4-2 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/10.17742/IMAGE.mother.4-2.4 | McCabe PDF


Sel­dom has some­one emerged so unex­pect­ed­ly and sen­sa­tion­al­ly on to the Amer­i­can polit­i­cal scene as Sarah Palin.  With Palin came what had rarely, if ever, been seen before on a pres­i­den­tial trail: hock­ey moms, Cari­bou-hunt­ing, pit­bulls in lip­stick par­celled as polit­i­cal weapon­ry. And let’s not for­get those five chil­dren, includ­ing Track 19, set to deploy to Iraq, Bris­tol, and her unplanned preg­nan­cy at 17, and Trig, a six-month-old infant with Down’s syn­drome.  Nev­er before had moth­er­hood been so fine­ly bal­anced with US pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics. Bio­log­i­cal vigour trans­lat­ed into polit­i­cal ener­gy, moth­er­hood trans­formed into an intox­i­cat­ing polit­i­cal ide­al. This arti­cle focus­es on Sarah Palin and how her brand of “rugged Alaskan moth­er­hood” (Pun­dit­Mom 2008) became cen­tral to her media image, as well as what this rep­re­sen­ta­tion has to tell us about the rela­tion­ship between moth­er­ing as a polit­i­cal ide­al, US pol­i­tics, and the media.

Très peu d’individus ont fait une appari­tion aus­si inat­ten­due et spec­tac­u­laire que celle de Sarah Palin sur la scène poli­tique améri­caine. Avec elle ont sur­gi des traits inédits dans une cam­pagnes prési­den­tielle : ceux de la hock­ey mom, de la chas­se au cari­bou, de la femme pugnace mais fardée util­isés comme des argu­ments par­ti­sans. Cela sans oubli­er les enfants Palin mis à con­tri­bu­tion : Track, 19 ans, atten­dant son affec­ta­tion mil­i­taire en Irak, Bris­tol, fille-mère à 17 ans, et Trig, un bébé tri­somique de six mois. Une image si ori­en­tée de la mater­nité n’avait jamais aupar­a­vant été impliquée dans une cam­pagne poli­tique aux États-Unis. La vigueur géné­tique s’y est vue trans­for­mée en énergie poli­tique, et la mater­nité en un idéal poli­tique intox­i­cant. Cet arti­cle se con­cen­tre sur la façon dont l’image d’une « rugged Alaskan moth­er­hood » (Pun­dit­Mon 2008) est dev­enue si cru­ciale dans la per­son­nal­ité médi­a­tique de Sarah Palin, et sur ce qu’une telle image peut nous appren­dre quant aux rela­tions entre la mater­nité comme idéal, la poli­tique améri­caine, et les média.

Janet McCabe | Birk­beck, Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don

Tea with Mother:
Sarah Palin and the Discourse of Motherhood as a Political Ideal

Rarely has any­one emerged so unex­pect­ed­ly and sen­sa­tion­al­ly on to the Amer­i­can polit­i­cal scene as Sarah Palin. It is August 2008, and the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee John McCain, the mod­er­ate sen­a­tor from Ari­zona, took his most auda­cious cam­paign gam­ble when he named the 44-year-old moth­er-of-five gov­er­nor of Alas­ka as his run­ning mate. Every­thing about her looked dif­fer­ent. “She’s not—she’s not from these parts and she’s not from Wash­ing­ton, but when you get to know her, you’re going to be as impressed as I am,” McCain told Repub­li­cans assem­bled in Day­ton, Ohio, short­ly before Palin strode onto the polit­i­cal plat­form with hus­band Todd, a native Yup’ik who worked for BP, and four of her five chil­dren with uncom­mon names includ­ing Bris­tol, unmar­ried and preg­nant at 17, and Trig Pax­son Van, a six-month-old infant with Down’s syn­drome.

Fig. 1

As a Chris­t­ian, social con­ser­v­a­tive, anti-abor­tion­ist, and patri­ot prepar­ing to see her eldest son deployed to Iraq (on Sep­tem­ber 11, 2008, no less), this “mid­dle youth” moth­er from America’s last fron­tier seemed a shrewd (if unex­pect­ed) choice to shore up the vote among the party’s staunch­ly right-wing evan­gel­i­cal base. Still, it was the more sub­tle tan­gled ways in which Sarah Palin politi­cised moth­er­ing and her role as a moth­er that ignit­ed pas­sions across the polit­i­cal spectrum—and had fem­i­nists like me (McCabe, “States of Con­fu­sion”; “In the Fem­i­nine Ide­al”) tied in the­o­ret­i­cal knots. Palin trans­lat­ed the post­fem­i­nist “have it all” cul­ture into potent, if uneasy, polit­i­cal cur­ren­cy, mak­ing his­to­ry as the first woman on the Repub­li­can tick­et and only the sec­ond in US pres­i­den­tial his­to­ry to become a vice-pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee. What inter­ests me how­ev­er, and the sub­ject of this arti­cle, is how the dis­course of moth­er­hood, turned into a polit­i­cal ide­al, was made useful—qualified and disqualified—and linked to an inten­si­fi­ca­tion of the fem­i­nine body. Palin’s well craft­ed image was imbued, through and through, with tac­ti­cal func­tion and polit­i­cal cal­cu­la­tion. It is dis­course of the Moth­er and moth­er­ing, imag­ined in and through her image, which trans­mits and pro­duces a for­mi­da­ble pow­er; it rein­forces a moral, social, and eco­nom­ic order, but it also reveals fragili­ties and the lim­its of that pow­er, par­tic­u­lar­ly cen­tred on sex, sex­u­al­i­ty, and the bio­log­i­cal female body.

With Palin came what had rarely if ever been seen before in pol­i­tics, let alone a pres­i­den­tial trail. Hock­ey moms, mama griz­zlies in killer heels, and pit­bulls in lip­stick par­celled as polit­i­cal weapon­ry. Such a staged spec­ta­cle of female agency and pow­er led Lacan­ian psy­cho­an­a­lyst and writer Jacques-Alain Miller to con­clude, “Sarah Palin puts for­ward no lack: she fears noth­ing, churns out chil­dren all [the] while hold­ing a shot­gun … [and] presents her­self as an unstop­pable force.” This appar­ent defi­ance of easy def­i­n­i­tion and absolute refusal to sac­ri­fice nei­ther career nor chil­dren saw the dis­ori­ent­ing col­lapse of what Nina Pow­er calls the “old female dichotomies—mother/politician, attractive/successful, pas­sive/­go-get­ting.” Every­thing about Palin appeared lim­it­less and omnipo­tent, argues Pow­er: “Both fierce­ly mater­nal and polit­i­cal­ly aggres­sive, … [and turn­ing] mater­ni­ty into a war weapon,” the vice-pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee “is pre­tend­ing to be all women at once, and yet per­fect­ly mun­dane.”

