When Sarah Palin came onto the national stage during the 2009 presidential campaign, Provost Mary Marcy felt there was something missing in conversations about the candidate. “In the midst of these debates about her candidacy and about her presence as a political figure,” Marcy says, “I fundamentally felt that the way she was being presented was missing a big piece. She didn’t come out of nowhere: I knew that there was a long history there, with many precedents for her style of rhetoric and self-presentation. She looked extremely familiar to me, because of previous research I had conducted.”
Marcy undertook the task of updating her research, which she presents in, “Palin as Prototype? Sarah Palin’s Career in the Context of Political Women in the Frontier West,” published this summer in the political science journal The Forum. Her article investigates how Palin’s supposed novelty as a public figure has, in fact, numerous historical precedents. It discusses how her political decisions, rhetoric, and self-presentation follow nearly all the well-defined conventions of a particular model of the political woman in the American West.
Marcy doesn’t just talk about wanting students to be lifelong learners. She is one. “In most instances, I have an intellectual framework that gives me the chance to tap into something and explore, which is incredibly invigorating. I value a mode of intellectual inquiry that expands into—and originates in—a genuine sense of curiosity.” In this case, though, she had more than an intellectual framework. Marcy, trained as a political scientist, has researched political women in the western United States for over twenty years.
To engage her interest in Sarah Palin, she returned to interviews she’d conducted as a graduate student at the University of Oxford. She went back to her files, interviewed women in politics, and read contemporary research in the field. “Anne O’Dwyer helped me think about my research design, and I was bouncing ideas off colleagues in the social sciences faculty. That’s part of what’s fun about being in a tight-knit scholarly community. You have colleagues in a variety of disciplines that you can talk to and share ideas with. It broadens how we think and how we approach scholarship.”
Reconnecting with a professor who had advised her during her years at Oxford also offered an opportunity “to develop the work in the context of what’s happening in the larger academic community,” Marcy says. It was her work at Oxford that led Marcy to investigate how her nascent interest in political science related to her own experience and background. Growing up in rural Nebraska, Marcy’s state representative, congressional representative, and governor had all been republican women, but she hadn’t really thought much of it until she engaged the question as a graduate student.
What she discovered is that the history of women’s involvement in politics in the American West is quite complex and fascinating. “The West has a long history of electing women but it’s not a simple story about opportunity in unexpected places. It’s a complicated story about opportunity if you play by the rules—and the rules are pretty rigid. As that’s the case, the question then becomes, how much is it really an opportunity?”
This research experience has been an opportunity for Marcy to highlight important aspects of her position as the college’s senior academic administrator. “There’s an ideal of the full scholarly life that includes engaging with students, teaching, conducting your own research, and collaborating with colleagues in the field. As an administrator the opening to conduct research gets narrower, which is why discussing focused ideas in a scholarly community can be so helpful.” Marcy says. “This research has involved me in many of the usual aspects of academic inquiry, but there’s also a personal aspect to it. Working with this line of questions again has made me appreciate how a particular vein of intellectual inquiry can evolve in an active way over time, which has been a great joy.”