Sarah Palin and her Role in Changing Views toward Democratic Representation

Joel Gritzfeld
University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada

Keywords: Sarah Palin, Feminism, Politics, Representation, Women


This paper addresses the changing dynamic of female representation within the American federal political system. It seeks to dismantle the idea of women’s equality being achieved through the mere representation of women within political structures. The case of Sarah Palin’s Vice Presidential bid in 2008 demonstrates that having a woman run for political office (mere representation) is not enough. In fact, this case shows that having some women represent other women might actually be counter to women’s equality, as understood by mainstream feminism. It will also shed light on the changing dynamic of “conservative feminism” within American politics.


Within the American federal political structure, governmental leaders in office, or ones striving to become the new government, have always had two main features: they are white and they are male. The 2008 presidential election challenged this long standing status quo on both fronts by electing the first African-American president, Barack Obama, as well as having the first woman to run as a vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin. Civil rights and feminist movements have viewed representation as a tool to achieve equality and rightfully so. Equal representation within governmental institutions shows that the country is cognizant of different groups within the society it represents. Representation is the outlet for showing the social contract between the government and its subjects. By having both sexes and various members of minority groups represented, the government fulfills this contract, which suggests equality and autonomy. This assumption of equality through representation became challenged when Sarah Palin’s political views became increasingly known.

Sarah Palin was the Republican vice-presidential candidate during the 2008 election campaign. Along with her fiscal conservativism, Palin also shared extreme social conservative views, most remarkably towards the treatment of women. Highly debated topics such as abortion, childcare, and rape kits have been challenged due to Palin’s conservative views. Although it is unfair to declare someone or something as not being feminist, (as feminism is not a rigid or unified theory) there are certain aspects of feminism that should be found in every branch of the movement. The main focus of feminism is the ability for women to be at a level playing field with men. This equality should be found in multiple ways and encompass every societal aspect in which there is gender segregation (Baird, 2010). As is the case with the United States, the Constitution protects people from being discriminated against because of their sex; therefore, any governmental laws that persecute women based on their biology are strictly non-constitutional. Movements that withhold any aspect of these conditions should not be considered feminist, as they do not speak for the betterment of women (Gelb, 1989). Sarah Palin, for these reasons, should not be considered a feminist. Republican conservatism, which Palin represents, clearly has tried to separate from this feminist mentality. The most dangerous aspect about a social conservative female running for political office is the fact that she is female and refers to herself as a feminist. Being a woman masks the damage she could create for women’s equality and individual liberty. This, coupled with societies’ view of equal representation, (meaning equal standing) will suggest equality is advancing when, in actuality, it has the possibility to revert. As Sarah Palin is the catalyst for women in an American presidential race, she can also be a catalyst for examining the misconceptions of representation within democratic societies. After examining the issues that would suggest that Sarah Palin is not feminist-minded, one can diverge into representation and how equality through representation is not good enough in achieving actual equality.

The Life and Politics of Sarah Palin

Palin started her political career in 1992 when she became a city councilor of the small Alaskan town of Wasilla. She remained on the council until 1996 when she became mayor of the town until 2002. In 2006, Palin became the ninth Governor of Alaska, being the first woman to do so in the state. Palin’s political fame did not become relevant until she became the running mate to Republican candidate John McCain (Zeleny, 2011). During Palin’s political campaign, her social views became apparent through her discussions with the media and with the general American populace. It was during this time that her views were scrutinized, as her seemingly anti-female policies conducted as Governor of Alaska were brought to the media’s attention. This, coupled with the proposed changes she would make as the next vice-president, added to the media’s speculation about Palin’s ability to speak for the wellbeing of women’s progress (Carroll, 2010).

As has been the pinnacle of feminist debate, discussions of abortion continue to divide the public again and again on the proceedings of how one should classify “human life.” The main issue with abortion is deciding when, in fact, an unborn baby has the right to life outside of the rights of the mother. In making laws that prohibit abortion, women lose control over their bodies and law also adds special stipulations for women to abide by while pregnant. This has become the main theme in feminism, as the battle between protecting women’s control over their own body, while supporting the protection of unborn babies, has created a major rift in the movement. Abortion has created two distinct groups of people defined as either “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” and one’s placement in a group has come to define their stance on feminist issues. As of now in the United States, the Supreme Court, in the infamous case of Roe vs. Wade, has ruled that human life is declared when a baby has the ability to live outside of the mother with or without the support of medical help. Women have the ability to receive abortions up until the third trimester, approximately seven months into the pregnancy.

