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Sarah Palin: the Antithesis of Hillary Clinton

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Sarah Palin: The Antithesis of Hillary Clinton


            It is a critical moment in history when the nation’s most talked about women are politicians rather than movie stars or pop artists. Over the past months, Senator Hillary Clinton and Governor Sarah Palin have brought the concept of womanhood into the spotlight like never before. Both of these women have eagerly seized the opportunity to stand before the United States and share their beliefs with the hope of rallying citizen support. However, in examining transcripts of their political speeches, we see that Palin and Clinton’s approaches to becoming top female leaders could not be more distinct. While Hillary’s ideals and mission represent a third wave feminist agenda based on the goal of equality for citizens of all genders, races, sexual orientations, classes, etc., Palin’s campaign is anti-feminist in its emphasis on male supremacy on acute lack of attention to a need for social change. For this paper, I have chosen to study Clinton’s Democratic National Convention speech, August 26, 2008, and Palin’s Republican National Convention Speech, September 3, 2008, for both were given in a similar setting and with the ultimate goal of electing a man as president. These similarities in context serve to exacerbate the degree to which the content of their speeches differ.

There are numerous theories circulating as to why John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, but certainly one of the most prevalent is that McCain wants to appeal to female voters and the modern mission of female empowerment by demonstrating his willingness to work with a woman in a top leadership position. Perhaps McCain hopes that all the “women for Hillary” will become “women for Palin,” irrespective of their distinct political agendas. In analyzing Palin’s discourse, we see that her view of womanhood and political policies are in such sharp contrast to those of Clinton that it would be shocking if Clinton supporters actually chose to vote for McCain and Palin. Despite being a woman, Palin, unlike Clinton, affirms the power of the white, upper class, patriarchy. Thus, we come to realize that though Clinton and Palin are the same gender, it is what they do with their gender that’s far more important.

            After thanking the audience, Clinton opens her speech with a reference to her womanhood, thereby setting the stage for the high level of importance that she places upon her female identity. Clinton explains that she is at the Convention first as a “proud mother” and then as a “proud Democrat…senator from New York…American…and supporter of Barack Obama.” By beginning with a reference to her role as a mother, Clinton immediately claims her womanhood as essential to her position as a national leader. In other words, she defines herself as a female leader, not simply a female or a leader; her success as a politician is dependent upon her femininity, and she uses this quality to distinguish herself from other politicians who are also Democrats, Americans, New Yorkers, etc.

            Considering that Clinton was forced to concede to Democratic Presidential Candidate Barack Obama only a couple months earlier, her presence at the Convention and whole hearted support for Obama shows true resolve and is no less than admirable. The above quotation suggests that Clinton derives the most strength and drive from being a “proud mother.” By equating her womanhood with such empowering qualities, Clinton rejects the stereotype of femininity as a source of weakness. Clinton’s use of womanhood as a source of empowerment is further seen in her reference to the various people who have provided her with career-long inspiration. She describes Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones as the “loving mother [and] courageous leader” who provided her with an example as to how to be a female leader fighting with both determination and grace. Later, Clinton cites Harriet Tubman, a fellow New Yorker, who risked her own life in her effort to achieve freedom for all. While Clinton is not asking her fellow females to put their lives on the line, she is asking individuals to think beyond themselves and work towards achieving widespread change. In addition, by mentioning these women as part of the foundation of American politics, Clinton deconstructs a national history based on male supremacy. Along the same lines, Clinton makes a point of mentioning Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, suggesting that the success of Barack Obama and Joe Biden depends upon the exemplary competence that their spouses exhibit and the couples’ willingness to have marriages that embrace both personal and professional partnerships. Finally, Clinton’s reference to her “sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits” suggests that she fights not for herself but for all the women beside her, trying to wear power-suits in a patriarchy.           

Clinton’s somewhat vague use of the word “mother” in the second line of her speech is also of critical importance. At the most concrete level, “mother” refers to Clinton’s role within her family; however, the ambiguity here suggests that Clinton also considers herself a mother for her country, a role that obligates her to protect her nation and help it to grow and develop in the same way she might nurture her daughter Chelsea. Thus, we subconsciously view Clinton as a woman who is looking out for us and will do what’s in our best interest, even if it does not satisfy her personal desires. Such altruism makes Clinton that much more trustworthy and her comments all the more potent. As the speech continues, Clinton’s presentation of motherhood continues to evolve. In the last section, Clinton places herself among the masses and connects with her audience as an equal through her acknowledgement of their common struggles and the use of a collective “we.” Instead of presenting herself as the mother of the country, she allows herself to be just one of the many mothers looking out for the “future of our children” which currently “hangs in the balance.” The repetition of “our children” in these final lines suggests that Clinton is trying to call upon all adults to join her in a collective parenthood in which the future of the country is everyone’s child.

