Analysis: Feminism’s Next Wave

A funny thing happened on the way to the election: Before Sarah Palin came to town, it was all about the O. Image-wise, Barack Obama, our first African-American major-party nominee for commander-in-chief, had electrified the country with his transcendent presence and lofty yet carefully measured messages of change and hope. He presents a hard-to-place, dashing figure, a coffee-colored JFK without the scandal. Indeed, the newly nominated Democratic candidate’s unique ability to draw swooning crowds and dominate media attention so frustrated the McCain camp that they compared him in an ad to such no-content blondes as Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.

Meanwhile, celebrity-wise, the Republican side was suffering from an “enthusiasm gap,” hoping the convention at the Xcel Energy Center would infuse energy into a quickly tanking campaign. In picking the little-known governor of Alaska, John McCain got his wish. Many experts were predicting a Quayle-like disaster, but they were wrong. From the moment she first appeared with McCain, in Ohio, Sarah Palin has proved to be a force of nature, much like Ike, the post-Gustav storm that defied classification. For the GOP, she’s become an Obama-like energy source, and her entrance has transformed the race. The idea of a fresh “narrative” has become a political buzzword lately, and boy did she deliver a bonanza of a story: She’s an icon, an archetype and an instant brand.

Be careful what you wish for in sarcastically dismissing celebrity: What would the McCain camp say about a vice-presidential contender who within days of her selection kicked Halle Berry off the cover of People, and also appeared as a cover girl for US Weekly and OK! magazines?

It’s the kind of classic, self-made American story you just can’t make up: A woman who looks like she stepped out of a LensCrafters ad, she’s a governor and a small-town girl, a former basketball champ, elk hunter and salmon fisherwoman, a mother of five children, all of whom were graced with soap-opera-ish names, including a son, Track, who is to deploy to Iraq on Sept. 11; Trig, her 4-month-old with Down syndrome; and a 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, who is five months pregnant and soon to be wed. Meanwhile, she seems happily married to her husband, the would-be “First Dude,” a commercial fisherman and oil-field manager/ union member who is also a four-time winner of the Iron Dog snowmobile race. The icing on the icing is that he’s also part Eskimo. There’s a paucity of imagination even among TV writers about how to combine those elements, but the family drama suggests an entire week of Dr. Phil mixed with Northern Exposure and Desperate Housewives.

But there’s nothing desperate about her. Even among the most eminent and zealous multitaskers, she’s in amazing control, and manages to have a natural and winning way. Imagine being a governor and getting your family of five, including a 4-month-old and a pregnant adolescent daughter, ready to go to Ohio on zero notice to appear before 40 million people so you can kill with your not-yet-written acceptance speech? She told People that she had to remember to include extra bottles and an electric breast pump on the way. That might be too much information, and a bit uncomfortable to mention, but it certainly hits home for mothers who returned to work after a short leave.

Still, her views are extremely conservative, and at a time of such contradictions for women, she brings a whole new level of cognitive dissonance into the fray: It’s as though Pat Buchanan and Gloria Steinem had a political love child. (Neither of them would want to picture that, I’m sure.) Anyone whose presence allows Rudy Giuliani to come off as a feminist and attack the press for being sexist is a pretty complicated figure.

On the one hand, her political views (she’s anti-abortion and pro-gun and an evangelical creationist) seem directly counter to the until-now traditionally liberal tenets of feminism. Yet at the same time, she’s a powerful governor and mother of five, a combination that seems the very definition of what the women’s movement was fighting for.

As a self-described “hockey mom,” she delivered her most memorable joke: “What’s the difference between a hockey mom and pit bull? Lipstick.”

While she has no doubt roused the Republican base and evangelical branch of the party, that the McCain camp could think she could possibly be a substitute for disappointed Hillary voters seems out of touch. In some ways, she was used more as a traditional attack dog last week than a lipsticked pit bull — she became a Bob Dole or even Spiro Agnew figure, making fun of the East Coast, establishment, political and media “elite” — a classic Republican tactic, and an indictment that could include Sen. Clinton.

