Guest Blogger Catherine Rymph on Sarah Palin and Her Role in History

Because I teach a course on U.S. Women’s Political History and wrote a book about women in the Republican Party, a lot of people these days have been popping into my office or popping up on email to ask what I think of Sarah Palin‘s nomination for vice-president. As a citizen, I have my opinions (as, it seems, does everyone).

As a historian, though, I am reminded of another era in which a beleaguered GOP believed women leaders might help the Party regain prominence. In 1974, when Gerald Ford succeeded a disgraced Richard Nixon to become President, he named Mary Louise Smith of Iowa as the first female Chair of the Republican National Committee. Smith, a committed feminist, was a supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion rights, and affirmative action. She didn’t have a lot of national leadership experience, but her selection was widely credited as a shrewd one at a time when the GOP needed to show the country that it was looking to the future and still relevant.

Two years later, at the Republican nominating convention, a group of feminist Republicans lobbied President Ford to name Texan Anne Armstrong as his running mate. Armstrong had served as Special Counselor to the President in the Nixon Administration and established the first White House Office of Women’s Programs. She had also served as RNC Co-Chair. She earned the wrath of anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly for having sent letters–on RNC letterhead, no less!–to Republican state legislators urging them to support ratification of the ERA. Her supporters believed her name on the ticket would be a step forward for women, and might attract votes away from Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter. (Ford, of course, did not select Armstrong. Facing a challenge from the right that was hoping to replace him on the ticket with conservative California Governor Ronald Reagan, Ford chose Bob Dole).

What, if anything, do Smith and Armstrong have in common with Palin? Smith and Armstrong in the 1970s and Sarah Palin in 2008 were each in the running to be “female firsts” for reasons that were, to a considerable degree, pragmatic. This is certainly not surprising. But the differences in those pragmatic calculations are powerful reminders of how much American politics and the Republican Party have changed in recent decades. The mid 1970s were the heyday of the second wave feminist movement. Smith was selected RNC Chair and Armstrong’s name was put forward to be the Vice Presidential nominee because Republican leaders believed that American voters might embrace a party that placed women’s rights advocates in positions of leadership and power. In the wake of the Watergate debacle, the GOP needed all the help it could get.

What a difference 32 years makes.

Sarah Palin’s nomination can be seen as an unintended consequence of the very women’s movement that propelled Smith and Armstrong into the national spotlight. The feminism of the 1970s provoked an intense backlash among social conservatives and helped mobilize conservative Christians–including millions of women–who had not previously been involved in politics. John McCain‘s choice of a woman initially appeared to be a cynical play for disgruntled Clinton supporters. But the real constituency he is seeking with Palin is the far right of his own Party, whose votes and open wallets McCain has decided he needs very much. He now has them. Palin’s radical opposition to abortion even in the case of rape or incest and her support for teaching creationism and abstinence-only ensure that “the base” will be with the Republican ticket in November. But will that be enough? So far, while early polls show that Palin has solidified McCain’s support among Republicans, it is not at all clear that it will bring substantial numbers of Independents or disaffected Democrats on board. Although Palin’s selection may in the end prove to have been a clever move on John McCain’s part, it also may very well backfire. By picking Palin, he risks alienating Independent voters (including moderate women) who will be important to the outcome of the election and to whom McCain has previously had strong appeal.

I find myself wondering what Mary Louise Smith would think of Sarah Palin. Smith was an absolute Party loyalist who actively worked for Ronald Reagan‘s election in 1980, despite Reagan’s rejection of most of the feminist issues that were dear to her. Until her death in 1997 she remained a Republican, albeit one who was pro-choice, supportive of gay rights, and an advocate for the separation of church and state. A tireless champion of the “two-party system,” her Republican loyalty was central to her political identity. Yet she despaired at the influence of social conservatives on her party and mourned when the Christian right took over the Iowa party in the late 1980s. In 1992, that Iowa party was unwilling to even select her to be a delegate to the Republican National Convention. Although she remained loyal to her party, it moved away from her.

Would she have seen in Sarah Palin a milestone for women? Or yet another setback for the party she loved?

Catherine Rymph
University of Missouri