Returning to the beginning of the speech, Clinton, after pronouncing herself a mother of the country, moves on to her mission statement, telling the audience that her time spent “advocating for children, campaigning for universal health care, helping parents balance work and family, and fight for women’s rights here at home and around the world” is not over. It is significant that these issues which Clinton considers to be most crucial to her campaign and defining in her role as politician are all “women’s issues” in that they represent a third wave feminist agenda; she fights for equal access across generations, genders, and social classes. Like many modern day feminists, her mission extends beyond women’s rights to the creation of an “America that is defined by a deep meaningful equality.” In this sentence, Clinton clarifies the fact that a progressive feminist agenda is no longer about focusing on women’s rights, thereby further isolation the population through an affirmation of gender divides, but rather erasing gender, class, and generation partitions which prevent the formation of a cohesive “we.”

This attempt to establish a collective identity is further seen in Clinton’s use of emotion to trigger a sort of psychological unification among her audience. In addition to acknowledging her own private emotions, the way in which citizens have “made her laugh” and “even made [her] cry,” Clinton tells poignant stories recalling the conversations she has shared with everyday struggling individuals: a single mom with cancer fighting to get health care for her children, a boy whose mother works for minimum wage and cannot get enough hours, and a young man worried about his buddies in Iraq. These anecdotes highlight two important things. First, Clinton understands that these people and their struggles form the framework of our nation, and second, Clinton is aware of the critical sentiments circulating throughout the nation. By sharing this patchwork of fears and anxieties, Clinton pushes towards the creation of a cohesive “we.”

Later in her speech, Clinton appeals to first and second wave feminists in her explicit statement that women’s rights inspired her entrance into politics:

I’m a United States senator because, in 1848, a group of courageous women, and a few brave men, gathered in Seneca Falls, New York…to participate in the first convention on women’s rights in our history. And so dawned the struggle…handed down by mother to daughter to granddaughter, and a few sons and grandsons along the way.

In this passage, Clinton effectively embeds herself in a cross-generational, cross-gender mission to create change and achieve the seemingly impossible. This pronouncement serves as a call-to-arms, for Clinton is asking all members of her audience to join the effort. Thus, we begin to see that while other politicians, like Sarah Palin, encourage young men to enlist in the army and head to Iraq, Clinton sees the more important war as one against the social crisis that exists here on the home front.

            While Clinton opens with her role as mother, it is not until the end of the first page that Palin alludes to her womanhood, labeling herself a “mother of one of those troops” in Iraq, “just one of the many moms who’ll say an extra prayer each night for our sons and daughters going into harm’s way.” Here, Palin uses her role as mother not as a source of empowerment, like Clinton, but as an equalizer, something that places her among the female masses. This theme reemerges later in the speech when Palin describes herself as “a gal” who is “just your average hockey mom.” Again, Palin uses words like “just” to normalize herself and make it clear that she is no better than the other hockey moms. Thus, Palin is not dedicated to moving towards a society in which regular women are national leaders, professionals, and top intellectuals instead of hockey moms. While Clinton defines herself as a national mother figure, Palin acutely separates her roles as mother and politician. Palin’s underlying point is that motherhood is what makes her a “regular person,” not what makes her a leader—a discouraging message for feminists who urge women to see their womanhood as intertwined with their power. Furthermore, in labeling herself “just one of many moms,” Palin suggests that when it comes to social issues regarding family, children, and women, she has no desire to step up as a leader. Instead, she would prefer to simply sit back and “say an extra prayer.” Clearly, Palin has no desire to present herself, like Clinton, as a mother of the country—Palin’s desired role is far more passive; she tells us that if she is elected, we “will have a friend and advocate in the White House.” This statement is disappointing, for friendship is hardly a reason to elect someone. We would expect a vice president to describe herself as more active and able to assume a commanding role; being a friend and advocate says nothing about Palin’s ability or desire to create change. Palin claims that the “right reason” to go to Washington is “to challenge the status quo,” yet this is an empty statement given her prior self-definition.

