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Commentary: Don't underestimate Palin's appeal to women

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  • Ronnee Schreiber: Democrats shouldn't underestimate conservative women
  • Conservative women have growing network of activists, Schreiber says
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By Ronnee Schreiber
Special to CNN
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Editor's Note: Ronnee Schreiber, author of "Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics," is a political science professor at San Diego State University. She is a registered Democrat.

Ronnee Schreiber says having women speak for conservative causes legitimates them to other women.

SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- The nomination of Sarah Palin has turned our assumptions about women and politics on their head. Many Democrats have presumed that her policy positions run contrary to those held by women, and that women will not vote for her.

To that end, feminist icon Gloria Steinem argued in the Los Angeles Times: "Republicans may learn they can't appeal to right-wing patriarchs and most women at the same time."

But that is not true. After all, 48 percent of women voted for President Bush in 2004. Also, the latest CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll shows that 53 percent of women have a favorable opinion of Palin.

If Democrats want to win in November, they should not underestimate conservative women and their ever-growing network of organizations and activists.

Commentators missed the mark when they speculated ad nauseam that Sen. John McCain chose a woman mostly to appeal to Clinton voters. Having Palin on the ticket is not just about seeking supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton -- it is about energizing Republican women and bringing undecided women who like the way conservative women speak to them into McCain's camp.

With McCain's choice of Palin for his running mate, he has introduced the public to the political strategy of "femball." I learned of this concept when interviewing Anita Blair, the co-founder of the right-wing Independent Women's Forum.

Playing "femball" means taking a page from feminist activists by talking about conservative issues from the perspective of women and having women make political claims. And "femball" may well work for conservatives in this election.

In her recent op-ed article, Steinem compared Palin to Phyllis Schlafly, and that's an apt comparison.

Although feminists may count that as a negative mark against Palin, there are large numbers of women who would find that comparison appealing. And we should not forget that Schlafly helped defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, in part by invoking her gender.

Now, continuing in Schlafly's footsteps are nationally prominent groups like the Independent Women's Forum, Concerned Women for America and the Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute, which encourage their conservative political soul sisters to articulate the Republican line on issues like abortion, affirmative action, tax cuts, same-sex marriage and tort reform -- as women and for women.

Having women speak for these causes helps legitimate them to other women and casts the Republican Party as one that cares about women's interests. Not surprisingly, the former president of the Independent Women's Forum, Nancy Pfotenhauer, is now a senior policy adviser for the McCain campaign.

McCain's pick of Palin is not lost on conservative women's advocates; indeed, it helps solidify their stance that women need to be speaking out for conservative causes -- that these women need to play "femball."

Concerned Women for America, arguably the nation's largest women's organization, with local chapters in every state, praised Palin, not just because she opposes abortion but because she is a "woman of accomplishment who brings a fresh face to traditional values and models the type of woman most girls want to become."

Equally celebrated was that she "will bring to the forefront of our cultural conversations an intelligent, realistic, well-grounded woman's perspective." For groups like Concerned Women for America, Palin embodies modern conservative womanhood -- she is politically active, personally motivated and decidedly conservative.

Independent Women's Forum has been at times reluctant to say that gender matters when it comes to who we elect. Yet it now touts the significance of Palin's being a woman.

And why not? Palin might be able to bring some undecided, yet moderately conservative women into their fold, especially if she is branded as the "everywoman" as in this observation by IWF President Michelle Bernard: "Sarah Palin might not win the votes of left-wing feminists, but she appeals to average women and men across the country."

On the one hand, Palin's nomination and conservative women's activism are bad news for liberals and progressives -- a McCain victory would clearly sideline feminist policy priorities for another four years. But there is a glimmer of affirmation here -- it shows how the feminist movement has been successful in promoting the idea that women are serious political actors.

Palin clearly acknowledges this triumph and is eager to run with it. As she noted in her acceptance speech: "It turns out the women of America aren't finished yet, and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all." Of course, Palin has feminists to thank for that.

Whether or not you support McCain/Palin (and to be clear, I do not), it is a huge mistake to think of conservative women as pawns of right-wing men who will matter little in this election. These activists and Palin's nomination show us how much power and political significance they actually possess.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer

All About Gloria SteinemWomen's IssuesSarah PalinHillary Clinton

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