By Lois Romano
Friday, October 24, 2008; A01

Two months after Sarah Palin joined the GOP ticket, and four months after Hillary Clinton ended her quest for the presidency, 2008 is turning out to be a transformative year for women in politics, according to women leaders across the political spectrum.

As Election Day nears, it’s clear that gender was not a disqualifying factor for either Clinton or Palin. Voters who turned against them did so for other reasons, just as they do with male candidates. Women from both parties also perceive with satisfaction a heightened emphasis on their issues in this year’s race.

Palin’s candidacy has sent a jolt through traditional liberal women’s organizations as she tries to redefine feminism, suggesting that the old movement has become detached from the hockey moms Palin champions. The mother of five and former beauty queen is the antithesis of the bra-burning militant libbers of the ’60s, and she is adamantly antiabortion. Yet Palin has grabbed the feminist label vigorously and has been hailed as one by the thousands of supportive women who wave their lipstick tubes at her rallies.

“She is a direct counterpoint to the liberal feminist agenda for America,” John McCain declared last weekend.

While liberal groups have strong ideological differences with Palin, some nonetheless rallied to her defense when she was accused of neglecting her family for the campaign trail .“Would they be asking whether a man with five children should be running for high office?” wrote Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, in an online column. “. . . I feel for Palin, and for all women struggling to be taken seriously in a man’s realm.”

Although she finds the Alaska governor’s views on issues critical to women “a disappointment,” Gandy said in an interview that she believes it’s important for her own teenage daughters “to see women competing at the highest levels of American politics.”

All in all, when the votes are cast and the country moves on, the women’s movement will have lots of reasons to feel good about the 2008 election year .“I never thought I’d see another woman on a national ticket in this cycle after Hillary lost,” said Geraldine Ferraro, who 24 years ago became the first women to run on a major party’s national ticket. “But it’s like a ripple effect. Hillary’s candidacy, my candidacy — they have a ripple effect far beyond the immediate results.”

The unexpected recognition of a conservative as a role model for women has forced some traditional feminists to reconsider the movement’s mission. “It’s going to take us a while to find our bearings,” said Sarah Stoesz, who runs the Planned Parenthood office that oversees Minnesota and the Dakotas. “As feminists, we’ve always thought that a core aspect of women’s equality is about being in control of our reproductive lives. But Sarah Palin is throwing the calculus out the window and demonstrating a view that some people would call feminism: I can be governor, I can have five children, I can shoot and field-dress a moose, and I don’t need access to abortion.

“There’s a big debate inside the leadership of the women’s movement about how much abortion should be a key political issue.”

Even if Palin’s star fades, many women think that her impact on the definition of a feminist will be lasting. April Ponnuru, 30, said that though she wishes Palin had more policy experience, “at the end of the day, she is a conservative woman who has strong convictions on life and other conservative issues — and she made it.”

“There are really a lot of us out there,” said Ponnuru, the executive director of the National Review Institute and the mother of a 3-year-old. “We are vastly underrepresented in politics, and she’s the first truly national politician to make a strong statement about being a pro-life woman — and that’s very appealing.”

Conservative activist and lawyer Cleta Mitchell started her career as a liberal women’s rights politician in Okalahoma, fighting for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in the ’70s. “We never said equal rights was just for some of you girls depending on your political philosophy — that was never part of the deal,” Mitchell said. “It was about having options and choices.”

One option women have today is that they don’t have to dress like a man to make it in politics — although the frenzy about Palin’s $150,000 designer shopping spree shows there are limits to what the public will accept.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) makes no bones about favoring Armani suits and Chanel shoes — and has been criticized for it; Clinton has developed a consistent fashionable look with regular hairstyling and St. John suits. Palin, with her long hair, slim skirts and red high heels, is surely the first national female candidate to be called “hot,” as Alec Baldwin did last weekend on “Saturday Night Live.”

“Back in 1984, Geraldine Ferraro could not have dressed like Sarah Palin and been on the ticket with Walter Mondale,” said Michelle D. Bernard, president of the conservative Independent Women’s Forum. “She is feminine and she is fashionable, and that is okay now.” Further, Mondale and Ferraro barely touched in public; McCain and Palin routinely greet each other with a hug.

The next big issue for women, Bernard surmised, is to determine whether both sides of the ideological spectrum can find common ground. “Is there a big enough tent — can we all find the common ground in the push for women’s rights regardless of women’s position on abortion?” she asks.

In recent years, vocal groups such as IWF and Feminists for Life have stepped forward to fight the perception that only liberal women can be in favor of equality and independence. By calling herself a feminist — once considered a dirty word by the religious right — Palin proclaimed that feminism is no longer synonymous with liberalism but something that could be shared and celebrated by all women.

Palin is not only antiabortion; her position is even more restrictive than McCain’s (although she has never pushed to legislate on it as governor). She favors banning abortion unless the life of the woman is in jeopardy, whereas McCain would make exceptions in cases of rape or incest.

“It’s just nonsense to say you can’t be a feminist and be against abortion,” says former Clinton fundraiser and supporter Lynn Forester de Rothschild, who now backs McCain. “Democrats use [abortion] as a noose around your neck,” says de Rothschild, who is in favor of abortion rights. “Sarah Palin,” she says, “rocks all the stereotypes of feminism and can only enhance progress for women. ”

Karen O’Connor, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, argues that while Palin “has had extraordinary accomplishments . . . to be a feminist, you have to believe women deserve equal pay for equal work.” (McCain announced his opposition to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which was blocked in April by other GOP senators; Palin has said the bill would encourage too much litigation.)

While family and economic issues have long been the focus of politicians, leading voices for women’s rights maintain that this year is the first time women have been so aggressively targeted as a must demographic for victory. Many of these voters found their voice through Clinton’s campaign, and since the senator from New York left the race in June, both Barack Obama and McCain have been fighting for her supporters. Obama has made significant ad buys targeting women, including one during “SNL” last weekend. A few days later, Palin surrounded herself with women leaders in Nevada — including two defectors from Clinton’s campaign — to loudly castigate Obama for not choosing Clinton as his running mate. “Our opponents think they have the women’s vote all locked up, which is a little presumptuous,” she thundered.

Voters have responded to all the attention. Cindy Curry is a 43-year-old mother of two from North Carolina and a registered independent who says she has closely followed the race. A CPA, Curry supported Clinton and was initially “very excited” when McCain selected Palin as his running mate but has since cooled on her. Still, what has moved Curry the most is the mere fact that there were two accomplished, attractive women to consider. “I like to see strong women, and I like to see women succeed,” said Curry, who will likely vote for McCain.

Independent Julia Lynch, 53, a professional federal supervisor from Georgia, will vote for Obama, but despite her philosophical differences from Palin, she stated: “You go, girl! These women have moved the process along for us. . . . It’s just a matter of time before gender will not matter at all as people choose leaders.”

Palin has not been universally embraced by her party. The Republican Majority for Choice, an organization that supports abortion rights, last month announced that it would not endorse the ticket. “She is not pro anything we support,” says Jennifer Blei Stockman, co-chairman of the group.

And some GOP women, along with their Democratic counterparts, have openly questioned Palin’s qualifications. Mitchell has an answer to that. “Even if Sarah Palin is as ‘unqualified’ as the left would have us believe,” she wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, “. . . then former congresswoman Bella Abzug’s lifelong goal has been achieved. She used to say that she was ‘working for the day when a mediocre woman could get as far as a mediocre man.’ ”

Staff writers Robert Barnes and Peter Slevin contributed to this report.