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."

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