Are Sarah Palin's 'Mama Grizzlies' Feminist?

Erik S. Lesser / AP Photo

It's not often that I get invited to breakfast at the Four Seasons with a baroness, and I was curious. So were a few dozen other women and three brave men who sat down to fruit and pastries, and to hear from Baroness Mary Goudie, a member of the British House of Lords and an activist on human-rights issues from sex trafficking to maternal health in Afghanistan. A feisty lady who relishes spirited debate and laughs easily and often, she won over everyone in the room as a self-appointed leader of women's causes around the world, including getting more women on corporate boards.

These are issues that cut across political lines, but the women at the breakfast were mostly working for nonprofits, and it was clear from the conversation that their sentiments were on the progressive side. Goudie was there to promote her blog about shared global concerns and how they relate to women and children, and to create synergy with like-minded advocates across the pond. There was lots of agreement and female bonding until one of the men asked a question that he likened to tossing a grenade into the discussion.

He wanted to know what the baroness and others thought about Sarah Palin and her ability to command attention. There's a women's explosion happening, he said, but it's not happening in the progressive sphere. Why is all the energy among women on the right, the cohort Palin dubs "Mama Grizzlies"? Surely progressive women love their children and their way of life and the Constitution every bit as much as the self-appointed Mama Grizzlies. Goudie ducked the question, but as the breakfast concluded and she was bidding farewell to her guests, she confided to me, "The Mama Grizzlies are winning."

Whether they will win at the ballot box in November is an open question. Some, like Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle, who opposes abortion in all instances, including rape, and who wants to phase out Social Security, may prove too wacky for the voters. But win or lose elections, the Mama Grizzlies have proven adept at breaking through the noise and getting more than their share of attention, just like their benefactor, Sarah Palin. Like Palin, they have found their voice. They don't want anybody telling them how to raise their children, or taking their guns away. Thirty years late to the battle for women's rights, they're claiming the mantle of feminism.

It's nice they're embracing feminism after demonizing the term for so long, and I welcome them to the arena. Let's see if they can do for women what their sisters on the left have done since the '70s, breaking down the barriers for women in all areas of American life including politics. Palin has George W. Bush's disdain for intellectual elites, and she lives the rhetoric. She's undisciplined intellectually, but she's got street smarts, and they count.

She's like Oprah staying ahead of the curve in the way she sees things. Call it EQ—emotional intelligence. She knows better than anyone in public life how to navigate the new social media, and she resonates with enough people in the Republican Party that she's the wild card for 2012.

The women candidates she considers Mama Grizzlies would have been out there anyway; I don't think she inspired them to run. But she's given definition to a movement that would otherwise be just a bunch of kooks, or one-offs. She's fenced off a wing of the GOP that she owns, and in politics, when it's your turn to ride the rocket, that's what you do. A Republican source says Palin is nothing new, she's really Pat Buchanan in drag—the same issues except that her reality show is a lot more gripping. The media went overboard for Buchanan in 1996 when he won the New Hampshire primary, defeating establishment favorite Bob Dole. But the insurgent campaign of a former Nixon speechwriter can't compare with the ongoing soap opera of the Palins. Bristol and Levi together again!

When I ran the Palin-as-Buchanan theory past another Republican, a woman this time, she said that was an insult to Buchanan, who is deeply serious and has thought about these issues. She doesn't agree with his conclusions, but he rode the rocket at a moment in time, just as Palin is poised to do. This friend does corporate focus groups that have nothing to do with politics, and at the end she likes to ask what the participants think of various people in the news: "When you mention her name, they all smile, even if what comes out of their mouth is that she's terrible."

A big part of Palin's appeal is how well she works with today's culture, which is shallow and quick. Twitter is 140 characters—which gets me back to the serious do-gooders who worry about girls in Afghanistan. They don't have the same ability to get to the heart of things, plus they're dealing with issues most voters would rather avoid, and that includes Palin, who quit public office when it got harder than tweeting.

Eleanor Clift is also the author of Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Politics and Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment.