Adrienne T. Washington (Contact)


With Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s entry into this presidential contest as Republican nominee John McCain’s running mate, gender suddenly matters more than ever, as both parties make a play for women’s vote.

But there are indications that the largest voting bloc in the national electorate is so splintered by what is being called “the Palin effect” that no one dare predict which nominee will capture the share of this constituency. For example:

  • “Not everyone is pro-Palin,” shouted an Alaskan woman during an anti-Palin rally in Anchorage this week that reportedly grew a larger crowd than a welcome-home rally for Mrs. Palin.
  • The Florida Federation of Republican Women has organized a boycott of Oprah Winfrey’s talk show because she refuses to book Mrs. Palin until after the November election.
  • A group of African-American women is using the Internet asking the “sistas” to “Take a Stand for Oprah,” who favors Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee.
  • Newsweek has a cover story positing probably the most nebulous question during this campaign season: “What Women Want.” Although identity and personality politics reign for the moment, the magazine concludes that women will ultimately base their votes on policy.

Say what you will about Mrs. Palin, her candidacy gives women pause to reconsider their voting preferences and the roles of women, particularly working mothers, in the 21st century.

Mrs. Pallin is a married, socially conservative, working mother who few women have wishy-washy opinions of – she is either beloved or berated. Her nomination has reignited the women wars. The term feminism itself has been turned on its head and is up for reinterpretation.

“There are different kinds of women and different views of feminism, and for every woman who thinks that Sarah Palin is a pariah, there is a woman that thinks she is terrific,” said Michelle Bernard, president and chief executive officer of the Independent Women’s Forum.

“I have had several African-American women call me up and be just irate about Sarah Palin,” Ms. Bernard said. “They don’t think she’s a good role model, and they don’t like her politics.”

However, “I had three or four black evangelical women call up and say they love her because they are single-issue voters, and because of her stance on abortion, I wouldn’t be surprised if they vote for McCain,” she said.

This pro-life contingent of women may be mindful that the next president will likely appoint two Supreme Court justices, and both Mr. McCain and Mrs. Palin have said Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, should be overturned. Mrs. Palin, who announced Tuesday that she will concentrate on government reform, energy and families with special needs children in a McCain administration, opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest.

The latest polls show that Mr. McCain received a big bump after the Republican National Convention, where the party’s dormant conservative base was fired up by the Palin pick and her delivery of a raw-meat acceptance speech.

Not surprising, one poll even shows that Mrs. Palin is drawing more men – who seem to be more focused on her looks – to the Republican ticket. Ms. Bernard said men may prefer Mrs. Palin’s conservative stance on such issues as free trade and gun rights.

Mr. Obama – who supports reproductive rights, pay equity, tax cuts for middle-income wage earners and health insurance for children – still holds the lead among female voters.

However, he lost a critical share of older, white women – who are not necessarily disenchanted supporters of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton but just are more politically conservative.

“Conservative and many liberal women are really taken with Sarah Palin,” Ms. Bernard said. “There are obviously left-wing, radical feminists who will never see the merit in Sarah Palin being on the Republican ticket. However, for mainstream women throughout the nation, Sarah Palin represents what true feminism was supposed to be about.”

The Republicans’ celebrity candidate is a woman whom Ms. Bernard described as one “who has found a way to balance work and family with a supportive husband and without having to demand that the government pay for day care or assist her in raising her children.”

The question of who cares for Mrs. Palin’s five children while she is working has yet to be answered and has, in fact, been viewed as a sexist question by the very conservatives who had frowned on working mothers.

“It’s been very interesting to watch some left-wing feminists who have accused Sarah Palin of basically being a man. These attacks on Palin demonstrate that for some feminists, feminism is only for liberal women and conservative women are somehow looked at as traitors to the movement,” said Ms. Bernard, the mother of two young children.

“For mothers who don’t so much care about political ideology but are concerned about how to have a family and a career, Sarah Palin gives a voice to her concerns,” she said.

“I don’t think she’s divisive,” Ms. Bernard said. “She has shown that there is another side of women in politics.”

She was quick to note that polls “seem to shift with the wind.” The question is whether the McCain/Palin ticket has peaked or will it continue to rise.

Regardless, Ms. Bernard adamantly believes that in the end, “women are absolutely going to vote on the issues.” And everyone knows by now that the economy is the No. 1 issue, particularly among working women.