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Sarah Palin Feminism: Right-Wingers Look to Open a New Front in the Culture Wars

Sarah Palin represents a new wave of independent conservative women marrying "traditional values" with corporate economics.

From the podium at the Christian Right's Values Voter Summit in mid-September, Kate O'Beirne of the National Review Institute pronounced that the "selection of Sarah Palin [as the GOP's vice presidential nominee] sounded the death knell of modern American feminism."

"She's a prick to the liberal establishment, to the feminists and to the men who fear them," she jeered.

But as "Palin Power" surged through the halls of the Hilton Washington that day -- and through the Republican Party base in later weeks -- her candidacy revealed a generational cleavage that conservative elders may not have expected. Because even as older conservatives decried anything feminist, many younger activists in the hall were supportive of Sarah Palin's version of "free-market" feminism.

Palin is by no means a feminist in the traditional sense. While acknowledging that she benefited from Title IX, which bans sex discrimination in educational institutions, she has expressed off-again, on-again support for talking about condoms during sex education, and is associated with the group Feminists for Life, the home of such "conservative feminists" as the wife of Supreme Court Justice John Roberts.

But Palin gave viable political form to a "free-market feminism" that until now was largely championed by a few intellectuals and pundits based in conservative Beltway think tanks. As the GOP regroups in the Obama era, it may find this kind of feminism useful as a means of softening the culture war crusade that is so off-putting to moderate Republicans and independents alike. 

"For such a long time, the powerful women in Washington were all touting pro-choice as pro-woman. People like Sen. Hillary Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were the role models," says Emily Buchanan, the young executive director of the Susan B. Anthony List, which seeks to elect anti-abortion women to office. "[Palin] embodies the American woman. She's independent. She speaks her mind. But she also embodies the traditional values that are so important to Americans."

Another staffer, Justin Aguila, 23, said "There's a great picture of her with her son in a sling signing a law," adding, "My mother is not usually involved in the political process, and now she is."

Buchanan agreed, "She's paved the way for traditional women in office. I hope we see our mothers running for office; that they see the connection starting at the community level."

To them, Palin's attraction is that she is "normal," a word heard as often in interviews as "traditional." She wears makeup. She is pretty. She is an evangelical Christian. She is anti-abortion. She's a white, "all-American" mom.

Palin's campaign revealed a surprising transition in what conservative Christians (including both evangelicals and Roman Catholics) mean by traditional woman: not a stay-at-home mom, but someone who believes in a heterosexual nuclear family and conservative "family values."

By contrast, "biblical womanhood" is the phrase used by neo-Calvinists and others to describe submissive stay-at-home moms, who are expected to ask their husbands how they should behave -- and vote. During the election, champions of biblical womanhood, such as Doug Phillips of the home-schooling ministry Vision Forum, opposed Palin's candidacy on the grounds that God did not mean for women to lord over men or depart from being "keepers of the home." Phillips called Palin's selection "the single most dangerous event in the conscience of the Christian community in the last 10 years."

Redefining "traditional" to embrace egalitarian working moms builds on larger shifts seen among evangelicals. As W. Bradford Wilcox argues, white, evangelical Protestants typically talk right but go left: they want "traditional" families while having the same messy family lives as everyone else, including one of the highest rates of divorce in the country. Evangelicals share the economic challenges facing the rest of the country, where two-income families are a necessity.

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