Nobody's dummy

Liberals underestimate Sarah Palin's vitality and -- yes -- smarts at their own peril. Plus: Obama's presidential air, Biden's condescending mugging, feminism's lost sisters.

Published October 8, 2008 10:27AM (EDT)

Dear Camille,

I was actually leaning towards Obama before he stated his willingness to enter negotiations with Iran with no pre-conditions. This is frightening stuff here. My wife and I lived in Germany for five years until late 2006, and I worked in Baghdad during the better part of 2006. His offer is reminiscent of Neville Chamberlain, but I don't think Obama's motives are as sincere as Chamberlain's. Like most politicians, I believe Obama says what the people want to hear. He doesn't come across as a change agent.

Philip Steelman

Your concern about the foreign-policy world-view of liberal Democrats is certainly justified. The university culture at Columbia and Harvard through which Obama passed has been drenched in a reflexive anti-Americanism for several decades. Armchair blame-America-first leftism is the default mode. Disdain for the military is rampant, and conservative voices are rarely heard.

However, your invocation of Neville Chamberlain may be a bit alarmist because there is no Hitler on the horizon -- just a series of regional petty dictators who, in my view, can be contained or neutralized through joint international efforts rather than open war. But the Chamberlain parallel cannot be entirely discounted, because British and European artists and intellectuals during that highly creative first generation of avant-garde modernism did indeed drift away from national affiliation into a chic, passive cosmopolitanism.

As an Obama supporter, however, I was not particularly troubled by his rather carelessly phrased response about negotiation without preconditions during a primary debate with Hillary Clinton. I don't believe that would in fact happen during an Obama administration, when the new president would have time to reflect and to absorb State Department briefing books. Surely the standard, prudent diplomatic protocols would kick into action.

I am well aware of the widespread conservative view of Obama's naivete and lack of preparation (Rush Limbaugh stingingly calls him a "man-child"). But I am one of the many who regard Obama as authentically inspirational -- as a leader appealing to our better nature rather than armoring us in eternal fear and paranoia against our fellow human beings. I remember how John F. Kennedy (the first politician I ever campaigned for) electrified young people and transformed our political reality, which was about to emerge from the long, grey slog of the Cold War.

What would concern me more about an Obama administration, given these rampant doubts, is the possibility that he would jump more readily toward war in order to prove his toughness. We don't need more foolish military incursions, bogging us down in regions whose vicious factionalism has boiled irresolvably for 3,000 years. Where our national interest is not directly at stake, we should mind our own business. Israel, on the other hand, whose very survival might be menaced by a nuclear Iran, would always have the right of preemptive self-defense.

You asked, "How do McCain's sufferings in a tiny, squalid cell 40 years ago logically translate into presidential aptitude in the 21st century?" Well, a man who chooses torture over freedom based on his principles is a man who is committed to his principles. That is the point, and you weren't the only one who missed it.

This is a man of unusual fortitude, which his campaign should emphasize because it is his strongest selling point and reinforces his image as a man who will cross his party to do what's right (and sharply contrasts with his opponent, who talks endlessly about bringing people together but whose record is highly partisan). I agree the number of allusions at the Republican convention to this biographical episode was redundant and most were inarticulate, emphasizing the difficulty and discomfort of being a captive. Simply suffering as a prisoner of war is not a qualification.

How much more effective would it have been if McCain's lead-in would have been his war biography with the closing tag line, "Question John McCain's policies if you must, but you never question John McCain's commitment to his country and his principles"? Then follow with McCain's acceptance, thanking his presenters, acknowledging his co-prisoners, but disavowing the praise and then apologizing for failing under torture. It would have been an incredible moment and if done right could have brought the audience to tears.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not a huge McCain fan. I could write a much longer letter critiquing him, but I find this personal attribute incredible and heroic.

Michael Bakalars
St. Louis Park, MN

Thank you very much for your rousing defense. However, I still fail to see the connection between McCain's unquestionably heroic choices under terrible duress and his suitability for the presidency, an administrative post. First of all, McCain's political career has hardly been one of adherence to principle. He seems like a gruff, spontaneous, seat-of-the-pants guy, making decisions subjectively without regard to larger consistency. What are his principles? They seem to drift and change with whim and circumstance.

Yes, McCain is profoundly patriotic, as were his military forebears. Patriotism, rather than race, may indeed prove to be the determining factor in this election. But I simply don't see that McCain has the basic managerial ability to run the complex Washington bureaucracy. Obama lacks executive experience too, but he has shown a shrewd ability to captain a national campaign. And Obama's sober, deliberative temperament seems to me genuinely presidential. In contrast, McCain's bizarre grandstanding during the Wall Street crisis (such as his embarrassingly unprofessional call for cancellation of the first debate) suggested that he lacks the steadiness of behavior and expression that we have a right to expect in a president.

