The GOP Finds Feminism

Hypocrisy is only bad when it is improperly used.
—George Bernard Shaw

I never thought I would live long enough to see the day when the Republican presidential candidate would cite membership in the PTA as evidence of executive experience, when the far right would laud the full-time working mothers of newborns, when social conservatives would stare down teenage pregnancy and replace their pursed-lip accusations of promiscuity with hosannas about choosing life.

The Republican Party has undergone a surprising metamorphosis since Sarah Palin was chosen as its vice presidential candidate. In Palin I recognize a fellow traveler, a woman whose life would have been impossible just a few decades ago. If she had been born 30 years earlier, the PTA would likely have been her last stop, not her first. Her political ascendancy is a direct result of the women's movement, which has changed the world utterly for women of all persuasions. It is therefore notable that Palin has found her home in a party, and in a wing of that party, that for many years has reviled, repelled and sought to roll back the very changes that led her to the Alaska Statehouse.

But expediency is an astonishing thing, and conservative Republicans have suddenly embraced the assertion that women can do it all, even those conservative Republicans who have made careers out of trashing that notion. James Dobson of Focus on the Family once had staffers on his hot line saying, "Dr. Dobson recommends that mothers of young children stay at home as much as possible." He now applauds a woman who was back at work three days after her son, who has Down syndrome, was born.

Even to state that simple fact resulted in outrage among those at the convention, who screamed double standard. But the double standard was mainly theirs. The governor was aggressively marketed in terms of her maternity, yet questions about how she managed to mother five and lead the state were dismissed as sexist. The governor's two years leading Alaska, which in terms of citizens served is the equivalent of being mayor of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., was said to be the linchpin of her appointment, but questions about her breadth of experience were dismissed as sexist. Her surrogates wanted the press to write about mooseburgers and ignore how the governor had once pursued the kind of earmarked federal funds she now insists are anathema to her. Conservatives have probably used the word "sexist" more in the past week than they have in the past 50 years.

This would all have been entertaining if it were not such rank hypocrisy. These are people who have inveighed against affirmative action, a version of which undoubtedly played a part in this selection. These are people who inveighed against personal attacks on their new nominee when the wingnuts of their own party elevated such attacks to a fine art by accusing Hillary Rodham Clinton of fictitious misdeeds ranging from treason to murder. To try to suggest Sarah Palin might garner the Hillary Clinton vote, that one woman is just the same as another, that biology trumps ideology, is the ultimate evidence of true sexism, and I hope Senator Clinton will travel the country and say so.

Amid the drumbeat of female Amazonian competence occasioned by the Palin nomination ran one deeply discordant assumption, the assumption that women are strong and smart and sure and yet neither sentient nor moral enough to decide what to do if they are pregnant under difficult circumstances. The governor has talked about the choice she and her pregnant teenage daughter have made, but would deny other women the right to make their own choices. She talks about fighting the old boys' network and corrupt politicians, but would turn over the private reproductive decisions of American women to both. This is not choosing life. It is choosing unwarranted intrusion into the family lives of women. Which, ironically, is exactly what the Republicans accused the press of doing in the case of Governor Palin.

When Democrat James Carville said he found the choice of Palin perplexing on the merits, Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann said she found that "offensive to American women." I found her offense offensive to American women, since at its core was the notion that Governor Palin should not and could not be judged by the same standards as her male counterparts. In fact, all the cries of sexism suggested that, yet again, the Republicans had underestimated the ability of women to lead; when the governor finally took center stage, it was clear that she needed no protections or excuses. If she is as sharp and self-assured as her convention speech, the first thing she will do, in the parlance of the sport she played under the nickname "Sarah Barracuda," is to slam-dunk the notion that she can't take an elbow. She certainly knows how to give one.

John McCain has been no advocate for women; when asked during the primaries, on the subject of Senator Clinton, "How do we beat the bitch?" he responded, "Excellent question." (Note to the GOP: that IS sexist.) He has been either hostile or clueless on issues like contraceptive funding, workplace protections and aid to poor mothers. And his running mate will likely walk in lock step with him on all those things. But she could certainly help move the inevitable tide of women's rights, the tide that has floated her own boat, by demanding that she be honored with the same tough scrutiny the guys in this race get. Which was, in case these improbable born-again friends of feminism missed it, the entire point of the exercise in the first place.