Nev­er before had moth­er­hood been so fine­ly parad­ed as polit­i­cal accom­plish­ment. Bio­log­i­cal vigour trans­lat­ed into con­sti­tu­tion­al ambi­tion, and moth­er­ing trans­formed into an intox­i­cat­ing polit­i­cal ide­al. As she cra­dled Trig in her arms, a “liv­ing [tes­ta­ment] to her­self as the mod­el pro-life moth­er” (Raban), she wowed the par­ty faith­ful and secured her polit­i­cal celebri­ty almost overnight. Palin was every­where. Her ubiq­ui­tous image was fea­tured in mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers the length and breadth of Amer­i­ca and beyond: “A Mother’s Painful Choice” ran the poignant OK! head­line, but the glossy media image of her cradling Trig told anoth­er, more com­pelling sto­ry of mater­nal pride, domes­tic bliss, and pro-life prin­ci­ples. We may know that the polit­i­cal image is high­ly chore­o­graphed (in which both the media and politi­cians are inex­tri­ca­bly entan­gled), how­ev­er on see­ing Palin hold­ing her hand­i­capped baby son on stage at the GOP nation­al con­ven­tion, few could have failed not to be affect­ed by the sight as a ground­break­ing moment for women—or as Nan­cy Gibb saw it, “you felt the shat­tered glass rain­ing gen­tly down.”

Fig. 2

Nowhere is the para­dox pre­sent­ed by Palin more self evi­dent than in how her image rep­re­sents so seduc­tive­ly the per­son­al is polit­i­cal. Michel Fou­cault alerts us to how dom­i­nant norms (insti­tu­tions, cul­ture) are per­pet­u­al­ly being resist­ed and recon­sti­tut­ed by knowl­edge that has devel­oped and gained momen­tum from else­where “in the pow­er net­work” (95). Almost imme­di­ate­ly, in intro­duc­ing “the right part­ner,” McCain iden­ti­fied Palin (unnamed and un-gen­dered at this point) as some­one able to chal­lenge pow­er and will­ing to dis­pute priv­i­lege, before say­ing “proud­ly” that in the week “we cel­e­brate the anniver­sary of female suf­frage” his run­ning mate is “a devot­ed wife and moth­er of five.” Her legit­i­ma­cy to rule is vouched for by ref­er­ence to the com­mon­weal (mat­ri­mo­ni­al alle­giance, parental oblig­a­tions), and her role as pres­i­den­tial help­mate is authen­ti­cat­ed by these tra­di­tion­al forms of alliance that Palin seemed oblig­ed to end­less­ly pro­nounce about her­self. But at the same time, the moth­er is also play­ing the role of adver­sary to pow­er. It did in fact seem, at first glance at least, that her can­di­da­cy rep­re­sent­ed the tri­umph of the per­son­al over the polit­i­cal.

Palin wast­ed no time in acknowl­edg­ing this his­toric moment for women. As an ordi­nary work­ing moth­er, she was the lega­cy of fem­i­nism in America—a coun­try that empha­sized equal vot­ing rights and indi­vid­ual women empow­er­ing them­selves (rather than through col­lec­tive activism). Stand­ing on the polit­i­cal stage in 2008, Palin made sense of that neolib­er­al fem­i­nist ide­al, name­ly: women had made unprece­dent­ed gains.

To serve as vice pres­i­dent beside such a man would be the priv­i­lege of a life­time. And it’s fit­ting that this trust has been giv­en to me 88 years almost to the day after the women of Amer­i­ca first gained the right to vote. … I think—I think as well today of two oth­er women who came before me in nation­al elec­tions. I can't begin this great effort with­out hon­or­ing the achieve­ments of Geral­dine Fer­raro in 1984 … and of course Sen­a­tor Hillary Clin­ton, who showed such deter­mi­na­tion and grace in her pres­i­den­tial cam­paign … It was right­ly not­ed in Den­ver this week that Hillary left 18 mil­lion cracks in the high­est, hard­est glass ceil­ing in Amer­i­ca … but it turns out the women of Amer­i­ca aren't fin­ished yet and we can shat­ter that glass ceil­ing once and for all. (Palin, “Tran­script McCain”)

No doubt these words were designed to win over the dis­af­fect­ed Hillary Rod­ham Clin­ton sup­port­ers, as if biol­o­gy was all that mat­tered. Ini­tial­ly, Palin did what was expect­ed of her, and opin­ion polls sug­gest­ed that her can­di­da­cy appealed to a large sec­tion of female (most­ly white) vot­ers the Oba­ma camp had either dis­re­gard­ed or sim­ply assumed would shift alle­giance once Clin­ton dropped out of the Demo­c­rat race (Gold­en­berg, “McCain Forced into Sup­port­ing Role” 20). Palin also reju­ve­nat­ed McCain’s slid­ing polit­i­cal for­tunes, with one waver­ing Repub­li­can female vot­er say­ing: “She has brought youth, the female fac­tor, the younger gen­er­a­tion, she has brought, most impor­tant­ly to me, a lot of women who were sit­ting on the fence” (qtd. in Gold­en­berg, “McCain Forced into Sup­port­ing Role” 20 ). Her can­di­da­cy was about vis­i­bil­i­ty, of mak­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tion on behalf of women and bring­ing that con­stituen­cy into the polit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion.

Fem­i­nism had arrived in the Amer­i­can heart­land. Even so, this pro-woman tableau paint­ed by Palin was rife with deep ambiva­lence and pro­found con­tra­dic­tion. Clin­ton may have put 18 mil­lion cracks into the glass ceil­ing, but did the last push real­ly mean shat­ter­ing that which pro­tect­ed Roe vs. Wade as well? Fur­ther­more, what did it say about women in pow­er when the first to poten­tial­ly occu­py the vice pres­i­den­cy in the his­to­ry of the Unit­ed States was a self-declared “aver­age hock­ey mom” who “nev­er real­ly set out to be involved in pub­lic affairs, much less to run for this office” (Palin, “Tran­script McCain”)? Palin is sat­u­rat­ed in the polit­i­cal mean­ings of her per­son­al life. She makes vis­i­ble the “Fem­i­nists for Life” mantra with her res­olute refusal to choose between women and chil­dren. She man­gles the vocab­u­lar­ies of social con­ser­vatism (anti-abor­tion, absti­nence edu­ca­tion) with fem­i­nism (equal rights, bal­anc­ing par­ent­ing with an ambi­tious career). She com­bines aspects of “pow­er fem­i­nism” (Wolf), where women are in con­trol of their des­tiny, with what Eliz­a­beth Fox-Gen­ovese terms “fam­i­ly fem­i­nist,” which involves women able to set their own agen­das based on per­son­al con­cerns rather than elit­ist ide­ol­o­gy and com­mu­nal log­ic. Palin is an exam­ple of the post­fem­i­nist “have it all” ratio­nale defined by self-deter­min­ism and enter­prise (linked to free mar­ket eco­nom­ics), a lega­cy of the Rea­gan era; she is some­one who grew up “feel­ing” empow­ered and inter­nal­iz­ing the mes­sage of women’s progress (“Stand­ing on the shoul­ders of women who had won hard-fought bat­tles for things like equal pay and equal access” [Palin, “Tran­script McCain” 28]), but dis­con­nect­ed from the polit­i­cal philoso­phies which had cre­at­ed those oppor­tu­ni­ties in the first place. “I didn’t sub­scribe to all the rad­i­cal mantras of that ear­ly fem­i­nist era,” Palin has said (“Tran­script McCain” 28), a move­ment she regards as irrel­e­vant at best and sus­pi­cious­ly social­ist at worst. Fem­i­nism is about self-reliance and per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty rather than col­lec­tive agen­das and legal edicts, “a mat­ter not of ide­ol­o­gy but of sim­ple fair­ness” (Palin, “Tran­script McCain” 28).

