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.

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Chris Peck - 10/9/2008

This man writes with an overwhelmingly partisan bias. It's very difficult to read it and take it seriously. It's scary to think that he is actually teaching history with his mindset.

Chris Peck - 10/9/2008

You must be kidding me....you're faulting a man for the deeds of his country? Then you're justifying that same country for historically committing the same acts of warfare. Your hypocrisy is staggering.

Lorraine Paul - 9/29/2008

oooop! should have read...the North Vietnamese 'have' denied it...

Must proof-read too!

Lorraine Paul - 9/29/2008

Is it true that McCain has lied all these years about being tortured by the North Vietnamese.

The North Vietnamese has denied it happened many times...but of course they would! However, McCain never lets a moment, or interview, go by without referring to it. Well he would even if it was untrue, wouldn't he? He has made a career out of it. The one thing that may excuse his affair with his second wife whilst his first wife was suffering.

Yes, it is emotive language, but women get a little hot under the collar when bimbos pinch their husbands, no matter how pathetic they are!!! LOL

Arnold Shcherban - 9/20/2008

Sorry, Mr. Hamilton, but yours is an invalid comparison on so many reasons.
Some of these reasons are: Germany and its allies that time aggressed against and occupied many European and some non-European countries (and what's much more important against US Western allies and the world order maintained by them) with an unambigious goal to either include them into the territory of The Third Reich or enslave their population
(exterminating any resistance); many of those countries (their governments and the populations) explicitly asked US and UK for the rescue;
Germans also aggressed against the US by killing hundreds of its sailors even before US did actually enter the war; Germany at the time was the most powerful (technologically and militarily) country in Europe and after successful conquest of the most of the civilised world (which at that time seemed very likely to happen) would have been the most imminent and
deadly threat to America in all history of the latter.
Those circumstances and factors were
non-existent or virtually absent not just practically, but theoretically, as well in the South-North Vietnam's case.
According with all international and internal principles and definitions of the legitimate military intervention, the actions of the US in Vietnam and Cambodia unambigiously fall under the definition of aggression. Therefore, any American pilot that bombed South or North Vietnam cannot be considered a hero, to say the least. If we allow such hails float and be emphasized, then we can't avoid to apply heroic status (on much more solid reasons) to the Soviet pilots that bombed the bases and concentrations of the so-called by the West that time "freedom fighters" (now - "Islamic terrorists"), also killing civilians.
Let be honest, not ideological about it.

R.R. Hamilton - 9/20/2008

I'm four years younger than you, but I also remember the ubiquitous smoking of the 1960s. And that no one complained!

In one of the recent episodes, the Draper family went on a picnic and left all of their trash. Funny, what went on before "Earth Day!" :)

Maarja Krusten - 9/20/2008

Aha, I'll have to keep that in mind. I don't have the time to watch much TV and so lagged in seeing season one (set in 1960). I only watched it after I purchased the DVD of the first season this summer. I gather season two of "Mad Men" skips forward to 1962. Thanks for the heads up about the storylines.

I also have found the workplace scenes the most compelling, at least in season one. Some of the domestic scenes were interesting also, as when senior partner Roger Sterling joins executive Don Draper and his wife, Betty, for dinner at their home and ends up drunk. Without blinking an eye, Don waves good-bye to Roger as he stumbles to his car ("no, no, that's my car. There you go, there you go. Headlights, turn on your headlights") and that's it. No talk of "I don't think you should drive, let me call you a cab." A lot of drinking, and an incredible amount of smoking, even by pregnant women. (The actors actually smoke herbal cigarettes).

I remember that age, having turned 10 in 1961. The print ads in the opening credits seem very much of the type I once saw in LIFE and other magazines I then read.

If you haven't seen it, the website has some forums associated with it, I found interesting some of the comments posted, especially when people discuss production details.

History buffs also may enjoy reading this article in USA Today, which discusses some of the production details. (Don using an opener to open his can of beer - no pop-tops yet, etc.)


R.R. Hamilton - 9/19/2008

Wasn't George McGovern (and Lloyd Bentsen, come to think of it) one of those pilots who "bombed a country (Germany) that never bombed his"?

R.R. Hamilton - 9/19/2008

It's my one and only must-see weekly show. :)

Though I must say that this season I'm a bit peeved at how many "out-of-office experiences" we are made to endure. Put the Mad Men back on Madison Avenue!

R.R. Hamilton - 9/19/2008

Palermo quotes "feminist activist and author Susan Brownmiller" saying:

"Many women who reject the 'woman is inferior' psychology for themselves apply it unsparingly to others of the same sex.... 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."

This is the "idea" that he says Gov. Palin "never encountered" at the University of Idaho. Given the hatred directed at Gov. Palin by feminists today, she didn't need to encounter it in college -- she's living it today.

See, for example, Heather Mallick's column at http://www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2008/09/05/f-vp-mallick.html where she says that Palin "isn't even female really. She's a type." Or the recent rant by Sandra Bernhard calling Palin an "Uncle Woman", a "whore", a "bitch" and predicting with approval that Palin will be gangraped in New York City. http://media.newsbusters.org/stories/sandra-bernhard-palin-would-be-gang-raped-blacks-manhattan.html

Arnold Shcherban - 9/19/2008

Only in this country a pilot (McCain) that bombed a country (undoubtedly killing many civilians) that never bombed his country can be a hero?!

