Heels on, gloves off. Pitbulls with lipstick. Cleavage controversies and baby dramas. For more than a year, we've been talking about women in politics, and, still, we're not tired of it yet. Get any group of women together, of any political stripe, and Sarah Palin, with all her complexities and contradictions, becomes topic No. 1. And once you mention Palin, someone will bring up Hillary Clinton. And feminism. And whether mothers should work. And whether there will ever be a day when we don't talk about a female candidate's hair.
Even with an economic crisis on the front pages, these are irresistible topics—as evidenced by the conversations at NEWSWEEK's annual Women & Leadership conference, held this week in New York. Dee Dee Myers, White House press secretary for Bill Clinton, praised Palin's fortitude and, yes, intelligence: "I think she's both smart and resilient and optimistic and courageous and all those things. ... Her confident and completely unfazed response to being criticized is great because she didn't run from the stage crying. She sort of shrugged it off and when on to the next event, in a way that didn't seem callous, and it didn't seem unfeminine, and it didn't seem like she was acting like a guy, it was just her way."
Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway had no problem acknowledging the debt that her party owes to a Democratic star: "I don't think you could have Sarah Palin's meteoric rise without Hillary Clinton coming before her."
But these women disagreed on whether Palin belongs in the White House: "Is she ready to be vice-president? No." Myers said. "But it's not because she doesn't have these other qualities that make a great politician—things that you cannot teach as easily," such as the ability to connect with voters and deliver a speech with Reaganesque aplomb. "If she'd been allowed to work as governor of Alaska, stand for reelection, maybe be involved in something like the national governor's association, travel around the country, travel around the world a little bit, develop a world view that's more clearly thought through than the one she has now, she could have been a formidable candidate. And she may still be. But as it stands right now, to say that Barack Obama is no more qualified than Sarah Palin is laughable in my view."
Political commentator Bay Buchanan thinks Palin would have been attacked in the media no matter how much experience she had. "A woman like Sarah Palin, a socially, pro-life conservative woman who is extremely feminine, and a mother, and all of these things that one thinks about when they think about a traditional woman, was unacceptable [to the media and critics on the left]," Buchanan said. "Was totally unacceptable. It didn't matter if she had 10 years or two years [of experience]. They were going after her."
But author and editor Tina Brown said that Hillary Clinton was also subject to an unrelenting storm of criticism for everything from her cleavage to her ankles. "The moment that Hillary wept was a hugely transformative moment for women in a strange way," Brown said. "Because she was so extraordinarily abused by the media—I do feel that strongly—and she was so stalwart and she is so stalwart and so valiant, and she had this moment of breaking down, and there was a collective acknowledgement: What are we doing? I even felt sorry for Sarah Palin last night when I saw her on television, she looked so beat up, that you had to say, this process is so grueling, are we right to put our public figures and our politicians through quite such an ordeal, and what does it do to their values and their sense of themselves by the end?"
Conway said the attacks on Palin's brains, accent and appearance have only served to solidify her base of support: "Go out and find a woman who doesn't feel like she's being kicked around, or being denied something that she wanted and thought she deserved in the work place or in life or another relationship. Somehow there are women across this country who are behaving like an Amish community around Sarah Palin. It's like, 'Let's build a fence around her and a house for her, because she's been picked on the way we've been picked on.'"
While Buchanan doesn't define herself as a feminist, she feels that Palin has redefined feminism to include strong women who don't shy away from using their looks when necessary. "She's completely a woman," said Buchanan, who broke her own barriers when she became treasurer of the United States in Ronald Reagan's administration at the age of 32. "A man's woman if you like … what most women would like to be. That's what so remarkable and refreshing. This is who she is. She happens to be an extremely attractive woman. She's used that to her full advantage, as she's risen to the top. It hasn't made her hesitate to be the leader. I hasn't made her hesitate to be the one that runs for the office, rather than one that supports someone that runs for an office."
Michelle Bernard, president of the Independent Women's Forum, who like Palin, has young children and a thriving career, says she definitely sees the GOP vice presidential candidate as a feminist—or at least a product of feminism. "She really represents what early generations of women fought for, which was the right to do whatever you want to do with your career. … Regardless of whether or not you agree with her political ideology, she really is a good representation of what the women's rights movement was about." In her interviews with Katie Couric, Palin described herself as a feminist.
And what are women to make of fact that even with Palin's and Clinton's historical achievements, there may still be no woman in the executive branch come January? Losing, says Huffington Post editor Arianna Huffington, is part of the game. In fact, for Huffington, the most transformative moment of the year, was Clinton's speech announcing her withdrawal from the race. "There was something about that speech, that had to do not just accepting failure, but recognizing that it is an inevitable part of life, and that it can be a stepping stone to the next stage of your life. So accepting it without resentment, and growing from it, is something that I write a lot about and I speak a lot about, and it's a message that [Clinton] conveyed with so much grace and so much panache."
Finally, there's some concern that there may be lingering animosity between women in the wake of a historic, but mean political season where b-words like "bitch" and "bimbo" were hurled about by women themselves. Brown believes that female commonalities outweigh the rivalries. "Everybody is juggling," she said. "Every woman knows that whatever face they put on to meet the world, back home it's like backstage at a crazy high school musical. Everyone is busy trying to kind of juggle it all. It's certainly been true all through my career. I've got two kids and have had all these jobs, and it's always been wild back at the ranch. And every woman I know knows it; it's a kind of sisterhood… we just know."