The Rhetoric of Choice and 21st-Century Feminism: Online Conversations about Work, Family, and Sarah Palin

By McCarver, Virginia | Women's Studies in Communication, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

The Rhetoric of Choice and 21st-Century Feminism: Online Conversations about Work, Family, and Sarah Palin


McCarver, Virginia, Women's Studies in Communication


Critical exploration of online discourse concerning Sarah Palin's vice presidential candidacy and role as mother reveals the rhetoric of choice is predominant when it comes to how women approach and understand work and family as well as interact with feminism. With strong roots in cultural narratives, the rhetoric of choice draws upon an understanding of individual rights and responsibility and obscures the operations of oppression and patriarchy. As the analysis demonstrates, choice is highly lauded yet often employed in a postfeminist framework or as a metonym for feminism.

Keywords feminism, motherhood, online discourse, rhetoric of choice, Sarah Palin

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During the 2008 presidential election, Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin confounded, infuriated, and inspired women. Lauded by some as the quintessential example of a successful "woman with it all" and lambasted by others as the ultimate antifeminist, Palin unquestionably prompted responses from women on a range of issues. (1) It wasn't long after the McCain camp announced Sarah Palin's vice presidential candidacy and addition to the Republican ticket when the Internet and blogosphere began buzzing with comments about Palin's role as a mother and rumors about her family. Whose baby was that? How many kids does she have? They are named what? (2) According to the New York Times, "Within minutes of Friday's announcement that Ms. Palin was joining the Republican ticket, women across the country started flooding blogs devoted to motherhood issues" (Kantor & Swarns, 2008). As people learned more about the details of Palin's family life--five children, the oldest in the military, the youngest a newborn with Down syndrome, and a pregnant teenage daughter--mothers, women, and men weighed in with their views of Palin as a mother and a candidate. Was Palin a good mother? Could she be while vice president? Which was more important? Although peppered throughout mainstream media outlet Web sites, questions and concerns surrounding Palin and motherhood largely appeared in the blogosphere and via comments responding to blog posts or mainstream media news stories and sites.

In response to Palin's presence on the Republican ticket and former Senator Hillary Clinton's primary presidential bid, Newsweek magazine dubbed 2008 "the year of the woman." Despite this moniker, women's issues were not a determining factor in the 2008 election; polls indicate issues such as the economy and healthcare were at the forefront of voters' minds (CNN, 2008). However, attention to online discourse reveals issues of concern to women and mothers--although not determining factors in a majority of the public's voting behavior--were not far from public consciousness. Via online comments, Web sites, blogs, and message boards, women across the United States dissected and discussed Palin's vice presidential bid, personal life, and politics, and I argue that their discussions about Palin served as a vehicle to explore and sound off on issues pertinent to women. In particular, Palin's role as a working mother with young children provided an opportunity for women to discuss motherhood, work, and the "choices" involved in navigating both. I explore these discussions for what they reveal about how women, participating in public conversations about personal matters, understand, approach, and navigate challenging gendered obstacles and experiences in their lives.

In the following analysis, I explore how the rhetoric of choice is predominant in women's discourse concerning work and family and examine the root of choice rhetoric's power and ubiquity in dominant cultural narratives and the publicly celebrated veins of the women's movement. Although women and men use the term choice with pride and value, I argue the rhetoric of choice is a rhetoric potentially damaging and dangerous to women, one that often serves to limit rather than free women in exploring alternative experiences and life paths.

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