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


  1. Thank you for this fascinating perspective on Palin’s nomination. I wasn’t aware of the history of feminists in the Republican Party, which makes the nomination of the decidedly postfeminist Palin even more disappointing.

    Thanks for the history lesson!

  2. I second that: thanks for the history lesson!

    And thanks for the correction as to why McCain chose Palin. How mainstream media can get away with propagating the notion that it was a bid to woo Hillary Clinton supporters is beyond me.

  3. It seems that the McCain-Palin ticket might indeed be a shrewd choice, but I wonder if this means that the nomination has overcome sexism in the GOP (as implied by Palin’s claim to have broken the ‘glass ceiling’), or has McCain and the GOP re-defined the VPship by portraying Plain as a ‘second wife’?

  4. Thanks for your comments, everyone. Christophe: It’s hard to imagine anyone claiming that sexism in the GOP (or anywhere else, for that matter) has been overcome, especially since Palin was picked by McCain, not by the Party. The ‘second wife’ idea is an interesting assessment. Dick Cheney redefined the VPship by quietly asserting unprecedented power. Palin could bring about yet another change in definition, though, because she’s definitely got more star power than the person higher on the ticket.

  5. Yes, my question was rhetorically idiotic — as if the GOP could overcome sexism.. One could only wish for such a thing. But, I still wonder whether the claim has held water over there in the U.S.? I am overseas and only see American politics through the lens of non-US news sources. What would Republican women claim? I am hoping that Catherine might have more to say on this…

    Of course my notion of Palin being McCain’s ‘second wife’ is equally ludicrous. But, the sexualization of Palin (my Republican relatives, male ones, can’t shut up about how ‘sexy’ she is — I am deluged by their emails) begs one to wonder whether her popularity with men (last I read she was much more popular with men than women) rests on a notion of her being ‘first consort’ that diminishes the importance of her candidacy as a VP by bolstering McCain’s reputation as a ‘man’s man’ (those same relatives also couldn’t shut up about his ‘hot rich wife’).

    McCain’s is a generation of men married and divorced and often married again. How much was his selection of Palin an unconscious expression of his libido, and how much was it real politic? One will never know, but I am concerned that this is representative of a last gasp by ‘Baby Boomer’ men that will only further undermine the status of women in American politics…


  6. Chris,
    Regarding you question about whether there is widespread acceptance that the GOP has “overcome sexism” with the Palin nomination. I think some (like Rush Limbaugh, who has called her “the new face of feminism”

    have made that claim pretty cynically (he also refers to her as “hot”). But, I believe many women have been sincerely thrilled to see a woman running for national office. A lot of women seem to genuinely relate to Palin, to her story, to her family, to her status as a working mother. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they frame their support in feminist terms. Her supporters don’t have to identify as feminists or see Palin as a feminist to appreciate that a barrier has been broken.

    Some of the sheen may be wearing off, however. The efforts to shield Palin from the media have started to look condescending. And her lackluster performance in recent interviews has led one conservative female supporter to call for her to back out of the nomination:

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