Palin Right and Wrong

There’s plenty to complain about Sarah Palin and her views on politics and campaigning.  Yesterday I mentioned her insulting views about community organizing.  The blogger Brendan Skwire relates a couple of terrific and hilarious anecdotes about calling McCain campaign headquarters to inquire about Palin’s views on community organizers such as the founding fathers and contemporary American volunteers.  This criticism is right on.

But another kind of criticism is circulating, and it is totally wrongheaded: that’s the one that says she’s the mother of five, including a child with special needs, so she shouldn’t be running for office.  She should be tending her flock.  Sally Quinn was mouthing that criticism this morning on CNN: since women often end up with more parenting tasks than men, Palin should be ready to do so.  This line of argument is offensive to women, and it is ridden with terrible logic. It may be so that women  find themselves taking on more than their share. But this does not mean that they should continue to do so.  I would have thought that by now no self-respecting political commentator — and especially no woman — would trot out an argument like that.

Let’s stick to the real issues.  There are plenty of them.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. There is some talk around the internet that the attack on community organizing is actually code language. The NYT today had a piece that said that for many Americans “community organizing” is obscure but leftist sounding. Some bloggers have suggested that the equation is something like this:

    organizer=activist/rabble rouser

  2. I didn’t see Sally Quinn but I must admit to judging Palin for seeking an all-consuming office when her family clearly is in need of a lot of attention–from both parents. I probably wouldn’t judge her quite so harshly if she were a man–perhaps because I am biased and think that women are more helpful when their children are struggling?
    I don’t think it is pure sexism though. I had similar feelings about Edwards seeking office with two small kids and a sick wife. Even though I really liked his ideas I felt like “dude, the country doesn’t need you THAT badly–go home!”
    I applaud your call to stick to the issues. When right-leaning people try to engage me in discussions these days I stubbornly refuse to discuss personalities and will only discuss issues. That shuts them up.

  3. “totally wrongheaded … that’s the one that says she’s the mother of five, including a child with special needs, so she shouldn’t be running for office.”

    Granted that this is a touchy line of argument, I do think it deserves to be heard out rather than dismissed.

    The argument–at least as I’ve heard it–is not against “running for office” or against being governor. Palin isn’t just running for any office, but for Vice President of the United States, on a ticket with a 72 year old man with a history of melanoma. It’s far from inconceivable that she would need to step into the presidency at a moment’s notice.

    For argument’s sake, let’s say that campaigning isn’t a 24/7 job: still, she has no experience with running a national campaign, and getting up to speed on a whole host of issues is time-consuming. A five-month old with special needs, AND a pregnant seventeen year-old: I think it’s fair to ask whether it’s the best moment to seek the Vice Presidency, and what it says about Palin’s judgment that she’s willing to do so. I may be old-fashioned, but I wouldn’t choose to expose my daughter to the prurient derision of the media worldwide–Bristol is already a punchline, and she’ll never be able to escape it now.

    Of course, the judgment question holds double for McCain.

  4. Noelle, I’m very sympathetic to the view that Palin’s status as a mother ought not to figure into our criticisms of her candidacy. However, I found Arash Kamangeer’s point particularly powerful. Speaking of the Iran-Iraq war, he compared Palin to the ‘show mothers’ in Iran who would say something like: “I have given one child to this ‘sacred’ war, and I am ready to give the next one.”

    Though Cheney has somewhat changed the status of the Vice-Presidency, it remains a largely symbolic office, a service rather than leadership position. Palin’s status as a ‘traditional’ woman and mother is key to her appeal among a large block of voters. While it’s absolutely important to avoid misogynistic attacks on her gender, it seems to me that there’s nothing wrong with showcasing the ways in which her candidacy is designed to paint a largely antifeminist portrait using brush-strokes developed within emancipatory feminism. It’s like using the rebel slave’s tools to fix the master’s house.

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