The media went hysterical over Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska and Republican nominee for vice president. She may have appeared to the public as an independent, capable professional woman, but to a particular elite she couldn’t possibly be a real feminist or even a serious candidate.
And that raises questions about what is — and what is not — feminism.
Feminism grew out of the 1960s to address sexual inequality. At an early age, I was mentored on most feminist arguments by my late mother. She graduated from Stanford Law School in the 1940s but then was offered only a single job as a legal secretary. Instead, she went back home to raise three children with my father, a teacher and farmer, and only returned to legal work in her 40s. She was eventually named a California superior court judge and, later, a state appellate court justice.
Hers was a common and compelling feminist argument of the times, and went something like this: Women should receive equal pay for equal work, and not be considered mere appendages of their husbands. Childrearing — if properly practiced as a joint enterprise — did not preclude women from pursuing careers. A woman’s worth was not to be necessarily judged by having either too many or too few children, given the privacy of such decisions and the co-responsibility of male partners.
In such an ideal gender-blind workplace, women were not to be defined by their husband’s or father’s success or failure. The beauty of women’s liberation was that it was not hierarchical but included the unmarried woman who drove a combine on her own farm, the corporate attorney and the homemaker who chose to home-school her children.
Women in the workplace did not look for special favors. And they surely did not wish to deny innately feminine differences. Instead, they asked only that men should not establish arbitrary rules of the game that favored their male gender.
Soon radical changes in American attitudes about birth control, abortion, dating, marriage and health care became, for some, part and parcel of women’s liberation. But in its essence feminism still was about equality of opportunity, and so included women of all political and religious beliefs.
That old definition of feminism is now dead. It has been replaced by a new creed that is far more restrictive - as the controversy over Sarah Palin attests. Out of the recent media frenzy, four general truths emerged about the new feminism:
(1) There is a particular class and professional bent to the practitioners of feminism. Sarah Palin has as many kids as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, she has as much of a prior political record as the once-heralded Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, who was named to the Democratic ticket by Walter Mondale in 1984 - and arguably has as much as, or more executive experience than, Barack Obama. Somehow all that got lost in the endless sneering stories about her blue-collar conservatism, small Alaskan town, five children, snowmobiling husband and Idaho college degree.
(2) Feminism now often equates to a condescending liberalism. Emancipated women who, like Mrs. Palin, do not believe in abortion or are devout Christians are at best considered unsophisticated dupes. At worst, they are caricatured as conservative interlopers, piggybacking on the hard work of left-wing women whose progressive ideas alone have allowed the Palins of the world the choices they otherwise would not now enjoy.
Apparently these feminists believe that without the ideas of Gloria Steinem on abortion, a moose-hunting PTA mom would not have made governor. The Democrat’s vice presidential candidate, Joe Biden, said Mrs. Palin’s election, given her politics, would be “a backward step for women.”
(3) Hypocrisy abounds. Many female critics of Mrs. Palin, in Washington and New York politics and media, found their careers enhanced through the political influence of their powerful fathers, their advantageous marriages to male power players and the inherited advantages of capital. The irony is that a Sarah Palin - like a Barbara Jordan, Golda Meir or Margaret Thatcher - made her own way without the help of money or influence.
(4) Most Americans still believe in the old feminism but not this new doctrinaire liberal brand. Consequently, a struggling John McCain suddenly has shot ahead of Mr. Obama in the polls. Apparently millions of Americans like Mrs. Palin’s underdog feminist saga and her can-do pluckiness. Many are offended by haughty liberal media elites sneering at someone whom, politics aside, they should be praising - for her substantial achievements, her inspirational personal story and her Obama-like charisma.
This last week we were supposed to learn about a liberated Gov. Sarah Palin. Instead the media taught us more than we ever wanted to know about what they now call feminism.
Victor Davis Hanson is a nationally syndicated columnist, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.