Her rep­re­sen­ta­tion, “liv­ing com­fort­ably with para­dox” (Siegel 141), in many ways enters into dia­logue with con­tem­po­rary fem­i­nism and its pol­i­tics of ambiguity—only to stoke the flames of dis­agree­ment over how exact­ly to define our terms and push us to the lim­its of lan­guage when we talk about women and pow­er. Here then lies one of the most com­plex, if unnerv­ing ironies of Palin. She may rhetor­i­cal­ly imi­tate fem­i­nism, but dis­torts, resists, even revers­es its log­ic, as she trans­lates it into a pop­ulist con­ver­sa­tion about equal­i­ty and a refusal to com­pro­mise. Social prob­lems are no longer com­mu­nal requir­ing col­lec­tive action, but per­son­al ones demand­ing indi­vid­ual solu­tions. It is an (iron­i­cal­ly) apo­lit­i­cal post­fem­i­nist brand, described by Deb­o­rah L. Siegel as “about pro­pelling one­self for­ward in stilet­to heels” (124).

But in this fem­i­nist para­dox a cru­cial point has gone awry. Nev­er mind how Palin raids fem­i­nism for its rhetoric and semi­otics of empow­er­ment, her image oper­ates inside metic­u­lous codes—of mar­riage sanc­ti­fied by church and State, of moth­er­hood inte­gral to the bour­geois order, and of fam­i­ly extolled by pop­u­lar media and polit­i­cal rhetoric. It is a les­son in unseen pow­er where­by bio­log­i­cal fecun­di­ty trans­lates into polit­i­cal lever­age. Pow­er comes not from par­ti­san pol­i­tics (as such), but from “that [which] we no longer per­ceive … as the effect of pow­er that con­strains us” (Fou­cault 60). No won­der we can­not help but become entranced and exas­per­at­ed by her in equal mea­sure. “She is a fresh voice” with a “new vocab­u­lary” declared vet­er­an Repub­li­can Pat Buchanan (“A Post-Mortem of the Debate Post-Mortem”), but she is speak­ing in and through a rep­re­sen­ta­tion (the fer­tile moth­er, the faith­ful wife, the [re]productive female body) beset by intri­cate rules and intrin­sic to the mech­a­nisms of social pow­er and con­trol. So imbibed are we in this vital image of the fem­i­nine rep­re­sent­ed by Palin that to cri­tique this script is almost impos­si­ble. Dis­clos­ing what should not be said, to denounce that ide­al of Amer­i­can moth­er­hood which dis­course (insti­tu­tions, cul­ture, pol­i­tics, soci­ety, the media) works so hard to pro­mote and, as Fou­cault put it, “enforce[s] the norm” (3; empha­sis mine), can­not be done.

Fam­i­ly, faith, and flag define her polit­i­cal celebri­ty. Palin has always made con­sid­er­able cap­i­tal of her role as a moth­er. She has, in fact, politi­cised moth­er­hood as nev­er before, not only trans­lat­ing moth­er­ing into a polit­i­cal creed, but also using it to legit­i­ma­tise her iden­ti­fy and affirm her­self. “On April 20, 1989,” Palin declares in her best­selling polit­i­cal mem­oir, Going Rogue: An Amer­i­can Life, “my life tru­ly began. I became a mom. … The world went away, and in a crys­tal­liz­ing instant, I knew my pur­pose” (51, 53). Her cre­do is clear: In becom­ing a moth­er her sub­jec­tiv­i­ty is defined and qual­i­fied. It is the way in which she con­ceives of power—the fem­i­nine body, the socio-polit­i­cal body, “by virtue of a bio­logi­co-moral respon­si­bil­i­ty” (Fou­cault 104). Akin to an evan­gel­i­cal con­ver­sion, “her” tone also authen­ti­cates what Stephanie Coontz describes as “a sen­ti­men­tal, almost sacred, domes­tic sphere whose long-term com­mit­ments and nur­tur­ing bal­anced the pur­suit of self inter­est in the pub­lic are­na” (43).

Pre­sent­ed as a “mom’s-eye view of high-stakes nation­al pol­i­tics” (or, so the book jack­et tells us), Palin’s mem­oir begins by telling us of a vis­it to the Right to Life (RTL) booth at the 2008 Alas­ka State Fair “where a poster caught [her] eye, tak­ing [her] breath away” (Going Rogue 2). “[Swathed] in pink, pre­tend angel wings fas­tened to her soft shoul­ders” as described by Palin, “the pro-life poster child at the State Fair” (Going Rogue 2; empha­sis in the orig­i­nal turns out to be her youngest daugh­ter Piper. “‘That’s you, baby,’ I whis­pered to Piper, as I have every year since she smiled for the pic­ture as an infant. She popped anoth­er cloud of cot­ton can­dy in her mouth and looked non­cha­lant” (Going Rouge 2). This moment of almost breath­less, inti­mate sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty inspires her polit­i­cal ambi­tion. “It remind­ed me of the pre­cious­ness of life,” recalls Palin. “It also remind­ed me of how impa­tient I am with pol­i­tics” (Going Rogue 2). Her encounter with “the gra­cious ladies who put up with the jeers of those who always protest­ed the dis­play” typ­i­fied for her “the dif­fer­ence between prin­ci­ples and pol­i­tics” (Going Rogue 3). In this briefest of sketches—bucolic small-town Amer­i­can life (“I breathed in an autumn bou­quet that com­bined every­thing small-town Amer­i­ca with rugged splash­es of the Last Fron­tier” [Going Rogue 1]), inde­pen­dent ladies (not women) and prin­ci­pled-cen­tred grass­roots activism, pri­vate­ly-held faith-based ethics ver­sus East Coast elite gov­ern­ment, and politics-as-usual—the Palin folk­lore about fam­i­ly, moth­er­hood, and patri­o­tism is found­ed. Not for the first time in that mythol­o­gy do her chil­dren remind Palin of her arti­cles of faith, of who she is, in fact. It is, of course, at this pre­cise moment of polit­i­cal epiphany that her Black­Ber­ry vibrates. “Just this one last call, baby,” she tells Piper. It’s John McCain, “ask­ing if I want­ed to help him change his­to­ry” (Going Rogue 6).

Or, so the sto­ry goes.

