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Sarah Palin and the political evolution of the soccer/hockey mom

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In 1995, Denver city council candidate Susan Casey, PhD, a former director of the presidential campaign for Gary Hart (she was known, perhaps unfairly, as the person who scheduled the Monkey Business cruise), came up with a campaign slogan to make herself more human and less plugged-in politically, even though she was getting a lot of out-of-state contributions from old pals: “A Soccer Mom for City Council.”

The next year, in the 1996 Presidential election, the term “soccer mom” was everywhere — a shorthand for white, middle class women who were considered to be the key swing vote. Over time, the term went from a desired demographic to a pejorative. A “soccer mom” was a dull-minded, misinformed, minivan-driving person whose political activity was butting her nose into conflicts involving her never-going-pro athletic children. (By the way, Casey’s son did go pro — Conor Casey is the leading goal-scorer for the MLS’ Colorado Rapids and was a member of the USA’s Confederations Cup team, the one that stunned No. 1 Spain in South Africa a few weeks back.)

One of the most interesting things about the short, comet-intense, parabolic political career of Sarah Palin is how the soon-to-be-former Alaska governor turned the concept of the political sports mom on the opposite direction. A hockey mom wasn’t something a politician became to relate to the hoi polloi. A hockey mom was something that made a person ready for bare-knuckled politics.

No matter what Palin’s next move is after her stunning announcement Friday that she was resigning after only two-and-a-half years as Alaska’s governor, she always will be remembered for her introduction to the national stage at the Republican convention, one that heralded the arrival of a new era of sports motherism: “The difference between a hockey mom and a pitbull? Lipstick.”

2838903036_598e06ffef1“What’s the difference between Sarah Palin and me? I pee and poop outside.”

When my wife recently became secretary of our kids’ elementary school’s PTO, we joked that this was the first step to her 2016 vice-presidential bid, given that Palin started her political career on her kids’ school’s PTA. However, there is something inspiring that a woman can take a first step in a political career somewhere that is traditionally a woman’s venue, whether hockey mom or PTA. That could serve as a strong signal to future female candidates that you don’t have to start off in a traditionally man’s world to build a political career.

But Palin’s career also shows how being the hockey mom can inspire passion on both sides — to the point that future hockey mom candidates need to consider how much hockey momism is desirable in their political personalities.

In the politics of the youth sports sideline, a particularly intense mother inspires one of two, very passionate reactions. One is the love and support of other parents who see someone willing to stick up for them and their kids against a youth sports culture aligned not in their favor (or, thanks to her, now aligned in their favor). The other is the dislike of other parents, particularly those whose spouses are coaches, who find them a major pain in the ass. To say who is right and who is wrong is immaterial. What’s important is that both sides will never agree, and will make that parent the constant center of conversation and gossip either way. Especially if she’s good-looking.


Definite hockey-mom conversation-generator.

Is there sexism involved in a lot of the attacks on soccer/hockey moms and Palin in particular? You betcha! It’s shocking to see, in Todd Purdum’s recent Vanity Fair breakdown of the McCain/Palin breakdown, McCain staffers wondering whether her difficult personality is a result of post-partum depression. I guess if Palin hadn’t just had a child, those staffers would have wondered whether she was on the rag. Of course, that Palin is “difficult” is its own sexism. I would hardly be the first to point out that a man who had Palin’s, um, difficulties would be lauded as a tough-ass.

So Palin has had to cut through a lot of crap as a real hockey-mom-turned-national-political-figure. On the other hand, she’s brought a lot of crud on herself as a real hockey-mom-turned-national-political-figure. Being Sarah Barracuda, browbeating your way to the top, can bring a backlash at the PTA level, but not to the level of people trashing you on national television. Palin’s mavericky-ness that can work for a hockey mom at some point runs into real opposition once you reach a real political level. Palin might still be a star among certain Republicans, but often she sounds like a hockey mom who thinks everyone likes her, and doesn’t realize or ignores the sniping behind her back.

It would be wrong to assume Palin’s political career is over, even though many, even Republicans, took to the cable news outlets soon after her short, hurried resignation speech to bury her. One thing about a hockey mom: she might be down, but she’s never out, unless it’s on her terms.

The best thing about Palin’s career, whether it ends now or with an unsuccessful 2012 Presidential run (and, really, whatever you think of Palin, it’s hard to see her with a strong shot at winning at this point), is that a real soccer/hockey mom can go from the sidelines to the frontlines, rather than a candidate running to the soccer/hockey mom sidelines to seem real. The next-best thing is that future soccer/hockey moms are getting to learn from her mistakes and successes.