Bill Heuisler - 9/15/2008

Bravo, Mr. Wolberg,
You left little for the rest of us to say. The final Palermo sneer at the U of Idaho was a priceless self-parody.
Bill Heuisler

Grant W Jones - 9/15/2008

A better question for Rick would be: "why are they so stupid?"

One need go no further than Palermo's opening question begging epithet: "where educated women worked to alleviate the suffering of the city's impoverished victims of laissez-faire capitalism."

Hopefully the members of Liberty and Power can school Palermo about basic economics and economic history. Although, I suspect, Palermo is beyond all hope in this regard.

Maarja Krusten - 9/15/2008

As usual, I didn't proofread.

Maarja Krusten - 9/15/2008

First-wave feminism refers to a period of effort on behalf of women's rights during the late 19th century and the early 20th century. Second-wave feminism refers to activism during the 1960s and 1970s. Both are accepted terms in scholarship.

With the caveat that I am not going to comment on issues raised in the essay, here's my take on the title of the piece. Use of the term second-wave in this context is no a threat to the accomplishments of the men who took part in D-Day landings in Normandy. The two efforts are so different as to represent apples and oranges.

I would no more diminish what happened during the beach landings in Operation Overlord in 1994 than I would diminish the efforts of first and second wave feminists. I don't see the two as being in competition, they represent events in different areas along a historical time lines. There is plenty of scholarly literature out the two subjects -- one military, one social/political -- and I have read with interest about both subjects. So to me, the term second-wave does not belong to either gender or any field of endeavor.

Speaking of the second-wave, if any younger readers of HNN who did not live through the 1960s would like a televised glimpse of workplace conditions at an advertising agency in 1960, I recommend the DVD of the first season of AMC's series, Mad Men. It offers an interesting, very well produced (great attention to detail) and effectively acted glimpse of how the men and women in that setting interacted at home and at work.

The ad agency in "Mad Men" works for Richard Nixon's campaign in 1960 which really piqued my interest, given my background in working with his historical records as a NARA employee. I remember the time period of the early 1960s but was too young to have knowledge of what the TV series covers in terms of the work environment. Seeing the show provides interesting context for the activism that emerged in that decade. On the political side, I do have memories of that year. I was 9 years old in 1960 and for me, the Nixon-Kennedy contest was the first campaign I remember following. I supported Nixon in 1960 (still have a campain button from back then) and ended up voting straight Republican from the first Presidential election in which I was eligible to vote, in 1972, through 1988. However, I've been an Independent since 1989.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 9/15/2008

Mr. Wolberg above pretty much expresses my sentiments, except for a couple of things. Palermo is clearly seething with fury because Governor Palin is likely our next V.P. So she talked to Phyllis Schlafly! Anyone would enjoy that. Anyone would enjoy a good conversation with Leon Trotsky, too. It is mostly those who teach at U.S. colleges who think academic freedom is a bad idea.

My recollection is the ERA lost mostly because many women decided they didn't need it, and quit working for its passage. Also, forgive me for being dense, but I cannot see any point in trying to connect Sarah Palin with the KKK! The "second wave" was the second line of men in boats landing at Normandy.

Donald Wolberg - 9/15/2008

The smugness of Mr. Palermo regarding Ms Palin's encounters with "ideas" at U. Idaho is transparent and less than intellectual. One suspects Ms Palin knows how many states we have (Mr. Obama was not sure if he had visited 57 of our 58 states") and one can be sure she has a good technical background (Mr. Obama said, "we need to do away with all forms of carbon). Similarly, Ms Palin is not likely to have had terrorists as friends (Mr. Ayers and Ms Dorn as has Mr. Obama), nor has she had racist clergy so closely involved in her life (Mr. Obama's Mr. Wright and the unusual Mr. Phleger). Ms Palin has not plagerized speeches as has Mr. Biden. One suspects that Ms Palin's education at U. Idaho may well have been better than the educations of Mr. Obama or Mr. Biden.

Virginia Harris - 9/14/2008

Senator Clinton and Governor Palin are proof that women can and do diverge on important issues.

Even on the question of whether women should vote!

Most people are totally in the dark about HOW the suffragettes won votes for women, and what life was REALLY like for women before they did.

Suffragettes were opposed by many women who were what was known as 'anti.'

The most influential 'anti' lived in the White House. First Lady Edith Wilson was a Washington widow who married President Wilson in 1915, after the death of his pro-suffrage wife.

The First Lady's role in Wilson's decision to jail and torture Alice Paul and hundreds of other suffragettes will never be fully known, but she was outraged that these women picketed her husband's White House.

I'd like to share a women's history learning opportunity...

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There are tons of heartache on the rocky road to the ballot box, but in the end, women WIN!

Thanks to the success of the suffragettes, women have voices and choices!

Exciting, sequential episodes with lots of historical photos are great to read on coffeebreaks, or anytime.

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