Per­son­al nar­ra­tives have long played a cru­cial role in announc­ing polit­i­cal ambi­tion. There is no doubt that a good deal of Palin’s appeal relies on her biog­ra­phy and its pack­ag­ing. She looks like exact­ly what she says she is: not the usu­al politi­co, but a small-town hock­ey mom, who became involved in pol­i­tics by run­ning for city coun­cil via the par­ent-teacher asso­ci­a­tion (PTA). Rais­ing babies, nur­tur­ing a young fron­tier town—Palin ini­tial­ly cam­paigned “door-to-door ask­ing for people’s votes, pulling the kids through the snow on a sled” (Going Rogue 64). In 2008 she told Repub­li­cans the fol­low­ing:

Todd and I were] busy rais­ing our kids. I was serv­ing as the team mom and coach­ing some bas­ket­ball on the side. I got involved in the PTA and then was elect­ed to the city coun­cil, and then elect­ed may­or of my home­town, where my agen­da was to stop waste­ful spend­ing, and cut prop­er­ty tax­es, and put the peo­ple first. (Palin, “Tran­script McCain”)

True or not, it does not mat­ter. It is how her polit­i­cal brand, run from the kitchen table sur­round­ed by tod­dlers, taps into an old­er “domes­tic” or “sen­ti­men­tal” doc­trine of the “fem­i­nine” root­ed in Amer­i­can fron­tier mytholo­gies (Riley 3). The sen­ti­men­tal­iza­tion of fam­i­ly life pro­posed after the Amer­i­can Civ­il War (1861-65) saw, claims Coontz, “the tri­umph of the nuclear fam­i­ly ide­al and the spread of pri­vate moral­i­ty … [in which] fam­i­ly rela­tions became less a prepa­ra­tion ground or sup­port­ing struc­ture for civic respon­si­bil­i­ty than a sub­sti­tute for such respon­si­bil­i­ty” (97, 98). Palin’s con­ser­v­a­tive strand of fem­i­nism can thus be traced at least as far back as the “turn toward home” of the mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry (Coontz 96-106). Glen­da Riley describes this accord­ing­ly: “As defend­ers of home and hearth, women would pro­tect tra­di­tion­al val­ues, but they should not inter­fere in any essen­tial way with the devel­op­ments that were cat­a­pult­ing Amer­i­ca toward pros­per­i­ty and pow­er” (3).

Fast-for­ward a cen­tu­ry and a half and Palin re-imag­ines this social­ly con­ser­v­a­tive, free-mar­ket mes­sage in the age of aus­ter­i­ty. Our lat­ter day frontier’s mom may buy her cou­ture from a con­sign­ment store in Anchor­age and keep the “home’s freez­er stocked with the wild seafood we caught our­selves” (Palin, Going Rogue 133), but the idea of woman as an evan­gel­i­cal moral sav­iour of Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ism and its val­ues holds as strong as it did when first iden­ti­fied in the late-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry by the likes of Catharine Beech­er.

Core to the Palin mes­sage is fis­cal pol­i­cy.

In Juneau, the one thing that’s required dur­ing the ses­sion is pass­ing a bud­get, and that one task is the sub­ject of end­less hours of dis­cus­sion, delib­er­a­tion, bar­ter­ing, and whin­ing. Again I was thank­ful for my train­ing grounds as a mom [sic]. (Palin, Going Rogue 148)

The econ­o­my is an uncom­pli­cat­ed macro­cosm of the fam­i­ly accounts. As Jonathan Rabin put it, “What is good for the fam­i­ly is good for the nation, and vice ver­sa; and the idea that the fam­i­ly should spend its way out of reces­sion is an affront to com­mon sense, con­ser­v­a­tive or oth­er­wise.” Palin trades heav­i­ly on her expe­ri­ence as a busy work­ing mom try­ing to make the fam­i­ly bud­get stretch as far as it can. It is an aspect of her “ordi­nary celebri­ty” (Ouel­lette 189) that rein­vents the way in which post­fem­i­nist pop­u­lar cul­ture extols female inde­pen­dence and women’s pow­ers expressed through con­sump­tion prac­tices. In step with the finan­cial down­turn and age of asceti­cism, there is a revi­sion in think­ing, where­by female empow­er­ment is about tak­ing con­trol of the eco­nom­ic well being of the fam­i­ly. Thrift and pru­dence are cen­tral to the Palin image of self-reliance and enter­prise. “My fam­i­ly is fru­gal,” she writes. “We clip coupons. We shop at Cost­co. We buy dia­pers in bulk and gener­ic peanut but­ter. We don’t have full-time nan­nies or house­keep­ers or dri­vers” (Going Rogue 315). These remarks were made in response to a head­line sto­ry that the Repub­li­can Nation­al Com­mit­tee (RNC) had spent $150,000 “to clothe and acces­sorize the vice pres­i­den­tial can­di­date and her fam­i­ly” (Cum­mings). Palin was quick to set the records straight in order “to defend my ethics and my fam­i­ly,” as she put it (Going Rogue 317). It is through these sub­tle relays between famil­ial alliances and the social body, that one arguably sees Palin at her bold­est. Late in 2009, cov­er­ing her three-week book tour of 14 states in the Amer­i­can heart­land, Paul Har­ris reports on how the “devot­ed” and “enthu­si­as­tic” crowds (almost all white) saw Palin as “St. Sarah of Amer­i­can Cap­i­tal­ism” (2009 32) with her mes­sage of fis­cal con­ser­vatism. It is a dis­course on fam­i­ly, mod­ern cap­i­tal­ism, and the social order that “holds up well, own­ing no doubt to how easy it is to uphold. A solemn his­tor­i­cal and polit­i­cal guar­an­tee pro­tects it” (Fou­cault 5). Palin has nei­ther for­mu­lat­ed any­thing new to say about the finan­cial cri­sis nor invent­ed any new fis­cal solu­tions; it is about prac­ti­cal com­mon­sense and hard graft. It is about lib­er­at­ing women through entre­pre­neur­ship. Her “inti­mate” staged per­for­mances may sit uncom­fort­ably with­in the con­ven­tion­al polit­i­cal struc­ture, but how her polit­i­cal celebri­ty deploys sys­tems of alliance (parental and mat­ri­mo­ni­al) firm­ly linked to the econ­o­my “engen­ders a con­tin­u­al exten­sion of areas and forms of con­trol” (Fou­cault 106). In a word, how the Palin (mater­nal) body pro­duces and con­sumes makes vis­i­ble a socio-eco­nom­ic body, which has, in turn, the func­tion of nur­tur­ing and per­pet­u­at­ing.

