was made, intertwining aspects of the professional and personal life made them seem incredibly interchangeable. Even though the statement is in favor of Sarah Palin, it is still holding on to the idea that women are natural multi-taskers and should very well be able to maintain their strong position in the domestic field along with having a demanding, high profile career.

            Although I do not agree with Sarah Palin’s politics, I found that in a way she was held to higher standards as her counterparts because of the fact that she was a woman, mother and wife along with a candidate. McCain chose her because of her gender and as a way of surprising his followers with something innovative.

            In a broader sense, I wonder if woman candidates will continue to be held at such scrutiny because of the fact that a large part of society’s construct of a woman involves around family and children and being a successful parent. (I am also completely aware that along with the scrutiny of Palin’s relationship with Bristol, the scrutiny mostly lied in her complete ineptitude to fill the position). Though I take it into full consideration that Bristol becoming pregnant at seventeen should be scrutinized because of the fact that Palin is all for abstinence-only education and has pro-life morals, (which proves those political viewpoints not very successful in the real world—but that is a whole other essay), I wonder if it is the constructs that a good woman must also be a good mother and that a bad mother will also be a bad politician is what led most of the discussions throughout the time of the campaign.          

            This discussion started a more in depth analysis of the choices that many women have to make: are we able to be caretakers and successful political figures all at once? I find this question problematic, because it is not nearly directed to successful political men with families in the same sense. In the end, I think it is difficult to be a truly present and successful parent while campaigning or holding positions of office, whether you are a woman or a man. However, it seems that these parental roles are placed as more important for the mother figure, the presumed inherited “multitasker”.

Schmidt, Erin L., "Impregnating Politics: Gender Schemas and the Public/Private Paradoxes Surrounding the Bristol Palin Pregnancy Story" (2009). Electronic Theses, Treatises and Dissertations. Paper 2004.


Anne Dalke's picture

Public/Private Paradoxes?

one of the oldest binaries in feminist theory is the public/private divide (a review of this history might begin with Jean Elshtain's 1993 landmark text, Public Man, Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought). And one of the longest-standing interrogations in the field includes multiple attempts to query that divide, to "queer" it, to question the logic of the boundary it polices. One of my very favorite theorists in this arena is the philosopher Sara Ruddick  who, in Maternal Thinking: Towards a Politics of Peace (first an essay, then a book), uses the work of mothering as a model for civic engagement, in particular as a source for  a nonviolent, anti-militarist politics....

I'm suggesting, in short, that "a more in depth analysis" of the issues you trace here would unsettle the binary you construct "of the choices that many women have to make: are we able to be caretakers and successful political figures all at once?" --in order to ask if there are other more fluid ways to think of public/private engagements that feed one another. Rather than construct two discrete fields--what you call "the professional and personal life"--and frame the question as one of "multi-tasking," or "having to balance ones work life and ones family," how might we think of the two as one, intertwining, interchanging….? Drawing not on the logic of purity, of separation, but rather of mixing….thinking not of the binary "balance," but rather of oh, something like "emulsification," unstable, with different degress of coalescence and curdling...