Election 2008, which shattered the ultimate barrier by bringing an African-American to the White House, also turned out to be the Year of the Woman Who Failed. First, Hillary Clinton (D-NY) had the Democratic presidential nomination almost within her grasp only to have it snatched away. From the ashes of her campaign rose Sarah Palin as the Republican vice-presidential candidate—and now, some are blaming her for McCain's defeat. But was her candidacy, in spite of it all, a step forward for women?
When Palin first emerged on the national scene, I thought—despite strongly disagreeing with her views on abortion and many other issues—that she could do a great job of advancing a conservative or individualist feminism that should be a vital part of our discourse on women's issues. Unlike many other conservative female politicians, Palin unabashedly called herself a feminist. Instead of echoing traditionalist pieties about the special nature of women, she matter-of-factly told Katie Couric, "I'm very, very thankful that I've been brought up in a family where gender hasn't been an issue" and expressed the conviction that "women…today have every opportunity that a man has to succeed, and to try to do it all, anyway." This is a philosophy that vast numbers of Americans can relate to—a cheerful can-do feminism far more practical and appealing than perpetual victimhood.
Palin's rise enraged many liberal and left-wing feminists. At HuffingtonPost.com, novelist Jane Smiley branded her "a woman who reinforces patriarchal power rather than challenges it." (The notion that "patriarchal power" exists in the United States in 2008 is only slightly less delusional than the belief, erroneously attributed to Palin, that God created the dinosaurs 5000 years ago.)
The backlash was not just about abortion. Pro-choice conservative women, from Margaret Thatcher to Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, have met with similar hostility from "movement" feminists, who regard support for free markets or military strength as heresies and extensive social programs as an article of faith. Some of Palin's critics, such as Katherine Marsh in The New Republic, faulted her for sending the message that women can and should do it all on their own without help from the government.
That's precisely why Palin could have been good for feminism. In the 1993 book Fire With Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century, feminist writer Naomi Wolf argued that feminism had to discard "litmus tests" which exclude too many women. Wolf wrote that the beliefs of conservative and Republican women who embrace "self-determination, ownership of business, and individualism" should be "respected as a right-wing version of feminism." She even suggested that the "no litmus tests" principle should extend to abortion rights.
It is doubtful that Wolf would apply any of this to Palin, whom she denounced as a tool of Karl Rove's sinister cabal. But that doesn't make what Wolf wrote any less true.
And for a while, Palin did seem like the very model of the modern right-wing feminist. She was not, as some of her detractors sneered, a man-pleasing "Stepford Wife" but a powerful, take-charge woman who was raising five children—not on her own, but in partnership with her husband. That, too, would have made her a great role model. The biggest feminist issue in America today is the career-family balance, a women's issue that cannot be addressed without getting men more involved. It would be genuinely inspirational to see that the "mommy track" can be a road to the White House—and to see a stay-at-home dad as Second Dude.
Unfortunately, Palin's feminist star was dimmed by a few things, especially the mounting evidence that she was less than qualified for the spot. (Her supporters derided such concerns as "elitism.") The shielding of Palin from the media, and the McCain campaign's request for a less challenging format for her debate with Joseph Biden, would have been embarrassing for any candidate—but especially for the first woman on the Republican ticket. Palin went from Xena, Warrior Princess to damsel in distress, and her candidacy began to smack a particularly pernicious form of faux feminism: gender-based promotion of the less competent.
Palin's cultural divisiveness made her unsympathetic as well. While her populist fans accused her detractors of snobbery and class hatred, class warfare against "the elites" drove her candidacy from the start. If there was a central idea to her campaign, it was the superior virtue of the small towns and rural areas that she dubbed "real America" and "the pro-American parts of the country." While rejecting the feminist brand of victimhood, Palin became a standard-bearer for its right-wing equivalent: cultural conservative grievance.
Will Palin redeem herself in 2012 as a candidate with a less polarizing and more substantive message? Perhaps. In the meantime, the good news is that no one regards her failures as failures of women. The bad news is that conservative feminism is still waiting for its spokeswoman. To succeed, feminism needs to learn to connect with a wide spectrum of women and men.
But perhaps the most important thing female politicians can do for feminism is to show us what women can be and what they can do. And in that sense, the Palin's candidacy was only a half-step forward.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at reason magazine. A shorter version of this column previously appeared in Newsday.