            While Clinton’s speech repeatedly affirms her womanhood as being of critical importance to her politics, Palin’s references to anything related to womanhood (women, family, children, mother, etc.) are few and far between. Much more prominent in Palin’s discourse is the use of the word “man;” whereas “man” appears nowhere in Clinton’s speech, it is used thirteen time in Palin’s. In most cases, Palin uses “man” in place of the more gender neutral word “person” or “politician.” For example, she describes McCain as “exactly the kind of man [she] wants as commander in chief.” This phrasing subtly communicates Palin’s belief that the commander in chief must be male. Towards the end of the speech, Palin claims that “there is only one man in this election who has ever really fought,” thereby implying that the struggles of women like herself or Hillary Clinton are of little to no importance.[1] It would be interesting to ask Palin why we should elect her if she does not even see her own efforts as worthy. Finally, Palin concludes by asking her audience to “elect a great man as the next president of the United States.” The fact that Palin never discusses her own electability suggests that she sees herself as trivial when compared to McCain; her role is fairly analogous to that of a cheerleader on the sidelines of a football game: support the heroic male figure.

Furthermore, Palin uses stereotypes of manhood as a way to contrast McCain and Obama. While Palin consider McCain “the man,” Obama is simply “a man,” and one who is willing to give up and let his country down. As Palin says, “victory in Iraq is finally in sight [and Obama] wants to forfeit.” This statement presents Obama as unmanly, disgraceful, and without “the determination, resolve, and sheer guts” that characterize McCain. As a whole, Palin’s speech suggests that McCain’s manhood is essential to his candidacy and that the Republican campaign in general is about conforming to gender stereotypes and affirming the power and potential of man. Thus, Palin’s definition of “feminism” involves moving towards a society in which women work behind and in support of men without interfering with their agendas.

While Clinton used a collective “we” throughout her speech, making it clear that she strives for an America defined by unity not division, Palin rarely uses the first person plural, preferring to separate herself , ‘I,’ from the people, ‘you.’ The pronounced absence of the word “equality” or similar derivatives in Palin’s speech only propagates the sense that social rights and egalitarianism are not at the forefront of her agenda. As alluded to earlier, Palin presents McCain as an almighty man ready to occupy what Palin refers to as “the most powerful office on earth.” Furthermore, Palin suggests that McCain himself is a weapon of high “caliber,” defined, as mentioned previously, by “determination, resolve, and sheer guts.” Palin’s description appeals to individuals who want a president to be their soldier and enter the office ready to achieve his mission, even if it means engaging in war. Thus, Palin might also define female empowerment as the opportunity to be a woman and rally for violence and warfare. In addition, while Clinton fights against the current political and social agenda, Palin fights against people; she opens her speech by accepting “the challenge of a tough fight in this election against confident opponents.” This us versus them mentality only enhances the overall sense that Palin, unlike Clinton, is comfortable drawing lines between groups of people.

Palin speech shows a much greater emphasis on the presentation of Obama as the enemy than a discussion of the McCain-Palin agenda. Palin uses misconstruction and exaggeration to negatively portray her opponent’s credentials and mission: “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer’ except that you have actual responsibilities.” Here, “community organizer” is a clear reference to Barack Obama, who held such a position in Chicago before attending Harvard Law School. In addition to rudely mocking Obama’s experience, Palin, by not directly naming her object of criticism, adopts a tone that conforms to the stereotype of women as passive aggressive. It seems that Palin is attempting to portray herself as a sort of warrier who is ready to take on the men, but in not directly addressing Obama, she subconsciously communicates her own insecurity in taking accomplished male politicians, like Obama, head on. We can’t help but wonder if Palin would actually have the confidence to make such a comment to Obama’s face and risk confronting a harsh critique of her own actions. Later in her discourse, Palin again ridicules Obama, this time presenting his goals as ridiculous and detrimental to the country: “What does he actually seek to accomplish, after he’s done turning back he waters and healing the planet? The answer is to make government bigger, take more of your money, give you more orders from Washington, and to reduce the strength of America in a dangerous world. America needs more energy and our opponent is against producing it.” Through passages like this, Palin deflects the attention away from her and on to the opponent, thereby avoiding ever having to describe the details of her own agenda. Thus, Palin primarily appeals to a non-critical, un-educated audience that is willing to join her fight against the unwanted. We begin to see that while Clinton fights for, Palin simply fights against. Such a distinction suggests that Palin may lack the strength of character to stand up for what she believes and create her own mission, defining herself by what she is, rather than what she is not. It will be a true shame if our first female vice president is such a spineless individual.

