Can someone please tell me what the hell happened? This presidential election was supposed to be a high-water mark for feminism. Hillary Clinton entered the primaries as the first female front-runner in our nation's history. Better still, she wasn't running as a Woman Candidate. Yes, Hillary had an established track record of championing so-called women's issues, including children's health care, affordable day care, family medical leave, and, of course, reproductive rights. But her focus on strength and experience pretty much precluded her playing the gender card. Forget your garden-variety female pol's struggle to prove herself tough enough to hang with the Big Boys: Hillary's entire strategy was to prove that she was tougher than the Big Boys. Fan or foe, few people questioned her basic qualifications to be commander-in-chief, and no one suggested that her political juice was a by-product of identity politics. Whether she won or lost--though the widespread assumption was that her victory was inevitable--Hillary's candidacy was expected to showcase what it means to be a broad-shouldered, ass-kicking modern woman.
Then, amid the snows of Iowa, it all fell apart. To be fair, New Hampshire may be more to blame. Iowa was where Hillary's inevitability narrative unraveled, but New Hampshire was where she got the idea that redemption lay in the legions of gals who rallied 'round when the (mostly male) political establishment and punditocracy began salivating at the thought of her imminent demise. That much of the animus toward Hillary had more to do with her last name than her chromosomes did not matter; women objected to seeing one of their own kicked to the curb with such haste. Hillary's now famous moment of teary-eyed vulnerability fueled their fury. Sisterhood is what resurrected Hillary in New Hampshire.
And, just like that, the strong, proud, fearless, gender-transcendent Hillary morphed into a disrespected, mistreated victim. Grievance feminism came roaring back with a vengeance. Clinton's supporters increasingly went from praising her gender-neutral success to celebrating her triumph over a male-dominated system and decrying the patriarchal forces still aligned against her. Obama wasn't just beating Clinton; he was behaving, as Hillary surrogate Geraldine Ferraro charged, in a "terribly sexist" fashion. Party bigwigs, we were told, were pushing Clinton to bow out in a way that they would never pressure a man. Her supporters, meanwhile, saw themselves as suffering the same demeaning treatment women have endured through the ages. As one pro-Hillary group raged, women were being told to "sit down, shut up, and move to the back of the bus." In May, to combat the growing sense that Clinton had little chance of winning and so should drop out of the race, a group of her devotees formed a group pompously yet plaintively titled Women Count--as though all those who wanted the Democratic race over did so out of disrespect for an entire gender.
By primary's end, the whining was so intense and Hillary's struggle so interwoven with the cause of women's rights that the Democratic National Committee was compelled to insert into its platform this statement: "We believe that standing up for our country means standing up against sexism and all intolerance. Demeaning portrayals of women cheapen our debates, dampen the dreams of our daughters, and deny us the contributions of too many. Responsibility lies with us all." How sad that, in the year Hillary was supposed to show just how far women have come, Democrats wound up enshrining such a plodding, patronizing admission of how far we apparently have to go.
For those who kept an eye on the inner workings of Hillary's campaign, the race proved disappointing on a more concrete, personal level as well. Going in, this was supposed to be Hillaryland's chance to shine. Clinton's team was stocked with top-level women to a degree that no other presidential campaign had approached. Hillary herself, after years in her husband's political shadow, was at last free to run things her way. But, as it turned out, Hillary wasn't much of an organizational leader, delaying key decisions and failing to control her feuding senior staff. The minute Iowa derailed Hillary's smooth ride, Bill and his people stepped in and began exerting greater influence over the race--much to the dismay of many Hillarylanders. Far from her coming-out party, Hillary's campaign wound up being just another instance in which Bill and his boys became convinced that they knew best how things should run.
Not even the primary's resolution could end the drama. As many of Clinton's supporters and fund-raisers prepared to unify behind Obama, the true dead-enders--an overwhelmingly female cohort--grew ever more marginalized and belligerent. Giving themselves cutesy names (PUMAs! Hillary Villagers!) and loudly venting their rage or sorrow at their hero's unjust fall, they were increasingly derided as overly emotional and downright nutty. No matter that Americans of both genders tend to cast their presidential votes less on reason than on gut-level intangibles; the extremism of Hillary dead-enders has played into all those tired stereotypes about women being fuzzy-headed and irrational. By the time of the conventions, MSNBC's notoriously chauvinistic Chris Matthews was far from the only person grumbling about "women of a certain age."
Then, just when you thought it was all over and the recovery could begin, Republicans handed us Sarah Palin.