Palin rean­i­mates the spec­tre of nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry wom­an­hood as “guardian of moral­i­ty and virtue” (Riley 3) in her run for pub­lic office—with anti-abor­tion, pro-guns, cre­ation­ism, and anti-gay mar­riage stances defin­ing the new “moral prowess” (Riley 5). Mid-nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry women’s activism cham­pi­oned equal vot­ing rights and eco­nom­ic free­doms, but tem­per­ance and reli­gious faith were also cen­tral to the ideas of Susan B. Antho­ny (1820-1906) and Eliz­a­beth Cady Stan­ton (1815-1902). The cam­paign­ing of these ear­ly fem­i­nists reveals that it was not about refut­ing the nuclear fam­i­ly, but shift­ing pow­er with­in it. Being a wife and moth­er equipped women with a supe­ri­or sense of moral­i­ty and this echo is heard in Palin. In describ­ing how she nav­i­gat­ed the squab­bles and machi­na­tions of the Repub­li­can pri­ma­ry, she wrote, “It wasn’t the last time I’d find that there’s no bet­ter train­ing ground for pol­i­tics than moth­er­hood” (Going Rogue 115).

Such phi­los­o­phy is fur­ther wit­nessed in how Palin weaves seam­less­ly the duty of fam­i­ly with the oblig­a­tions of high polit­i­cal office, as if her respon­si­bil­i­ty to one defines her rela­tion to the oth­er:

Just before I left the hotel room to hit the con­ven­tion stage, on the evening of Sep­tem­ber 3, I noticed that Trig need­ed chang­ing. I also noticed that we had run out of dia­pers. After a fran­tic, hotel-wide search, some­one found a stack, and the last thing I did before head­ing down to give the biggest speech of my life [accept­ing the vice-pres­i­dent nom­i­na­tion] was to change the baby.
It’s the kind of thing that keeps you ground­ed. (Palin, Going Rogue 24)

Such an auto­bi­og­ra­phy of indi­vid­ual ambi­tion com­bined with domes­tic rou­tine and parental respon­si­bil­i­ty not only fil­ters the moral dilem­ma of a high­ly com­pet­i­tive, self-serv­ing run for high office, but also rep­re­sents a tech­nique of mod­ern pow­er rela­tions. No longer are pri­vate and pub­lic spheres sep­a­rate, with rigid divi­sions of gen­dered labour, but rather, they are deeply entan­gled, where pow­er is exer­cised through “a plu­ral­i­ty of resis­tances” (Fou­cault 96) in the inter­play of alliances between the two—private/public; domestic/office; mother/public offi­cial.

Mak­ing moth­er­hood an explic­it part of her appeal, how­ev­er, inspired less sol­i­dar­i­ty than gen­uine con­fu­sion, impas­sioned dis­pute, and par­ti­san snip­ping. It was a debate con­duct­ed less between the sex­es, than one that divid­ed women. Web­sites like Mom­my Tracked (“man­ag­ing the chaos of mod­ern moth­er­hood,” reads its tagline) and MOMoc­rats, tried des­per­ate­ly to draw lessons from this his­toric moment. Almost imme­di­ate­ly the debate turned away from for­eign and domes­tic pol­i­cy and into a ref­er­en­dum on work­ing moth­ers. On the one hand there was a pal­pa­ble sense of relief that at long last here was a new type of woman in pol­i­tics, nei­ther the “coiffed demure stay-at-home wi[fe]” (read: Lau­ra Bush), nor the “angry, con­flict­ed wom[a]n” (read: Hillary Rod­ham Clin­ton) (Mom­my­Tracked). “Sarah Palin’s uncon­trol­lable brood, her zest for work, and her feisty tone res­onate with work­ing moms who rely on mox­ie to get through each and every rockin’ roller coast­er day of work­ing moth­er­hood” (read: you and me) (Mom­my­Tracked). Sto­ries of her bal­anc­ing fam­i­ly, work, and the cam­paign tri­al became cen­tral to any con­ver­sa­tion about Palin. Here final­ly was “a work­ing mom like us who jug­gles the messy chaos of ‘hav­ing it all’” (Mom­my­Tracked).

There was, how­ev­er, a nag­ging sus­pi­cion that Palin made moth­er­hood look far too easy. She appar­ent­ly returned to work the day after giv­ing birth to her daugh­ter, Piper (“I took her by work when I checked in on City Hall,” [Palin, Going Rogue 76]). She signed leg­is­la­tion into law at the kitchen table with a child in her lap. She worked 24/7 while some­how jug­gling child­care and with a hus­band often away from home (Todd Palin worked for BP in the North Scope oil fields). With Trig in a sling she sat through meet­ings, even breast­feed­ing unseen dur­ing con­fer­ence calls. Mom­my­Tracked sensed Repub­li­can sub­terfuge at work:

I can almost hear the new Repub­li­can retort to the build­ing blocks of work­ing moth­er­hood: more plen­ti­ful, afford qual­i­ty child­care; health­care reim­burse­ment for birth con­trol; more gen­er­ous FMLA [Fam­i­ly and Med­ical Leave Act] reg­u­la­tions; and incen­tives for com­pa­nies to offer extend­ed leaves, part-time posi­tions, and flex­i­ble work sched­ules. What is the big deal, ladies? If Sarah Palin can go with­out those frills, then can’t all of you? (Mom­my­Tracked)

Palin lives the Repub­li­can mes­sage: A woman can make what­ev­er life choic­es she wants because she has civ­il and legal equal­i­ty under the law and is in no need of pref­er­en­tial treat­ment. It is a flat refusal to see women as “vic­tims” need­ing sys­tem­at­ic pro­tec­tion. The flip­side of not want­i­ng to recog­nise women as vic­tims, how­ev­er, is a fail­ure to under­stand struc­tur­al caus­es of dis­ad­van­tage as well as the col­lec­tive nature of dis­crim­i­na­tion. Moth­er­hood func­tions as the norm. Noth­ing more is required of it than to define its social val­ue. In short, moth­er­hood con­sti­tutes a dis­course that is moral­ly use­ful, social­ly (re)productive, and polit­i­cal­ly con­ser­v­a­tive.

Still, even Palin seems more than aware of the lim­its between the qual­i­fied and dis­qual­i­fied mater­nal body in pol­i­tics. As report­ed on more than one occa­sion, she went “to extra­or­di­nary lengths to ensure [the arrival of Trig] would not com­pro­mise her work” (Kan­tor, Zernike and Ein­horn 2008). Few peo­ple knew that she was expect­ing her fifth child until the third trimester. There is always the polit­i­cal to con­sid­er, as Palin told Peo­ple mag­a­zine, “I didn’t want Alaskans to fear I would not be able to ful­fill my duties” (qtd, In Kan­tor, Zernike and Ein­horn 2008). Unfair sex­ism or fair game—there is no get­ting away from the spec­ta­cle of the mater­nal body dis­tract­ing the polit­i­cal. The heav­i­ly preg­nant body is sat­u­rat­ed with sex­u­al­i­ty, which Palin hid “with win­ter clothes and a few clev­er­ly draped scarves” (Palin, Going Rogue 191). “[No] one saw my girth or sus­pect­ed I was preg­nant,” she recalls (Going Rogue 191). When she final­ly decid­ed to announce the preg­nan­cy to the Anchor­age press, there was an uneasy slip­page between the female body and social one.