Palin’s description of the predictability of her family history (her high school sweetheart becoming her husband and a lifelong commercial fisherman, her parents working at the elementary school where Palin and her family still live) is in sharp contrast to Clinton’s emphasis on progress: “My mother was born before women could vote. My daughter got to vote for her mother for president.” Here, the difference between Clinton and Palin’s speeches demonstrates their distinct campaigns. Palin uses almost a sixth of her speech to paint herself as a member of an ideal American family, thereby normalizing herself, affirming the traditional American dream, and gaining the support of many American citizens who still depend on such age-old fantasies. On the other hand, Clinton provides us with a new American dream; her “story of America” is based upon “women who defy the odds and never give up” and she rallies support from individuals who are not prepared to settle for what the present has to offer. Thus, the Democrats’ mission sharply opposes that of McCain, who will bring, as Clinton says, “four more years of the last eight years.”

After fully examining both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin’s speeches, we see that while Clinton represents a modern day feminist agenda, Palin is an anti-feminist who refuses to identify as a female leader and prefers to reduce womanhood to something associated with housewives and hockey moms. When it comes to political leadership, Palin tends to blend into the background and let McCain, portrayed as a true macho man, carry the weight of the campaign’s mission. In addition, while Clinton strives for equality and unity, Palin, in her attempt to prove that she can fight like a man, develops an offensive warrior-like leadership style and us versus them approach. Palin neglects the need for social change, arguing that the real battle is overseas, thereby implying that she is comfortable with current social divides based on gender, race, class, etc. In summary, Clinton’s speech serves to highlight the degree to which Sarah Palin dishonors womanhood and all that we have spent the last century trying to achieve. It would be a true shame if citizens closed their ears to the words escaping Ms. Palin’s lipstick lined lips and decided to vote on the basis of gender rather than competence, ideals, and agenda.

[1] On the other hand, this could be interpreted as an understanding on Palin’s part that the women have fought, but she is choosing to only compare McCain’s efforts to those of other men, since, in Palin’s mind, men and women are not equal and cannot be compared.


sarahpalin's picture

Sarah palin and the media

You know when media makes stories about Sarah Palin and her handbags you know there is just shear hate of her out there. I am glad she is now doing better and can take them on.

EG's picture

Julia, I found this essay

Julia, I found this essay really insightful and timely, especially alongside recent media coverage of Palin as she becomes more widely scrutinized by the American public.  I found the use of the word "mother" in Clinton's speech pretty remarkable as well, so thank you for bringing attention to the timing of that.  I think, in some regard, people don't even listen to the words that Palin speaks; we are looking, instead, at body language, reactions, and confidence in her statements. Here though, you have brought to light what is actually being said and I think that is really important.  I was actually thinking earlier about the differences between the using "mom" (as Palin does) and "mother" (Hillary).  Hmmm....

In what ways, do you think, is Palin using her body, in public, to attempt show her gender, as opposed to Hillary?  How many times has she winked at the camera in the last 5 publicized speeches?  What is the significance of Hillary's pant suits?  Hm hm hmmm

Great paper, and again, insightful analysis. 


jlustick's picture

In retrospect, I agree that

In retrospect, I agree that the title does not exactly match the focus of the paper. I think that in general, I should have made it more clear in both the title and the intro that I was choosing to focus on the language of the two speeches and do a sort of literary close reading that depended on literary analysis more than political theory/analysis. In other words, one of the main goals was to use language to understand politics. I also think that the title of your comment, "Feminist and Anti-Feminist: Two Ways of Talking," might be appropriate for my paper. I like your suggestion to consider other feminist political speeches and may decide to examine them for a future project.
Anne Dalke's picture

Feminist and Anti-Feminist: Two Ways of Talking

Your title, which poses Palin as Clinton's antithesis, doesn't actually do justice to your project, jlustick, which I would say uses the paired convention speeches of these two women politicians as means to a larger end: highlighting the difference between barrier-building ("us vs. them") and coalition-building politics, between conventional and progressive female roles, between "friendship" and leadership.

This sort of discourse analysis is a striking way to focus our study of the various waves and nuances of feminism, and if you wanted to go on with this study, it might be interesting to extend it by placing the speeches of Palin and Clinton in the long history of feminist political oratory in this country. What dimensions strike you in the talks given by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, in the speeches of Sojourner Truth (as recorded by others) and Ida B. Wells (as reported by herself)?

Alternatively, it might be fun to work more with the way in which both Palin and Clinton use humor. Your mention of Clinton's wry reference to her "sisterhood of traveling pantsuits," for instance, highlights not only the very different way she and Palin dress (as another index to different waves of feminism--and certainly another topic for exploration)--but also their different modes of humor: self-deprecating (in this case) vs. what you characterize as Palin's ridicule of the opposite party.

One of your clasmates also wrote a paper on Palin and Clinton as "gynecological twins." Much of her material was drawn from feminist comedians--which would be another fruitful area for potential analysis: looking @ the ways in which these speeches got re-represented by female comedians.