During the Democratic primaries, Gloria Steinem, pioneering feminist and Hillary Clinton supporter, argued that the contest had revealed that gender was “probably the most restricting force in American life”. She illustrated her point by imagining a female version of Barack Obama and contending that no woman with such a slender biography would be considered seriously for the presidency.

It is now clear that Ms Steinem was right – although proof comes not from the treatment of the Democratic lioness Mrs Clinton but from the responses, particularly on the left, to the Republican newcomer Sarah Palin. Less than 24 hours after the triumphant close of a convention that nominated a 47-year-old first-term senator as its party’s candidate to be president of the United States, Democratic heavyweights were sputtering with horror at the idea of a 44-year-old, first-term governor as Republican vice-presidential nominee.

As the Democrats absorb Senator McCain’s truly maverick decision, I suspect we will hear less of this “experience” argument. Governor Palin, who took on her own party’s good ole boys and won, has as much of a record of political achievement as does Senator Obama: running a state, no matter how sparsely populated, is a bigger executive job than being a senator. More­over, you do not have to be Karl Rove to point out that the inexperienced candidate on the Republican ticket is running to be vice-president, not commander-in-chief.

What Democrats, and progressives generally, will have a harder time accepting is that Gov Palin’s nomination could be a milestone for American women: in many ways she is an even better feminist icon than America’s reigning top gal Hillary Clinton. In contrast with Mrs Clinton, whose most important political decision was whom she married, Mrs Palin is a genuinely self-made woman, who broke into politics without the head start of a powerful husband or father. Moreover, like Sen Clinton, Gov Palin is a working mother role model, giving birth to her fifth child less than five months ago, going back to work three days later.

That CV seems like a good basis for Gov Palin’s promise to break through the “highest and hardest glass ceiling” in which Sen Clinton had pounded those much-invoked 18m cracks. But many professional feminists and Democratic spin-doctors are having a tough time seeing it that way. The very idea that disgruntled Clintonistas might vote Republican thanks to Gov Palin is being described as an “insult”.

I am not so sure. Of course, women should not be required to make their political choices based purely on gender cheerleading – which is why the feminist attacks on female politicians such as the Kansas governor Kathleen Sibelius for backing Mr Obama over Mrs Clinton were wrong. But supporting a woman for high office because of the symbolic power of her success is not crazy either. Academic studies have shown that our perceptions of individuals are strongly influenced by the prominent people with whom we associate them. If the word “woman” makes us think of President Hillary Clinton or Vice-President Sarah Palin, rather than Paris Hilton or Laura Bush, your daughter may have a better chance getting that job on Wall Street (similarly, of course, if “African-American ” equals President Barack Obama).

The main reason so many feminists are having a hard time getting excited about Gov Palin is that she is rightwing. Feminism has long been torn between focusing on the fight against sexism pure and simple, and waging a broader campaign for a “women’s agenda”, on which abortion rights tend to feature prominently. Gov Palin, a proud social conservative who carried her Down’s syndrome baby to term and is sympathetic to creationism, is on the opposite side of most of those issues.

Sen McCain’s selection of Gov Palin could still prove politically suicidal – a misspoken “Sunni” instead of “Shia” could, and should, cost the Republicans the election. But feminists, and the left more generally, also need to be careful not to dismiss the significance of Gov Palin’s gender. In 1851, at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, the abolitionist Sojourner Truth reminded the white, northern women in the audience of the ways in which her life experience differed from theirs – yet, as she told them: “Ain’t I a woman?” If too many Democrats tell them it is an “insult” to admire Sarah Palin for some of the same reasons they liked Hillary Clinton, the gun-owning, God-fearing, PTA moms of the American provinces may take up that same chorus.

The writer is the FT’s US managing editor


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