Palin argued against this Supreme Court ruling, asking for life to be granted as soon as conception of the baby is achieved (Bachiochi, 2009). Palin, during an interview with Katie Couric, further defined her position. She explained that abortion would not even be given to those impregnated through rape or other criminal means, such as incest. She was quick to advise counselling to the individual and provide adoption options to be readily available for these individuals. When the morning-after pill was discussed, Palin waffled on how it would play into the discussion of anti-abortion rights. Immediately after, she declared that she believed life begins at conception (Couric, 2010). Although Palin presents an image of being a feminist, she still feels that she knows best for women. She removes the notion of women making the decision of getting an abortion, no matter what fashion the woman was impregnated. With this harsh stipulation, motherhood no longer becomes a choice, but merely a recipe for a lack of autonomy. Palin takes away women’s liberties and the ability to decide what is correct and healthy for them.

Palin expanded again on this issue by declaring that “she would not support an abortion for her own daughter even if she had been raped” (Stein, 2008). Stein, in his article, argued that this statement goes too far, even for highly conservative politicians. He argued that many Republican states have allowed abortion for victims of rape or incest. If Stein’s argument is correct, this means that Palin’s view towards abortion is even more right-wing than those of the mainstream Republican Party. This suggested that not only is she vehemently committed to anti-abortion, she has gone above and beyond the expected Republican stance towards abortion and created a whole different category in which abortion is classified and condemned (Stein, 2008).

One important consideration that goes along with Palin’s approach to abortion is her family life. Erica Bachiochi, a conservative pundit and someone who favours Palin’s approach to abortion laws, argued that because of Palin’s own family situation, she has proved that abortion is no longer needed within Western society. Palin’s oldest daughter, Bristol Palin, was impregnated at the age of 18, making Palin a grandmother. It was also during this time that Palin was having her fifth child, Trig Palin. Trig was diagnosed with Down Syndrome, and despite this Palin chose to have the child. Palin was able to juggle her political career and look after her five kids, one of them with special needs, and also care for a new grandchild. This is quite an achievement and Palin deserves credit for being able to handle her busy family and political life. For this reason, Bachiochi argued that because of Palin’s conviction, she has proven that women can learn from her example and choose life over abortion (Bachiochi, 2009). However, Bachiochi does not seem to mention that Palin has a better economic standing than most families, has the financial ability to raise and take care of all her children, has the ability to give Trig proper education for his condition, and has a stay-at-home husband who looks after the children and the household.

In regard to children, childcare has dominated feminist debate alongside abortion. The questions of who should raise the child and how one will be able to afford the child are commonly asked. Conservative sentiment has always been that the mother is the one that is responsible to the family, as the father goes out to provide – a notion rooted in biological determinism, a staple for Republican views. Sarah Palin, as have many working mothers, has changed this structure in which child rearing becomes the responsibility of the husband or other childcare means (Melich, 2008). Palin has received criticism for taking public office; these critics argue that she is disadvantaging her children by not being there to support them. These problems are doubled with the constant media attention that her kids are now subjected to because of her campaigning. Despite the problems and accusations she faced, Palin did not make any formal policies that would alleviate the burden of being a working mother. In Palin’s case, her husband Todd Palin has done much of the child rearing - a luxury that single women would not have. She herself has challenged the role of working mothers, yet she is completely comfortable not expanding on this issue and making formal rules and regulations regarding childcare spaces and subsidies (Donaldson-James, 2008). Thus, she has ensured, perhaps strategically, that women like her remain the exception, not the rule.