Hey guys,” I said with a grin, “I want­ed to let you know that the First Fam­i­ly is expand­ing.”
They all just looked at me. Dead silence.
Okay … let me try some­thing else.
“Remem­ber when I promised to ‘deliv­er’ for Alas­ka?”
Noth­ing …
Final­ly, I gave up on the jokes and went direct: “Guys, I’m preg­nant. I’m hav­ing a baby in two months!”
Three mouths fell open, and three pairs of eyes dropped straight to my stom­ach. (Palin, Going Rogue 192)

True or not, the sto­ry high­lights (and bear­ing in mind it is told in a polit­i­cal mem­oir) a per­ceived shift in alliances from the pub­lic sphere to the pri­vate famil­ial space. “Deliv­er­ing” for Alas­ka is not only about fish­ery poli­cies and eco­nom­ic growth, but also about a female body and its fecun­di­ty. Silence shrouds it and speaks of the lin­ger­ing sus­pi­cion that the preg­nant woman has no place in pub­lic polit­i­cal life. Eyes are no longer focused on the pol­i­tics, but fall silent­ly on the swelling abdomen. No won­der Palin kept “mum” about leak­ing amni­ot­ic flu­ids dur­ing a keynote address at an oil and gas con­fer­ence in Dal­las (Palin, Going Rogue 193), but more than will­ing months lat­er to tell her sto­ry of the pre­ma­ture birth and three-days of mater­ni­ty leave to reporters while installing a trav­el crib on the cam­paign bus. The polit­i­cal myth embod­ied in the mater­nal ide­al has more val­ue than the cor­po­re­al real­i­ty of bod­i­ly dis­com­fort and the dif­fi­cul­ties of the flesh.

This inten­si­fi­ca­tion on Palin and the (re)productive female body as an object of knowl­edge and ele­ment in pow­er rela­tions explod­ed fur­ther once her can­di­da­cy was announced. For­get John McCain. As soon as Palin climbed on stage with her whole­some, hard-work­ing fam­i­ly the media became all about Sarah. Fig­ures pro­duced by the Pew Research Cen­ter (2008) claim that Palin effec­tive­ly squeezed out the oth­er sto­ries and dom­i­nat­ed US news reports. She fea­tured in 60 per cent of the cam­paign sto­ries and received far more media atten­tion than McCain. In keep­ing with Eri­ka Falk’s find­ings on the media bias toward women in pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns, much of that cov­er­age focused on fem­i­nine traits asso­ci­at­ed with “moth­er­ing, repro­duc­tion, and emo­tion (the pri­vate sphere)” (Falk 53). Moth­er of five and mar­ried to her high school sweet­heart (who worked on the Alaskan oil­field, com­mer­cial­ly fish­es, and is the four-time cham­pi­on of the Iron Dog, a cross-coun­try snow machine race), her fer­til­i­ty and legit­i­mate mar­riage were end­less­ly reit­er­at­ed and recy­cled when­ev­er Palin got a men­tion, as if noth­ing else mat­tered. Her sex­u­al­i­ty took shape, con­ceived of as a tech­nol­o­gy of pow­er that was firm­ly locat­ed in famil­ial alliances. This is where she (her body, her fecun­di­ty) comes to have val­ue, not only in reg­u­lat­ing her sex­u­al­i­ty, but also through mak­ing it use­ful as a new tac­tic of pow­er on the cam­paign trail.

A cen­tral fea­ture of the press cov­er­age focused less on what Palin said (ver­bal gaffs notwith­stand­ing), but what she looked like. This con­stant sur­veil­lance and polic­ing of her image—what she wore, how her hair was styled—corroborates Falk’s research. Sto­ries (and always accom­pa­nied by pic­tures) inter­minably rehearsed how she had entered a local beau­ty pageant in her small Alaskan town of Wasil­la and won it, includ­ing Miss Con­ge­nial­i­ty. The Miss Wasil­la Schol­ar­ship paid her col­lege tuition, and in the fol­low­ing year she was crowned run­ner-up in the Miss Alas­ka con­test, plus Miss Con­ge­nial­i­ty. Polit­i­cal cam­paigns are to a large degree a high-stakes image game, but even so: the Palin image holds up remark­ably well on the front cov­ers that sell images of what Rebec­ca Walk­er calls “impos­si­ble contrivance[s] of per­fect wom­an­hood” (xxxi­ii). It is where her looks can be dis­sect­ed in infin­i­tes­i­mal detail, her fash­ions end­less­ly dis­cussed and cri­tiqued. In a pre­vi­ous arti­cle I observed the fol­low­ing:

Intox­i­cat­ing­ly pre­sent­ed, per­sua­sive­ly offered as say­ing some­thing impor­tant about female accom­plish­ment, her [objec­ti­fi­ca­tion] is embed­ded in and through dom­i­nant norms defin­ing the fem­i­nine self, her body (slen­der, ath­let­ic, attrac­tive, youthful—and not for­get­ting that trade­mark smile), her lifestyle choic­es (wife, “hock­ey mom”, work­ing moth­er). Nev­er mind the lurid head­lines, or that she can­not help but polarise the US elec­torate with her polit­i­cal beliefs, she looked per­fect. (McCabe, “In the Fem­i­nine Ide­al”)

Such intense focus meant that quite soon Palin became sub­ject to anoth­er kind of objec­ti­fi­ca­tion, trans­lat­ing her, as Kira Cochrane astute­ly observes, into some­thing of a porn star. Images ranged from “sexy Sarah Palin” Hal­loween cos­tumes to a blow-up doll and the now famed doc­tored pic­ture of Palin in a stars-and-strips biki­ni tot­ing a rifle (which went viral almost instant­ly after her nom­i­na­tion). This kind of sex­ism under­lined, for Cochrane at least, “the fact that any woman enter­ing pub­lic life runs the risk of being reduced to the most basic female stereo­type that springs to mind” (17). Devel­op­ing this line of enquiry fur­ther still, the fetishis­tic and mis­chie­vous­ly tam­pered-with images of Palin also rep­re­sent what often fails to be entire­ly con­trolled in rela­tion to the female body and sex. In the way in which her body became “thor­ough­ly sat­u­rat­ed with sex­u­al­i­ty” (Fou­cault 104)—beauty con­tes­tant, five pregnancies—her sex became at one lev­el detached from its sys­tems of famil­ial alliance and juris­dic­tion. Instead it passed into the pub­lic sphere, which cod­i­fied her flesh and pathol­o­gised her body as fan­ta­sy and erot­ic desire. Opened up unre­served­ly to end­less and unremit­ting media scruti­ny turned her body-as-image into triv­ial tit­il­la­tion and taboo. The porni­fi­ca­tion of Palin, and in par­tic­u­lar ‘her’ wear­ing an Amer­i­can flag biki­ni bran­dish­ing weapon­ry, reveals how aspects of the Palin image (par­tic­u­lar­ly cen­tered on class and region) escape the alliances which empow­er her. As Patrick Kins­man wrote: “The Pho­to­shopped Palin image is not about fem­i­nism or equal­i­ty, but sex objects with weapons—whether it is cri­tique or not.” This iron­ic image aimed to par­o­dy Palin’s “absti­nence-only stance and her sup­port of the Iraq war” (Kins­man), but with its pur­pose no longer giv­en over exclu­sive­ly to (re)production and famil­ial alliance, her body is deprived of its priv­i­lege. It becomes per­verse and dis­qual­i­fies her in the process.

