Sarah Palin, the veepstakes, and the “poisoned well”

When a person becomes the first member of their minority group to do something, they carry an extra burden. They don’t just have to do the job – say, lead a nation – they have to do that job knowing that their performance will be considered representative of how every member of that group would fare in that position.

Obviously, the example that comes to mind most quickly is President Obama; he’s not just the President, he’s a Black President. Or, if you’re Australian, Julia Gillard, who carries the extra weight of representing “how women govern.” President Obama’s additional burden was something that Keith Boykin discussed on “Melissa Harris-Perry” last weekend when we were talking about white voters and the 2012 election.

Now, if the token person in question does well in their job, their success won’t be attributed to their minority status. They’ve just done well. But if they do poorly, it’s because they’re a woman, or because they’re African American. If they do poorly – and this is part of the extra weight the token carries – it can have terrible consequences for future generations of that minority group.

Case in point: the GOP’s 2012 veepstakes. An unnamed informal advisor to the Romney campaign said this week that Romney was only considering one woman as a potential running mate. Why? Because of how badly it worked out for the GOP when they picked a woman in 2008. MSNBC reports:

In particular, few women except for New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte – a freshman lawmaker from New England with only scant federal experience – are thought to be under consideration by Romney.

“I think, unfortunately, Palin poisoned the well on that,” said one informal Romney adviser, fretting that any woman selected as VP would draw inevitable comparisons to the former Alaska governor. “I would guess if I were inside the Romney mind that they’re worried that any woman chosen will be subjected to a higher level of scrutiny.”

This is the burden of the first, and of the token. The problem wasn’t that Sarah Palin was unvetted, untested, uninformed, and unqualified. It was that she was a woman. The well has been poisoned not for candidates who are unvetted, untested, uninformed, and unqualified, but for candidates who are women.

And now, we have to live with that poisoned well, the belief that because Sarah Palin wasn’t qualified enough to be a Presidential running mate or a Vice President, no woman is.

It’s not fair to ask anyone – Obama, Gillard, Palin – to carry the extra burden. It’s not fair to them as individuals, it’s not fair to the communities they come from but do not necessarily represent, and it’s not fair to the country. When we treat them as tokens, and take their failures as representative of entire groups, we miss out on great talent in the future. We do ourselves a disservice.

It’s because of our biases, not because of any one individual or the abilities of any minority group, that the well is poisoned. And it’s because of our biases that we could well miss out on a whole generation of American leaders.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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  • Sam Lindsay-Levine

    Good post, well written and reasoned. I just wanted to add that we shouldn’t forget Geraldine Ferraro, the actual first female VP candidate for a major party back in 1984, who it sometimes seems like nobody my age (~30) has even heard of. Maybe if more young people knew that the first woman on a presidential ticket was so long ago, it would seem even weirder and more unacceptable how few there have been since then.

    • Jessica

      Thank you! I was just going to bring up Geraldine Ferraro, Mondale’s running mate against Reagan and Bush Sr. in 1984 (for those who don’t remember, I was little, myself). Sarah Palin is the first time the Republicans have tried it, but it could still be the same situation. Maybe the well was “poisoned” for Democrats back then. They haven’t fielded women as vice presidential or presidential candidates since then either, until Hillary Clinton, who after all still didn’t get either candidacy.

      I don’t remember if Mondale’s landslide defeat was attributed to not having a male running mate. I’m sure it was a variety of factors, mostly trying to defeat Reagan’s reelection.

      (hooray for obscure American history lessons for our favorite Australian blogger!)

  • Sarah

    Completely agree. Thank you for so well articulating this concept.

  • Alison

    This made me so mad when I first read about it, for precisely the reasons you laid out. If you are a member of any “other” group – women, POC, LGBT, etc – you are held to such incredibly high standards and scrutiny, not just for yourself but for everyone else in your “group”. We see that everywhere – I’m also reminded of when a white Christian male commits vandalism or violence at an abortion clinic: we’re *never* allowed to make any inferences about white people, fundamentalists Christians, etc. But if a person with brown skin or a Muslim name commits any act of violence, it’s TERRORISM and means we shouldn’t allow immigrants in and blah blah. It’s a ridiculous mode of thinking but sadly very prevalent.

    • honeybee

      Is that true though? We commonly paint generalizations about how men, society, etc. treat women, as if everyone is the same.

      We talk about white men having more power, money, etc. then women or minorities when in fact it’s actually only a small minority of white men who are in this situation. Most white men are no better off then women.

      I guess what I’m saying is everyone makes generalizations about others all the time. Because it’s hard to discuss macro issues without it. You can’t exactly talk about individuals when analyzing society as a whole.

      • natasha

        Yes there are generalizations about men, I don’t think anyone is denying that. But white men do not have to represent their entire group in fields of power and influence– such as politics. Because in America, white men have always been the group dominating in that arena. Despite advances made, people in leadership roles who aren’t white men are the minority, which is why people from other groups have to face the extra scrutiny of being the example for all other women, people of color, etc.