Before Palin was elected as Governor of Alaska, she was the mayor of the small town of Wasilla. While Mayor of Wasilla, it was discovered that the police department had been charging victims of rape, or charging their insurance companies (in which the victim paid the deductible), for the use of rape kits. Once Palin left to run for the Alaskan government, the next Wasilla governing body made this practice illegal and rape kits were paid through tax dollars (Byrson, 2008). Rape kits are imperative for the evidence needed to convict the rapist. According to Byrson, these kits cost upwards of $1200 when tests are conducted; if the victim could not gather the funds necessary to purchase this kit, then the guilty member could not be charged. This should enrage feminists, because forcing victims to pay for their own evidence-gathering victimizes them even further. It is unheard of to force victims to pay police officials to gather evidence in theft or assault charges, for example. This would be deemed as discrimination in the American legal system. Palin’s action of making victims pay for rape kits meant that rape victims in Wasilla were isolated as a group outside a general liberty of justice (Byrson, 2008). Palin’s conservative attitude toward the treatment of women has created such a divergence from mainstream feminist thinking. Her views have received the wrath of many liberal feminists, but Palin had an answer to this problem: redefine feminism.

Palin’s “Conservative” Feminism

Palin, during the 2008 election campaign, described herself as a feminist on multiple occasions. She proclaimed that she represented the ideals of a more conservative brand of feminism. Palin’s feminism incorporated the ideals of free-market capitalism, with the focus on the woman as an individual (Adams, 2010). Palin tried to redefine feminism into a category in which she coined a woman as being a “Mama Grizzly.” These “Grizzlies” are women that are pro-life and are proud of supporting their children and the children of others (Baird, 2010). Women should be proud of themselves for “taking the high road,” for being a mother who is responsible for their children. Palin stated that the only difference between her and liberal feminists is her opinion on abortion. Palin claimed that liberal feminists were trying to hijack the word, so they can further condemn her for using it (Baird, 2010). Cathy Young, a liberal feminist, argued that Palin was suggesting that feminism was something that should be apart from governmental organizations and that liberal feminism relied on the government to achieve changes. Young, although not supporting her sentiment, believed that Palin’s approach can actually help women with certain feminist issues such as pay equity (Young,  C., 2008). Although Young may be correct in giving Palin some benefit for reinventing feminism, one has to argue that without governmental intervention, how will things legally change for women? Issues such as abortion and childcare are governmental issues and need to be addressed through governmental structures. Tax subsidies for children are governmental issues and one has to argue that using the government is a necessary step in making significant changes for equality (Young, C., 2008). 

Feminist Representation

Women, like Palin, are changing the face of feminism within politics. Palin created a different subsection of feminist thinking outside of the preconceived ideas that feminism is attached to liberalism. Stepping back from observing Palin and her policies, it is important to realize a few important points. Sarah Palin is a woman and she was the first American female to reach the status of vice-presidential candidate. With this in mind, is that actually an achievement? States that employ democracy in their political structure would say “yes” because equality through representation shows the cultural and economic diversity of the nation. Anne Phillips, a commentator of democratic representation, argued that since the 1970s, countries have become increasingly cognizant of who makes up the elected assembly (Phillips, 1998). During this time, Scandinavian and Western European countries began passing laws requiring percentages of female voters to represent the government. Obviously women need to be represented in politics as they represent half of the population within the state. This begs the question then: what other groups should be included? Western democracies do not have any formal law forcing a certain representation of ethnic groups, homosexuals, and transgendered people, etc. (Phillips, 1998). The problem Phillips recognized is the problem of representation to achieve equality. “Establishing an empirical under-representation of certain categories of people does not in itself add up to a normative case for their equal or proportionate presence. It may alert us to overt forms of discrimination that are keeping certain people out, but does not yet provide the basis for radical change” (Phillips, 1998). Phillips identified something that should be investigated further. She argued that people in certain groups are oppressed and once someone identifies the fact that they are not represented, it then shows their oppression (Phillips, 1998). With this in mind, would that group even bring up representation if the standing government spoke for the interests of the underrepresented group? Could a group of entirely white, married, middle-aged Christian males not speak for women, homosexuals, ethnic groups, and people of different economic standings? The answer is yes, but reality is quite different.

Phillips responded to this by defining what representation is, or more appropriately, what it should be. Quoting from Hanna Pitkin’s book the Concept of Representation, who believed that representation “means acting in the interests of the represented, in a manner responsive to them” (Phillips, 1998). This argument appears to be valid, but one has to argue that this theory assumes that representatives truly know what they are representing and what defines that group. Obviously women have vastly different opinions on topics pertaining to women’s issues, such as abortion, as certain women would not vehemently attack Palin for declaring herself “pro-life” and a feminist. Philips sums up her issue of representation by suggesting that there are three problems with women and representation. She declared “that women have a distinct and separate interest as women; that this interest cannot be adequately represented by men; and that election of women ensures its representation” (Phillips, 1998). What one can gather from this statement is that representation should not be seen as the answer to equality, but as an important tool in recognizing equality.