Few how­ev­er came to her defense: nei­ther Repub­li­cans nor Democ­rats. Colum­nist Nick Cohen voiced his sur­prise about how lib­er­al jour­nal­ists almost unflinch­ing­ly and imme­di­ate­ly turned her fam­i­ly into “an object of sex­u­al dis­gust: inbred red­necks who had stum­bled out of Deliv­er­ance” (34). Not even fem­i­nists could quite muster enough indig­na­tion about the misog­y­ny aimed at Palin. She indeed proves a dif­fi­cult woman to defend. From the sto­ry of how she as gov­er­nor sup­port­ed law enforce­ment agen­cies charg­ing for rape kits to her pro-life val­ues, Palin’s views stand at an alarm­ing dis­tance from any dis­cernible women’s rights agen­da. As Jes­si­ca Valen­ti put it, “Palin is alleg­ing sex­ism … while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly rely­ing on sex­ist notions of women in pol­i­tics.”

A race that began as The West Wing now looks alarm­ing­ly like Des­per­ate House­wives,” declared Jonathan Freed­land in the Guardian. Rarely has a politi­cian pro­voked such an avalanche of media and fol­lowed so swift­ly by scan­dal and Inter­net rumour. Spec­u­la­tion quick­ly gath­ered momen­tum of a fake preg­nan­cy and a son that was real­ly her grand­son. How­ev­er, it was not long before anoth­er, more pruri­ent media sto­ry took its place. In the era of 24-hour cable news and social net­work­ing noth­ing remains secret for long. Only days after Palin was nom­i­nat­ed as the Repub­li­can vice-pres­i­den­tial choice, news broke that her unwed 17-year-old daugh­ter was five-months preg­nant by her high-school boyfriend, Levi John­son, 18. “Who wants to talk about bor­ing pol­i­cy when we can talk about teens and sex and preg­nan­cy?” lament­ed Rebec­ca Trais­ter (“Palin”). The Repub­li­cans imme­di­ate­ly turned the unplanned teen preg­nan­cy into a liv­ing tes­ta­ment of Palin’s anti-abor­tion, pro-life stance. But in the heart­land of Amer­i­ca where puri­tan­i­cal val­ues are the norm and unwed moth­ers unpop­u­lar, the Repub­li­can mes­sage sal­lied forth that the young cou­ple were in love, com­mit­ted to hav­ing the baby, and would soon mar­ry. News of the preg­nan­cy reg­is­tered wide­ly with the pub­lic accord­ing to the Pew Research Cen­ter (2008), which report­ed that 69 per cent knew about it, there­fore mak­ing it one of the top cam­paign stories—and fur­ther drown­ing out the oth­er polit­i­cal mes­sages. It did in fact appear, as Trais­ter rued, that this his­to­ry-mak­ing moment for women had become hijacked by the “uter­ine activ­i­ty” (“Palin”) of the Palin clan. An image of this Alaskan fam­i­ly as a “hotbed of con­stant sex­u­al incite­ment” (Fou­cault 109) thus emerged. It became an object of intense media obses­sion and (plea­sur­able) attrac­tion, a site of “dis­cov­ered” sex­u­al secrets, where­by this fam­i­ly had to open itself unre­served­ly to end­less out­side scruti­ny. In so doing, this process called Palin’s moth­er­ing into ques­tion in the analy­sis it made of her.

Such head­lines have the poten­tial to tor­pe­do any polit­i­cal cam­paign. If any­thing, how­ev­er, the news that Bris­tol was expect­ing her first child ini­tial­ly helped her mother’s cam­paign. When the preg­nan­cy was first announced it con­tributed to a 4 per cent Repub­li­can lead in the polls. Palin may not have per­son­al­ly approved the offi­cial mes­sage (accord­ing to her mem­oir), but nonethe­less lat­er wrote: “Todd and I were proud of Bristol’s self­less deci­sion to have her baby and her deter­mi­na­tion to deal with dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances by tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for her actions” (Going Rogue 234; empha­sis mine). Young moth­er­hood thus emerges as a respon­si­ble social deci­sion that is prefer­able to abor­tion. It is pre­sent­ed as a whole­some alter­ative to ter­mi­na­tion, an eth­i­cal choice that speaks of kin­ship and famil­ial val­ues rather than fam­i­ly break­down. What did emerge with the Bris­tol preg­nan­cy, how­ev­er, was a broad­er cul­tur­al attack on women’s rights from both sides of the polit­i­cal spec­trum. On the lib­er­al left, the issue was used to high­light the val­ue of a woman’s right to choose, but also stressed the need for prop­er access to birth con­trol and sex edu­ca­tion, bud­gets for which had been dras­ti­cal­ly reduced because of the Bush admin­is­tra­tion pol­i­cy of fund­ing absti­nence-only pro­grammes. On the right, the teen preg­nan­cy was exploit­ed to pro­mote the social­ly con­ser­v­a­tive agen­da of the strong evan­gel­i­cal base.

No cri­tique of Palin is pos­si­ble with­out under­stand­ing the cul­ture wars rag­ing in the Unit­ed States. Through­out the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign (and beyond), she remained a high­ly vis­i­ble pub­lic fig­ure with those social con­ser­v­a­tive Repub­li­can val­ues per­cep­ti­bly inscribed across her mater­nal body—her hand­i­capped son tes­ti­mo­ny to her pro-life con­vic­tions. She is, in fact, her pro-fam­i­ly, pro-life, anti-abor­tion con­vic­tions. So pow­er­ful is that mater­nal image that noth­ing more needs to be said. Some time ago I wrote about Palin and how her media image almost mes­mer­iz­ing­ly rep­re­sents a “fem­i­nine ide­al, which is com­pelling enough to psy­chi­cal­ly entan­gle us and from which we are not entire­ly able to free our­selves” (McCabe, “In the Fem­i­nine Ide­al”). When we talk of Sarah Palin, we can­not seem to stop talk­ing about her gender—her pro­cre­ative abil­i­ties, her pro-life choic­es and anti-abor­tion stance, her bal­anc­ing moth­er­hood with pol­i­tics. It is for these rea­sons that she so seduc­tive­ly embod­ies, what Rebec­ca Trais­ter describes as, “a form of fem­i­nine pow­er that is utter­ly digestible” (“Zom­bie Fem­i­nists”). This pow­er is not mere­ly about par­ti­san par­ty pol­i­tics (and rarely does it trans­late into some­thing real), but nonethe­less remains pro­found­ly polit­i­cal. It is “utter­ly digestible” because what she rep­re­sents exacts a keen nor­mal­is­ing hold over us, shaped and “inscribed” as it is with the imprint of pre­vail­ing his­tor­i­cal and polit­i­cal forms of dis­cur­sive pow­er that man­age and ani­mate our per­cep­tion and expe­ri­ence of what that might mean.

