Ideology Aside, This Has Been the Year of the Woman

"Geraldine Ferraro could not have dressed like Sarah Palin and been on the ticket with Walter Mondale," one conservative said of John McCain's running mate.
"Geraldine Ferraro could not have dressed like Sarah Palin and been on the ticket with Walter Mondale," one conservative said of John McCain's running mate. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
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By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 24, 2008

Two months after Sarah Palin joined the GOP ticket, and four months after Hillary Clinton ended her quest for the presidency, 2008 is turning out to be a transformative year for women in politics, according to women leaders across the political spectrum.

As Election Day nears, it's clear that gender was not a disqualifying factor for either Clinton or Palin. Voters who turned against them did so for other reasons, just as they do with male candidates. Women from both parties also perceive with satisfaction a heightened emphasis on their issues in this year's race.

Palin's candidacy has sent a jolt through traditional liberal women's organizations as she tries to redefine feminism, suggesting that the old movement has become detached from the hockey moms Palin champions. The mother of five and former beauty queen is the antithesis of the bra-burning militant libbers of the '60s, and she is adamantly antiabortion. Yet Palin has grabbed the feminist label vigorously and has been hailed as one by the thousands of supportive women who wave their lipstick tubes at her rallies.

"She is a direct counterpoint to the liberal feminist agenda for America," John McCain declared last weekend.

While liberal groups have strong ideological differences with Palin, some nonetheless rallied to her defense when she was accused of neglecting her family for the campaign trail ."Would they be asking whether a man with five children should be running for high office?" wrote Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, in an online column. ". . . I feel for Palin, and for all women struggling to be taken seriously in a man's realm."

Although she finds the Alaska governor's views on issues critical to women "a disappointment," Gandy said in an interview that she believes it's important for her own teenage daughters "to see women competing at the highest levels of American politics."

All in all, when the votes are cast and the country moves on, the women's movement will have lots of reasons to feel good about the 2008 election year ."I never thought I'd see another woman on a national ticket in this cycle after Hillary lost," said Geraldine Ferraro, who 24 years ago became the first women to run on a major party's national ticket. "But it's like a ripple effect. Hillary's candidacy, my candidacy -- they have a ripple effect far beyond the immediate results."

The unexpected recognition of a conservative as a role model for women has forced some traditional feminists to reconsider the movement's mission. "It's going to take us a while to find our bearings," said Sarah Stoesz, who runs the Planned Parenthood office that oversees Minnesota and the Dakotas. "As feminists, we've always thought that a core aspect of women's equality is about being in control of our reproductive lives. But Sarah Palin is throwing the calculus out the window and demonstrating a view that some people would call feminism: I can be governor, I can have five children, I can shoot and field-dress a moose, and I don't need access to abortion.

"There's a big debate inside the leadership of the women's movement about how much abortion should be a key political issue."

Even if Palin's star fades, many women think that her impact on the definition of a feminist will be lasting. April Ponnuru, 30, said that though she wishes Palin had more policy experience, "at the end of the day, she is a conservative woman who has strong convictions on life and other conservative issues -- and she made it."

"There are really a lot of us out there," said Ponnuru, the executive director of the National Review Institute and the mother of a 3-year-old. "We are vastly underrepresented in politics, and she's the first truly national politician to make a strong statement about being a pro-life woman -- and that's very appealing."

Conservative activist and lawyer Cleta Mitchell started her career as a liberal women's rights politician in Oklahoma, fighting for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in the '70s. "We never said equal rights was just for some of you girls depending on your political philosophy -- that was never part of the deal," Mitchell said. "It was about having options and choices."

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