Since her first appearance at the Republican National Convention, where she was greeted with rapturous applause by her fans and with astonishment by journalists — she’s a mother of five, and she hunts! — Sarah Palin has seemed to many like a brand-new phenomenon. Actually, she’s not. Sarah Palin is following in a long tradition of women who used their gun-owning status to promote a conservative vision. And if you look past those designer glasses and red pumps, it is easy to see Palin as an icon from an earlier time — as one of the pioneer mothers, Wild West shooting stars, or women hunters who were so popular more than a hundred years ago. And in tapping into those associations, the Republican Party has found the perfect representation for a once-popular American fantasy.
Palin is only the most recent version of the “pioneer mother” who was nostalgically invoked by writers like William W. Fowler, whose 1878 Woman on the American Frontier glorified women with muskets at their side who lulled their babies to sleep — in sharp contrast to “her delicate sisters of modern days.” No matter how maternal these women might have been, they were tough—Fowler’s examples included one Mrs. Noble, who in 1644 killed a moose to feed her children, or the Kentucky woman who in 1792 bit a musket ball into pieces in order to shoot more Indians. The widely publicized photographs of Palin field-dressing a moose would have fit right into Fowler’s account.
But Fowler was not alone. Actually, his was only one expression of a widespread concern: that white women of Anglo-Saxon descent were committing “race suicide” by giving birth to fewer children — a direct result, many cultural commentators thought, of city living and over-education. The remedy: strenuous living for women as well as men. Theodore Roosevelt strengthened popular associations of the West with wildness, freedom and adventure — and he publicly supported the women’s hunting craze of the late nineteenth century. Flip through an issue of Field and Stream from that period and you will see gun ads featuring sturdy women tramping through the wilderness with their rifles and their hunting dogs. Palin is in many ways the embodiment of twenty-first century strenuous living: she runs marathons, shoots wolves (albeit from a helicopter), and affects folksy speech patterns, eschewing educated diction whenever possible. And no one could accuse Sarah Palin of not doing her part to keep up the birth rate.
Alaska is in many ways the last American frontier, and it is easy to envision Palin, as well, posing for one of those public statues that were so popular in the early part of the twentieth century, like August Leimbach’s memorial 1928 statue The Madonna of the Trail, which was commissioned by the Daughters of the American Revolution, and which featured a large, mature woman holding a baby in one arm, with a boy clutching her skirts and a rifle tucked under the other arm. Leimbach’s may be the best-known, but it is only one of many similar sculptures that have ennobled the public squares of small-town America. Palin might well pose for one of those statues, representing the Christian mother going forth to tame the wilderness. But would her designer glasses be a problem?
No: even those glasses — and her trademark red pumps — align her symbolically with the most famous armed woman this country has known: Annie Oakley, star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, who opposed female suffrage, insisted on riding side-saddle (more ladylike), wore her hair long, detested bloomers and sewed most of her own costumes. Starting in the 1880s and continuing into the twentieth century, the Wild West shows turned the bloody drama of Western conquest into family entertainment. Oakley turned shooting into a harmless-seeming sport and desensitized audiences to the violence inherent in “taming” the West. Oakley, who epitomized the “civilization” that the Wild West shows set out to promote, was known for her trademark skip and pout when she came into the ring — just as Sarah Palin is known for her winks and nose-wrinkles during her speeches. Palin, who takes a conservative position on women’s issues, takes an expansionist view of the Alaska frontier: there is always more wilderness available for oil-drilling.
Sarah Palin’s appeal comes from the way she combines the contemporary — the hockey mom — with a persona that invokes a nostalgic vision of the frontier. It remains to be seen whether audiences will find the image of the Christian, gun-toting pioneer mother as compelling in 2008 as they did in 1888.
Virginia Commonwealth University
author of Her Best Shot: Women and Guns in America