Between 2008 and the fol­low­ing pres­i­den­tial cycle in 2012 one could not open a news­pa­per or switch on the tele­vi­sion with­out see­ing the many faces of Sarah Palin—politician, celebri­ty, TV pun­dit, real­i­ty TV star.

Fig. 3

Fig. 4

Lau­rie Ouel­lette observes the fol­low­ing:

More than any polit­i­cal fig­ure to date, Palin trans­lates the tra­di­tion­al vot­er-polit­i­cal rela­tion­ship into the log­ic of fan­dom and brand­ing. She invites her rightwing polit­i­cal con­stituents to track and con­sume her appear­ances and prod­ucts across print, elec­tron­ic, and dig­i­tal media, and she thus direct­ly prof­its from their par­tic­i­pa­tion in con­ver­gence cul­ture. (190)

Palin looks com­fort­able sit­ting along­side her two daugh­ters chat­ting with Oprah Win­frey, or tour­ing the Amer­i­can heart­lands in a bus with her fam­i­ly, sign­ing copies of her book in places like Grand Rapids, Michi­gan, as she tests the waters for a pres­i­den­tial run. She even had her own real­i­ty TV show, Sarah Palin’s Alas­ka (TLC, 2010-11), in which fish, fam­i­ly, and faith fig­ured promi­nent­ly. We may know that the Tea Par­ty refers to the 1773 events in Boston when colonists defied the British over tea tax­a­tion, with their direct action (dump­ing tea into the har­bour) effec­tive­ly ignit­ing the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion. But, with our post­mod­ern his­tor­i­cal amne­sia we might some­how be fooled. Tea Par­ty gath­er­ings look more like fam­i­ly pic­nics than polit­i­cal ral­lies, and it is where Palin reminds her eager audi­ence “there is no greater ser­vice than moth­er­ing” (Going Rogue 342). Palin may stand as an out­sider, a lone voice on the edges of her polit­i­cal par­ty, but she is always “inside” pow­er. Her inter­change of sex­u­al­i­ty and famil­ial alliance, charged with parental and con­ju­gal oblig­a­tions, speaks direct­ly to a moral and socio-eco­nom­ic con­scious­ness. Her per­for­mance of moth­er­ing and moth­er­hood forms “a polit­i­cal order­ing of life” (Fou­cault 123) while affirm­ing the impor­tance of that self in main­tain­ing it. It is a dis­course that trans­mits and is an effect of pow­er, but it is also lim­it­ed, mak­ing it pos­si­ble to thwart what she rep­re­sents as a con­se­quence.

When I start­ed writ­ing this paper fol­low­ing the sym­po­sium “Media and Moth­ers Mat­ters” at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Win­ches­ter in Octo­ber 2011 Palin had yet to announce whether or not she was going to run for the pres­i­den­cy. Soon after Palin declared that she would not and anoth­er woman was elec­tri­fy­ing the rad­i­cal right of the Repub­li­can Par­ty. Michele Bach­mann, who announced her run for the White House in June 2011, eclipsed Palin as the new dar­ling of the Tea Par­ty. She was an evan­gel­i­cal, whose hus­band ran a con­tro­ver­sial Chris­t­ian coun­selling ser­vice. Like Palin, Bach­mann also made enor­mous polit­i­cal cap­i­tal from her role as moth­er to a large brood: five bio­log­i­cal chil­dren and more than 20 fos­ter chil­dren. How­ev­er, Bach­mann nev­er embod­ied the fem­i­nine ide­al in quite the same way as Palin and she soon dropped out of the race—along with her non­sen­si­cal ideas (such as blam­ing Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma for swine flu).

Tra­di­tion­al bound­aries between polit­i­cal cam­paign, media event, and celebri­ty become blurred with Sarah Palin; or, as she would put it: “You betcha.” Since her sur­prise nom­i­na­tion in 2008 Palin has con­sis­tent­ly con­found­ed pun­dits and set per­ceived polit­i­cal wis­dom on its head. Yet her par­tic­u­lar aus­ter­i­ty brand of post fem­i­nism does not unite vot­ers and her choice to com­bine moth­er­hood with a demand­ing job failed to win the White House. It is a ques­tion of the pol­i­tics of the body, sub­ject to repro­duc­tive func­tion, but also an entire machin­ery that both qual­i­fies and dis­qual­i­fies the female body depen­dent on its uses. She may look like her social­ly fis­cal con­ser­v­a­tive agen­da, but that does not trans­late into her look­ing like a leader. Car­ol Mose­ley Braun, who ran for pres­i­dent in 2004 but was knocked out in the first round, said it best when she stat­ed: “The script hasn’t been writ­ten yet. The visu­al don’t exist for a woman in lead­er­ship” (qtd. In Gold­en­berg 43). In look­ing at how Palin politi­cized moth­er­ing and the moth­er as an ide­al in polit­i­cal life, this arti­cle has offered insight into why we are still wait­ing.

Image Notes

Fig.1 Pho­to­graph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Sarah Palin and her fam­i­ly at the Repub­li­can con­ven­tion in 2008: Track, Bris­tol, her then-boyfriend Levi John­ston, Wil­low, Piper, Todd and Sarah, hold­ing Trig, 2008. http://​www​.the​guardian​.com/​p​o​l​i​t​i​c​s​/​b​l​o​g​/​2​0​0​9​/​s​e​p​/​0​3​/​m​c​k​i​n​s​e​y​-​n​h​s​-​s​a​r​a​h​-​p​a​lin

Fig.2 Pho­to­graph: Shan­non Stapleton/Reuters, Sarah Palin hugs her son Trig, who has Down's syn­drome, after her address to the 2008 Repub­li­can Nation­al Con­ven­tion, 2008. http://​www​.dai​ly​mail​.co​.uk/​n​e​w​s​/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​-​2​1​2​5​4​5​8​/​C​l​a​r​e​-​S​h​o​r​t​-​f​a​c​i​n​g​-​c​r​i​t​i​c​i​s​m​-​u​s​e​-​w​o​r​d​-​m​o​n​g​o​l​-​R​a​d​i​o​-​4​-​i​n​t​e​r​v​i​e​w​-​c​h​i​l​d​r​e​n​-​D​o​w​n​s​-​s​y​n​d​r​o​m​e​.​h​tml

Fig. 3 Pho­to­graph: Anony­mous user “am0n.” The Girl and The Gun—Sarah Palin pho­to­shopped. http://​www​.flickr​.com/​p​h​o​t​o​s​/​9​7​8​9​7​1​4​9​@​N​0​0​/​2​8​1​8​8​1​6​914

Fig. 4. USA Week­end, Cov­er sto­ry: Sarah Palin and Fam­i­ly, May 6, 2010http://​www​.usaweek​end​.com/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​/​2​0​1​0​0​5​0​7​/​H​O​M​E​/​1​0​0​5​0​7​0​01/

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