Still, is going back to work as a mayor one day after giving birth (as she did with Piper) a feminist act? She blurs all distinctions.

Certainly, a woman who embodies all of these contradictions could not have existed until now. Indeed, the AMC TV series about advertising, Mad Men, with its fictional but still largely realistic portrayal of the (advertising) workplace in the early 1960s, shows that women were routinely condescended to, dismissed, and/or sexually harassed. Work was widely seen as a stepping-stone to the real goal: being a suburban wife and mother, which, once achieved, also proved mighty confining. And the cultural minefield of double standards was oppressive every step of the way.

Meanwhile, Palin was born in 1964, a year after Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published. That seminal feminist work gave a name to the anger and frustration that educated, largely upper-middle-class white women were feeling.

At the same time, in 1962, Helen Gurley Brown had written Sex and the Single Girl, an instant best-seller, telling working-class “girls” to use both professional skills and their feminine wiles to achieve their dreams. She referred to her former scared-little-girl self as a “mouseburger,” and said she could teach fellow mouseburgers to transform themselves.

For women, the path from mouseburgers to mooseburgers explains much of what we need to know about women’s culture in the last 40 years.

Palin is a classic third-wave feminist, benefiting from all that came before her in terms of the women’s movement, while remaining the embodiment of patriotic, religious, small-town values. “Before I became governor of the great state of Alaska, I was mayor of my hometown,” she said while on the Obama attack. “And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves. I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities.” Like the very sarcastic Giuliani before her, she pronounced “community organizer” as if it were synonymous with “carnival barker.”

Palin’s selection also allows the McCain camp to start overusing the word “maverick.” Suddenly, a 72-year-old white man, a fixture in the U.S. Senate for more than 20 years, cozy with the press, married to a beer heiress with seven houses, is a maverick. And in a TV spot, called “Alaska’s Maverick,” released on the day of her speech, she was also lauded as an “agent of reform.”

Certainly, she’s the change agent they might need: a right-wing politico in the body of an attractive modern “executive” (there’s a word overused almost as much as “maverick”), wife and mother. And she can take advantage of her gender to mock Obama in a way that a typical white male could not.

Her presence also allows for key cultural values to be reframed on the side of Republicans: She can brag that as a middle-class person, she doesn’t have an “Ivy League education,” unlike the elitist Obamas (even though they both got scholarships and loans, and anyway, isn’t getting into the best schools part of the American dream?). In the same vein, the proud announcement of her 17-year-old daughter’s pregnancy is a staggering stunt: Kudos rained down on the family for her daughter’s choice to marry and bring a new young life into the world. Obama handled the announcement with grace and compassion, but it’s not hard to imagine the ragingly critical response he’d have to endure if he had a teenage daughter in the same situation.

Even working women who can relate to her life are torn.

As a mother, I have to admit that I feel for Bristol, and can’t imagine how she can be happy about being plunged onto the national stage during her pregnancy (although standing on stage with her visible bump, next to the future father, she was beaming).

Honestly, I would have considered her needs, and the needs of my Down-syndrome baby, and probably begged off the vp slot. Is that sexist? By accepting the nod, and necessarily parading her family on stage, she makes them all fair game for the press. Can they expect to have it both ways?

As we’ve already seen at every stage of this election, strange things happen in politics.

As a woman tapped to be vice president, Palin has already made history for the GOP; the move measures up to Obama’s candidacy for Democrats. At the same time, by dint of being a woman, she’s an immediate symbol of modernity, which provides a lot of cover for her staunchly conservative views (no abortion even in the case of rape or incest, for example, and no sex education in schools).

Still, Palin accomplished what she was hired to do. Suddenly, McCain is no longer a boring old white guy but a path blazer on gender. As the delegates kept repeating in the convention center, “Drill, baby, drill!”

Barbara Lippert is Adweek’s advertising critic.