Dr. Linda Beail, PLNU professor of political science, recently co-authored (with Rhonda Kinney Longworth) and published a new book, “Framing Sarah Palin: Pit Bulls, Puritans and Politics” (Routledge, 2012). With the election behind us, we asked her a few questions about her book and women in politics.
Why did you decide to write this book?
Well, I started working on it right after the 2008 election. I was really interested because in that election with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and then Sarah Palin, there was so much going on with different kinds of candidates regarding race and gender. What we noticed as we started thinking about what happened in the election was that a lot of people were writing about Hillary Clinton and that nobody was writing about Sarah Palin. And we thought that was really odd. We thought that she was really important even though her ticket didn’t win the White House and that she was a new kind of woman candidate – young, working mom, called herself a feminist, evangelical, all those things. And so with this friend of mine who is the co-author who is a presidency scholar, we thought there was a lot going on with this sort of new image of a Republican woman candidate. We wanted to explore what the narratives about that were.
Who should read the book and why?
We wrote the book with a solid academic and theoretical grounding, but we wrote it in a really conversational way, and we included a lot of popular culture in it. So we’re really hoping that it will appeal to anybody interested in campaigns and elections, anybody interested in party politics – particularly Republican party politics – anybody interested in women and politics. We hope that it will be really accessible to lay people, undergrads, and scholars as well. It’s a book that is very open and accessible to almost any reader who’s interested in what’s going on around gender, race, and class politics and Republican politics today.
People must ask you: Is Sarah Palin still relevant?
I’ve called her the Voldemort of the 2012 elections – She Who Must Not Be Named – because it seemed like people really did not want to remember her or talk about her in this election cycle and that she’s kind of written off as this big mistake by John McCain. Everybody wants to forget about her, but I think that’s a huge mistake. I think she’s really relevant – maybe not as an individual politician (I’m not sure she’s ever going to return to politics herself or to governing), but I think the questions that her candidacy raised and the ways we talked about her as a mom, as a frontier woman in that Republican narrative of that kind of frontier-sy, rugged individualist candidate, the way we talked about her faith, the way we talked about her as a beauty queen and whether she was smart enough and qualified enough to run as a woman candidate are still really live questions and issues. We’re still paying attention to woman candidates’ qualifications and their appearance and their families. And we’re looking at women on the right like Michele Bachmann and Nikki Haley and Kelly Ayotte and thinking about what the qualifications are for women to run for these high offices and asking how do women, not just from the left but also from the right, meet those qualifications? So I think there’s a lot still to explore in these narratives that the book talks about for the future for a lot of women candidates.
What do you think the lack of prominent women in the 2012 election means for women?
I think that in a lot of ways 2012 was disappointing for women voters and women in the electorate, not only because we didn’t see women prominent on either ticket but also because the rhetoric that surrounded the campaigns seemed to really reduce women down to these very essentialist issues of reproductive rights and rape and contraception. We saw a sort of reducing of women down to biology and sexuality and we didn’t see these larger questions about women, power, leadership – being a mom and working at the same time, being a feminist or not – those kinds of questions. So I think it was kind of discouraging that when we were talking about women, we were just talking about things like contraception or reproduction as if there is nothing else more multi-faceted or complex about all of us as women candidate or as women voters.
Can you share a fun little tidbit or fact you learned while working on your book?
One of the things that I thought was really interesting when I was doing research on the Mama Grizzlies, (you know, in the 2010 elections Sarah Palin had this whole crew of other women she was endorsing as the Mama Grizzlies), I found several speeches by Nancy Pelosi, who is about the most opposite of Sarah Palin in terms of policy or issues or ideology that you can imagine. And it was Nancy Pelosi when she first became Speaker of the House about four or five years earlier who had started calling herself a “Mama Lioness” and saying that that’s how people should think about her and other women in politics: as protecting their cubs. She said that that made her tough enough to be the party leader and tough enough to be Speaker of the House and that she was going to protect her constituents and protect the children of America like a mama lioness. I thought it was very interesting that five or six years later, Sarah Palin came along and started calling herself a “Mama Grizzly.” I thought, hmm, these people are not alike at all, but they’ve really found the same metaphor. So maybe Nancy Pelosi is the original Mama Grizzly/Lion.
Who do you think might be the next Sarah Palin?
Well, in terms of being the next national Rorschach test, I don’t know! But we are all already speculating about who will run for president in 2016. We just can’t resist the temptation! Actually on the Republican side, there are some really, really interesting, serious women candidates. People like Susana Martinez, the governor of New Mexico, who has a very compelling story, and Kelly Ayotte are people we are watching. On the Democratic side, we are also speculating about whether Hillary Clinton will run again. One of the things we talk about in the book is that the narratives we use to describe women matter. How the candidates are framed matters – whether that’s as a mom, a beauty queen, a frontierswoman, these are all attempts to make sense of who these candidates are. People complain about style over substance, but when it comes to the stories we tell, it is really both that matter. Women are at an interesting moment of striving not to be pigeonholed. And woman voters on both sides want to see candidate who look like them. There are going to be more stories to tell.