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Commentary: Political Women

By Lee Cullum, KERA Commentator

Dallas, TX –

If ever there was a year of the woman in American politics, it is 2008. This was the year that Hillary Clinton arrived as a full-blown serious contender, front-running, inevitable even, until she bumped into an unexpectedly magical candidate she couldn't overcome. This was the year, also, that Sarah Palin rode in from the West to astonish the nation and rev up the race, pushing her running mate, John McCain, into a dead heat with Barak Obama, at least for a while.

So they are the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, of an exhausting, exhilarating political season, actually several seasons, that saw a lawyer from Yale give way to a sportscaster from Idaho U, a senator to a governor, New York to Alaska, the culminating star of the women's movement to the post-Steinem politics of aggressive motherhood.

Where many women of Clinton's generation, though not Clinton herself, given the circumstances of her marriage, had one child, or none, and made sure they were seen in public as professionals first, their private lives kept discreetly at home, Palin has run on the feminine principle as rarely seen before. Part Demeter, part Medusa, she played the mom theme in such a persistent, insistent key during her debate with Joe Biden that he was forced to declare that he has lived the life of a single parent. Though he could not give birth, he said, he nonetheless knew, in all its aspects, the heartbreak of loss and rearing kids alone.

Not only was it a moving moment, it also proclaimed the power of the earth mother, so long suppressed and feared lest she erupt with all the force of nature, suddenly unrestrained, and undo the masculine work of reason that has built the nation, or so men have wanted to believe. Now, to win elective office, those men have to make clear their bona fides as sensitive people, better acquainted than they used to reveal with the kitchen sink as well as table.

Consider Elizabeth Dole, who served in the cabinet, ran for president, and now serves in the Senate. Ambitious and childless, she disciplined herself to strenuous striving for political success. The same was true of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, until she adopted a son and a daughter. But that was for personal fulfillment, not public exploitation. Both remain old school, careful to put competence above all in their politics, very different from Sarah Palin, whose five children are her politics, her calling card on the treacherous terrain of the Republican party.

How have these women been treated? Not badly, it seems to me. Clinton didn't lose the Democratic nomination because of the media, and Palin has both suffered from exposure on television, and thrived on it. Some might accuse her of being a collection of accoutrements and less than the sum of her accumulated parts. But she deploys those parts exceedingly well, and over time they will cohere in a way that she has not yet had a chance to develop. Hutchison, the most popular politician in Texas, is set to run for governor, and her replacement could turn out to be State Sen. Florence Shapiro. Both can expect coverage at least as favorable as that accorded the current chief executive, Rick Perry, if he runs again as he says he will.

So the year of the woman has produced something solid and lasting. Though the styles of these candidates may differ, their gains are tangible and no amount of ridicule in the media can take them away. As for me, my mind is made up. I'm voting for Tina Fey.

Lee Cullum hosts the monthly series C.E.O. on KERA Television. She'll talk with John F. Young of Energy Future Holdings, Friday October 31 at 7:30 p.m.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us