Whatever the outcome of the presidential race, 2008 will be a memorable Year of the Woman. First, Hillary Clinton came close to capturing the Democratic nomination, a feminist dream that failed. Now, there is Sarah Palin as the Republican vice presidential pick: to some a new feminist dream, to others a feminist nightmare—a conservative female politician who embraces a right-wing social agenda, including opposition to abortion.
To the contrast between Clinton and Palin, add a contrast between Palin and Democratic vice presidential nominee Senator Joseph Biden, himself a player in gender politics as the champion of a major piece of feminist legislation—the Violence Against Women Act of 1994.
Is Palin—whose image as a tough woman has evoked comparisons to historical and fictional female fighters like Joan of Arc and Xena, Warrior Princess—a feminist hero?
To some feminists, the answer is a clear no. Novelist Jane Smiley brands her "a woman who reinforces patriarchal power rather than challenges it."
But the charge is unfair. Unlike right-wing columnist Ann Coulter, to whom Smiley compares her, Palin is not known for attacking the women's movement; she credits it with breaking down gender barriers and creating the opportunities she has enjoyed. While anti-abortion, she belongs to a group called Feminists for Life.
As a social issues liberal with strong concerns about religion-based public policy, I have some serious disagreements with Palin, though it's often hard to separate the reality of her views from the caricatures painting her as a zealot. But I also believe that her candidacy is a great moment for American women.
First, more representation for feminism across the spectrum of political beliefs is a good thing. Women, like men, should be able to disagree on gun ownership, environmental policies, taxes, even abortion while agreeing on gender equity.
Second, the biggest feminist issue in America today is the career-family balance. Despite remaining discrimination, motherhood is at the core of the "glass ceiling" holding back female achievement. How inspirational, then, to see that the "mommy track" can be a road to the White House. Palin is a mother of five who resumed an intensive work schedule days after giving birth, and whose husband seems to be a full partner.
Palin's candidacy may also be a watershed moment in conservative politics. The right has long been ambivalent about working mothers; a number of conservative politicians and pundits have been given to chiding "selfish" women who pursue career ambitions after having children. Now, a mother with a high-powered career is a conservative hero, and full-time motherhood may be forever gone from the roster of "family values."
If there is hypocrisy in this conservative celebration of Palin, it is outdone by the hypocrisy of feminist liberals who deploy sexist weapons against her. Smiley calls Palin "arrogant"; sex educator Deborah Haffner and women's magazine editor Bonnie Fuller attack her as a bad mother; an article on Salon.com by Gary Kamiya titled "The Dominatrix" derides her as a "pinup queen." It is not sexist to question Palin's qualifications; but a disturbing amount of the criticism targets her as a woman.
On the Democratic side, the vice presidential candidate offers another form of pseudo-feminist sexism. Biden's legislative offspring, the Violence Against Women Act, authorized some good programs addressing rape and domestic violence. But it also represents a toxic mix of gender-war feminism that treats such crimes as acts of patriarchal oppression rather than individual wrongdoing, and paternalism that sees women as deserving of special protection. One of the Act's provisions sought to discourage "dual arrests" in domestic assaults, based on the false assumption that women in such cases are wrongly arrested for defending themselves.
At the 1990 Senate hearings on the bill, Biden proudly reported that he and his brothers were forbidden to lay a hand on their sister even in self-defense, while she enjoyed "absolute impunity"—and added, apparently not as a joke, that he had "the bruises to prove it." This is not equality; it's chivalry masquerading as feminism.
Ultimately, women should vote on the basis of a candidate's ideas and ability, not gender. But in the contest of the vice presidential candidates, Palin represents by far the better version of female empowerment. Regardless of how we vote or who wins, that empowering message is here to stay.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor of reason. A version of this article originally appeared in The Boston Globe.