The Palin pick is disheartening on so many levels. For starters, even what little we know about the Alaska governor's policy views is enough to make a traditional feminist weep. The staunchly conservative Palin not only opposes abortion rights (even in cases of rape or incest), she also supports abstinence-only sex education and takes a strict free-market approach toward health care.
Of course, these days, the feminist mantle is claimed by pro-life conservatives and pro-choice progressives alike. Palin herself is a proud member of Feminists for Life. Feminism seems no longer to denote a particular set of values or ideological agenda; it is merely a label appropriated to proclaim that one is committed to the best interests of women--whatever one believes those to be. Thus far, there's no reason to doubt that Palin devoutly believes her hard-core conservatism is right for women. A McCain-Palin White House, however, would spell only trouble for women's rights.
Even setting aside Palin's political views, the governor's candidacy is a slap in the face to all women. No matter how feisty she is or how darling she looks with a rifle on her shoulder, Palin is abjectly unqualified to sit one heartbeat away from the presidency. She is less than two years into her first term as governor of a state with a population roughly equivalent to that of Baltimore or Fort Worth. Her minimal experience with national domestic issues is overshadowed only by her total lack of experience, or even apparent interest, in foreign affairs. This makes her a bizarre choice for a candidate who has been hawking the need for experience and gravitas in these troubled times--and makes the cynical tokenism of Palin's selection all the more vivid.
By far the most insulting aspect of Palin's candidacy is the McCain team's hope that placing a ballsy female on the ticket will attract some former Hillary supporters by stoking their gender-based resentments against Obama and the DNC. Palin has been happy to encourage this strategy by cheering Hillary's "eighteen million cracks in the glass ceiling" and offering herself up as a way to help women go even farther. Sadly, some Hillary dead-enders may be so blinded by bitterness that they fall for this nonsense. The rest of us should be outraged by a strategy so nakedly founded on the premise that Hillary gals were driven more by identity politics than by any interest in their candidate's values, ideology, or qualifications. It's not just that Palin stands on the opposite side of so many issues dear to Hillary; she is also vastly less accomplished and engaged than the senator from New York. (As political consultant Dan Gerstein has quipped, many Hillary supporters will think Palin "not worthy of carrying their candidate's pantsuit.") In Team McCain's eyes, however, female candidates are pretty much interchangeable and women voters too addlepated to know the difference. We don't care about issues or experience; we just want someone with the same reproductive parts as ours.
None of which is to disparage Palin's inherent intelligence, political savvy, or judgment. It's entirely possible that some day she could make a top-notch vice-presidential, or even presidential, candidate. But, at this point, we are talking about a woman who makes Dan Quayle circa 1988 look like an elder statesman.
Alas, fair or not, like all public figures who rise to prominence as tokens, Palin's failures will reflect on the group she has been tapped to represent. If McCain loses in November, Palin will become a punchline à la Geraldine Ferraro. Hopefully, women have progressed enough in politics that a McCain-Palin loss would not prompt lingering hesitations about putting women front and center in positions of power. But there's little doubt that every clueless, unprepared, or unpresidential word out of Palin's mouth will have tongues clucking over what the need to cater to women voters has wrought.
Working mothers in particular should be holding their breath. The McCain camp's decision to pitch Palin's Supermom-of-five status as one of her chief assets has opened yet another front in the endless and endlessly counterproductive Mommy Wars. The moment Palin's addition to the ticket was announced, women began publicly and privately savaging the hard-charging governor for perceived mothering missteps both great and small. (What kind of pregnant woman is reckless enough to travel twelve-plus hours from Texas to Alaska after her water breaks? What mom subjects her pregnant, unmarried 17-year-old to the scrutiny of a presidential race?! How dare she take her newborn to a campaign event without socks?!!) How, or whether one should even try, to balance career and family remains a raw subject for women in this country, and the centrality of Palin's motherhood to her candidacy guarantees that this corrosive debate will rage for the remainder of the election.
Am I suggesting that all of these setbacks for feminism are Palin's fault? Or Hillary's? Or that there is nothing at all to celebrate in their achievements? Of course not. Neither would I argue for a second that these smart, ambitious women shouldn't be pushing as hard as they can to get what they want out of life. But, as with any enduring movement, feminism has its shining moments and its discouraging ones. I just wish someone had warned me ahead of time that this election season would wind up falling with such a thud into the latter category.
Michelle Cottle is a senior editor at The New Republic.