Sunday, September 7, 2008

Sarah Palin – A Sister’s Sister

Sarah Palin, if elected, could change the landscape for Mormon women more than any politician has for a very long time. From what I can tell, she is a huge hit with the LDS ladies. Mitt Romney of course resonated big time with Mormons, but he was just another man who happened to be a Mormon and longed to be the big dog in Washington. Had he won, Mormons undoubtedly would have had more exposure, but the victory wouldn’t have changed the status quo between Mormon men and women.

Sarah Palin is different. She is a Christian conservative mother. And guess what? She’s a woman. You can argue with her politics but not with her gender. In Palin, Mormon women have a sister who is similar to them who could ascend to the highest office any woman can hold. Of course, I don’t mean the Presidency of the Relief Society; I mean the Presidency of the United States.

There has been so much focus on Palin’s conservative credentials that her potential impact upon the average Mormon woman has been overlooked. Sure, Palin, isn’t going to appeal to the NRA-hating, pro-choice leaning, meat-distaining segment of Mormon women (how many can there be?), but she seems to strongly resonate with the other 99 percent of active Mormon women. Hillary Clinton sure as Hades isn’t going to be a role model for the majority of Mormon women any time soon. Mormon women mostly despise her and think of her as a kind of She Devil. Mormon women will experience Hillary-driven change only as passive or antagonistic beneficiaries.

But Sarah Palin, she’s a different story. She is almost one of them. If you can get past her evangelical strain of Christianity, she could be a member in the ward who happens to be successful in politics. Mormon women see that Palin is not that different from them. They relate to her. They can even get over the pregnancy of her 17-year-old daughter because we all know someone with a kid who’s made a mistake. Mormon women can embrace Palin and join her in her ride to the top. Mormon women can fancy themselves her partner in the journey. Mormon women can cheer her on her quest to reign supreme over a male-dominated society.

Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin represent the ends of a range within which the bulk of American women fall, politically and socially. Hillary Clinton anchors the liberal end and Sarah Palin the conservative. If a person gets much in front of Clinton they become politically marginalized. If you are more conservative than Palin, you are marginalized as well. But the range itself has shifted left. Palin may be a conservative, but she is not saying that women need to stay home with their babies. She’s saying they can run the country. Palin’s conservative end of the spectrum is to the left of most Mormons and I believe that Mormon women will find themselves shifting to the center in order to keep up with Palin.

Change comes not only from those who lead the pack, but also those who follow. If Hillary Clinton shows how far ahead of the pack a women can tread, Sarah Palin shows the limit of how far behind a woman can fall. But either way, the range has been moved dramatically forward. And for Mormon women, the more important marker just may be Palin, because she is a figure that most can identify with.

Here is what Palin shows a woman can do.

1 – She can work full time

2 – She can be a mother and work full time

3 – She can be a mother of five and work full time

4 – She can be a mother of five, including a Down syndrome child, and work full time

5 – Not only can she do these things, she can be a chief executive and preside over men.

6 – She can be a conservative Christian and do all of the above

This is not small potatoes for Mormons. I think it is not yet well accepted in the Church that a mother can work full time. Yes, it happens more and more, but I think generally it is still frowned upon in action if not in word. A woman cannot hold a position in the Church where she has authority over men. Palin does that as a Governor now, and if she were to become the President, she would be the ultimate authority over both men and women. Mormon women would have a role model who, in Mormon speak, would preside rather than just give counsel. I think if Mormon women got used to having female civil leaders that they relate to, they not be able to stop themselves from wondering why their religion does not allow women the same opportunities as their country.

So, am I voting for Palin? Not by a long shot, because I disagree with her on too many issues. But that doesn’t mean I am blind to the change she represents and the benefits that could come from her rise to power. In a Mormon context, Sarah Palin has the potential to be very empowering to the sisters.