First Wave -- Second Wave -- And Then Came Sarah Palin

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Mr. Palermo is Associate Professor of American History at CSU, Sacramento. He's the author of two books on Robert F. Kennedy: In His Own Right (2001) and RFK (2008).

In the late 19th century, in Chicago, a grassroots organization founded by Jane Addams gave rise to Hull House where educated women worked to alleviate the suffering of the city's impoverished victims of laissez-faire capitalism. Addams's colleague, Florence Kelley, described Hull House as a "colony of efficient and intelligent women." Kelley later joined forces with Lillian Wald to establish the New York Child Labor Committee, and pressed the federal government to create the U.S Children's Bureau. It was Jane Addams, Florence Kelly and women like them who led the way in what later became known as the Progressive Era.

In the early 20th century, when the women's suffrage movement intensified, Alice Paul and other feminist activists chained themselves to the front gate of the White House in an act of civil disobedience to demand the right to vote. Capitol police arrested them and threw them in a dank D.C. jail cell where they went on a hunger strike. The authorities force-fed them through a tube just like we do to prisoners today in Guatanamo Bay.

Those who argued against women's suffrage claimed that if women had the franchise they would elect socialists and communists and the United States would end up looking like Bolshevik Russia. But when women finally won the right to vote they voted largely the same way the men did. They upheld their class privilege. Bourgeois women voted along their class lines in favor of Republican politicians like Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. Think of Barbara Bush and Cindy McCain. Women were also active at that time in the resurgent Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, Oregon, and other states when the racist hate group metastasized outside the South. The dire predictions of those who opposed women's suffrage never materialized.

Fast-forward to the late 1970s and early 1980s, and we see Phyllis Schlafly and her army of right-wing Christian women (the same army that Sarah Palin apparently now commands), rally her troops to block the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). In 1976, both the Democratic and Republican party platforms formally backed passing the ERA. But by June 1982, Schlafly and her white suburbanite sisters had successfully used outlandish claims to block ratification even though 35 of the necessary 38 states had backed it, and public opinion polls showed that most Americans supported it. Schlafly claimed women would be subjected to the military draft and sent into combat, there'd be unisex bathrooms, the family would be threatened, and there'd be a wholesale degradation of women with the decline of male "chivalry." Schlafly called the ERA's supporters "a bunch of bitter women seeking a constitutional cure for their personal problems."

It is historically significant that Phyllis Schlafly had a lengthy closed-door meeting with Sarah Palin. I wish Palin and Schlafly had staged a photo-op together after they met recently because that image would have cemented for eternity the strain of American anti-feminism these women represent.

The fabricated conservative "outrage" about Barack Obama's use of the cliché "lipstick on a pig" illustrates the wedge the Right likes to slam between women as a voting bloc. The Republicans know that there is really no such thing as a "women's voting bloc." We've heard all about "soccer moms" and "security moms" and now "hockey moms" and "Wal-Mart moms," but these are meaningless categories. Women voters are just as susceptible to tricks leading them to cast ballots against their own self-interests as are the most bull-headed "NASCAR dads." In this context, Sarah Palin's Vice Presidential candidacy is a postmodern act of genius.

The scholar, Jane Mansbridge, in How We Lost the ERA, underscores the irony that it was independent women like Sarah Palin and Phyllis Schlafly who blocked the Constitution from adapting the simple statement: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex." Had the ERA been ratified when it had the chance it would be more difficult today for the five right-wing Catholic men on the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Looking back on that episode realistically, Schlafly and her anti-ERA crusaders never could have accomplished what they did if it weren't for the hefty financial backing they received from the Republican Party and the right-wing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, which is currently a favorite idea factory for the McCain-Palin campaign.

Sarah Palin is a standard bearer for a political party that recently passed one of the most restrictive platforms against women's reproductive rights of any of the last half century. "At its core, abortion is a fundamental assault on the sanctity of innocent human life," the 2008 Republican platform states. "Women deserve better than abortion. Every effort should be made to work with women considering abortion to enable and empower them to choose life. We salute those who provide them alternatives, including pregnancy care centers, and we take pride in the tremendous increase in adoptions that has followed Republican legislative initiatives." Sarah Palin is on record calling for banning all abortions even in cases of rape and incest. And she's the governor of the state with the highest per capita rate of rape of incest in the country.

There's no doubt that Sarah Palin is an independent, intelligent and capable woman. And like other powerful women she owes her current position to the past struggles of the Second Wave feminists. While Palin was pursuing her dream of becoming "Miss Alaska" her sisters were organizing and fighting for women's equality. With Sarah Palin, John McCain offers the nation anti-feminism in women's clothing -- an Orwellian feminism where she can quote, without shame or irony, Hillary Clinton's line about "18 million cracks" in the glass ceiling.

In 1970, the feminist activist and author Susan Brownmiller, in an essay entitled "The Enemy Within," wrote: "There is nothing in women's chemical or biological makeup that should preclude deep loyalty to those of the same sex. The sensitivity is certainly there, as is the capacity for warmth and love and fidelity. But until women cease to see themselves strictly in terms of men's eyes and to value men more highly than women, friendship with other women will remain a sometime thing, an expedient among competitors of inferior station that can be lightly discarded. I, for one, would much rather compete with men than for them. This affliction of competition between women for the attention of men -- the only kind of women's competition that is encouraged by society -- also affects the liberated woman who managed to secure an equal footing with men in this man's world. Watch a couple of strong women in the same room and notice the sparks fly. Many women who reject the 'woman is inferior' psychology for themselves apply it unsparingly to others of the same sex. An ambitious woman frequently thinks of herself as the only hen in the barnyard, to reverse a common metaphor. She is the exception, she believes. Women must recognize that they must make common cause with all women. When women get around to really liking -- and respecting -- other women, why then, we will have begun."

Something tells me that Sarah Palin never encountered these kinds of ideas during her studies for the Bachelor of Science degree in communications-journalism at the University of Idaho.