Then why is Palin so important to the Republican Party? Obviously McCain felt in appointing her to be his vice-president that there was something very important about having a female run alongside him. Although one can argue that McCain did so to have a more conservative Republican complementing his more moderate approach, he still chose a woman outside of the vast majority of suitable conservative Republican candidates.Darcy, commenting on representation, argued that representation legitimizes the system, and that it has a direct correlation between creating a law and passing that law. The author suggested that if all men pass a law directed to the welfare of women, it is not legitimate (Darcy, 1994). If Darcy is correct, then McCain, and by extension the Republican Party, needed to legitimize their policies towards women and quickly respond to Hillary Clinton’s popularity and liberal-friendly policies. Palin served this purpose. Policies about women’s welfare will sound better, positive or not, when they are presented through the mouth of a woman. This service has become invaluable in partisan politics. Parties are always looking for voting groups that have special needs and interests that particular parties try to identify with to gain their vote. Women, and especially feminist women, have seemingly been considered as one group (Young, L., 2000). Palin has tried to change this by creating a different version of feminism. No longer is feminism attached to the Democratic Party, as she has turned the stigma of being a woman and voting against the Democrats, who claim to represent women (Baird, 2010). Palin’s brand of conservative feminism legitimizes the actions that the Republican Party takes towards women. The party can now be able to freely promote the oppression of women’s rights and equality as they now have a group of females that will stand for this treatment.

If representation has become a tool of partisan politics, with the purpose of swinging voters to one side with no obligation to actually speak for them, one believes that equality cannot be achieved through the means of mere representation. Then how can one achieve equality? Within democratic societies the government cannot be seen as the end-all in the battle for achieving equality. The rights and liberties that people have been given in a democracy grant one the ability to go outside of government and protest. One has to realize that while feminism and advancement of women is something that a government has to be cognizant about, this is not the only front for achieving change. Phillips believed that what needs to happen for significant change is for feminists to go outside formal politics and bring the problem of representation down to a level of widespread female participation. She believed that “a conviction that changes the composition of existing elected assemblies is only part of a wider project of increasing and enhancing democracy” (Phillips, 1998). She argued that party politics is the reason as to why this is hard to achieve. She also considered the notion that parties promote party discipline, and women, even if they felt inclined to vote for the betterment of women, are persuaded to vote as the party does. This is especially true when there are only a few women within the governing body, as they need to conform to maintain their position. For females in the House of Representatives, to feel as they can voice feminist opinions without being reprimanded from the party, the House would need a greater number of females before this action can take place. This problem of reaching critical mass within representation is only one facet in facilitating power change. To break down the rigid nature of partisan politics, power needs to be spread throughout non-governmental organizations in which more and more women (and men) can voice their opinion and create change to enhance equality and remove power from the government. Phillips promoted the idea that if women, who truly want equality, should not bank all of their power through the government and fail to complement this power with the backing of support from non-governmental female-friendly organizations. If this is not achieved, the decisions the government makes reflecting women will either be pro or con towards female equality. This fact cannot be changed even with female representatives present in the government (Phillips, 1998).

The Future of Political Feminism

Sarah Palin has become an anomaly in the political world. Her conservative feminism has revolutionized the female role within the Republican Party. She has paved the way for other conservative female pundits to run for political office, such as Michelle Bachmann (who was even farther to the right and just as rigid on social conservatism) when running for the Republican Presidential Candidate for the 2012 election. Palin changed the way people perceive feminism and how feminism is no longer considered as a unified and rigid idea. Her promotion into political office challenged the ideas of representation and changed the way people understand equality and the processes of achieving it. One has to argue the greatest feature Palin has contributed to American politics, and democracies in general, is that being a woman does not mean she will automatically speak for women. Her social conservatism trumped her womanhood. She was used as a pawn by the Republican Party to further condemn women who advocate choice and liberty and equality. If feminism has been recognized as a “niche” market found within partisan politics, then true equality will be harder and harder to achieve within a democracy. Operating outside of formal political government is a response to the problem representation has in masking equality, and it is one method that can hopefully alter processes of inequality previously sanctioned by the government.


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