Would you care to justify your view that "Americans owe every heroic, wounded veteran an incalculable debt of gratitude"? I am sorry that John McCain spent years in prison. But I am even sorrier that the U.S. ever went into Vietnam. I am an American, and I do not feel that I owe Mr. McCain "an incalculable debt of gratitude" for his participation in that stupid, unnecessary war. If he willingly went to a war which was unjust and uncalled for to begin with, then I, as a American, definitely do not owe him a debt of gratitude. In such a case, a resistance to such an unjust war would rather be the act of patriotism for which we should be grateful.

I remind you that the USA was not attacked by Vietnam, neither did I nor the rest of Americans consider them our enemy, nor did the Vietnamese present any threat at all to the United States. Therefore it is entirely illogical to make such a statement or to concede that I, or any American, owe any special thanks to Mr. McCain for his suffering, which obviously was his own fault. There is nothing worse than a "blind patriot," so why aren't we allowed to say so? If we do, we may very well lessen the possibility of such folly in the future. Insofar as it involves him becoming president, his own decision certainly calls into serious question his political judgment then, as now.

Will Morgan

What a powerful letter -- which I am pleased to share with Salon readers. Yes, let us not forget the tragic series of dubious political judgments that led the U.S. to lurch into Southeast Asia after the French had prudently packed up and left. The debacle of the Vietnam War still haunts American politics and has produced deep partisan fissures that have never healed.

However, I would appeal to you and to all Americans to acknowledge that the preservation of our liberties ultimately depends on the enormous dedication and self-sacrifice of our military men and women. I am very concerned about whether our professional class, buffed all shiny and bright by the elite universities, will ever have the will or stamina to defend this nation in a major crisis. As I've predicted for years, we're heading down a path similar to that of the Roman empire -- with a sophisticated, self-absorbed upper class enjoying a comfortable lifestyle whose security is maintained by a career military (increasingly foreign or mercenary as Rome declined). Soldiers must do or die by the good judgment or shallow caprice of a nation's leaders, who are the ones who bear all moral responsibility in this matter.

As I see it, the Palin Effect is a double-headed hydra. On one side you have Todd Palin, who is clearly a vibrant, macho force in his family’s life. Just as clearly, he has effectively embraced the role as a primary caregiver. What does it say that he and Sarah have a mutually aggrandizing partnership/marriage? A successful professional woman who embraces a masculine male rather than castrate him? Heaven forfend! Personally I see it as the benign (and noble) conclusion of the feminist movement. I guess fish don’t need bicycles, but some of them want one. And they’d rather it come with some cojones.

Discussing the Sarah Palin effect is quickly becoming a national psychosis, to which I doubt I could add much. The only thing I haven’t seen discussed is a comparison between her popularity and what Rush Limbaugh hilariously and intuitively called Bill Clinton’s “Arousal Gap." I think we’re seeing that Todd Palin isn’t the only man’s man out there who has a healthy appreciation for a strong member of the opposite sex. Here is another benign and admirable consequence of the feminist movement.

Steve Gurney
Niceville, Florida

Yes, both Todd and Sarah Palin, whom most people in the U.S. and abroad had never even heard of until six weeks ago, have emerged as powerful new symbols of a revived contemporary feminism. That the macho Todd, with his champion athleticism and working-class cred, can so amiably cradle babies and care for children is a huge step forward in American sexual symbolism.

Although nothing will sway my vote for Obama, I continue to enjoy Sarah Palin's performance on the national stage. During her vice-presidential debate last week with Joe Biden (whose conspiratorial smiles with moderator Gwen Ifill were outrageous and condescending toward his opponent), I laughed heartily at Palin's digs and slams and marveled at the way she slowly took over the entire event. I was sorry when it ended! But Biden wasn't -- judging by his Gore-like sighs and his slow sinking like a punctured blimp. Of course Biden won on points, but TV (a visual medium) never cares about that.

The mountain of rubbish poured out about Palin over the past month would rival Everest. What a disgrace for our jabbering army of liberal journalists and commentators, too many of whom behaved like snippy jackasses. The bourgeois conventionalism and rank snobbery of these alleged humanitarians stank up the place. As for Palin's brutally edited interviews with Charlie Gibson and that viper, Katie Couric, don't we all know that the best bits ended up on the cutting-room floor? Something has gone seriously wrong with Democratic ideology, which seems to have become a candied set of holier-than-thou bromides attached like tutti-frutti to a quivering green Jell-O mold of adolescent sentimentality.

And where is all that lurid sexual fantasy coming from? When I watch Sarah Palin, I don't think sex -- I think Amazon warrior! I admire her competitive spirit and her exuberant vitality, which borders on the supernormal. The question that keeps popping up for me is whether Palin, who was born in Idaho, could possibly be part Native American (as we know her husband is), which sometimes seems suggested by her strong facial contours. I have felt that same extraordinary energy and hyper-alertness billowing out from other women with Native American ancestry -- including two overpowering celebrity icons with whom I have worked.

One of the most idiotic allegations batting around out there among urban media insiders is that Palin is "dumb." Are they kidding? What level of stupidity is now par for the course in those musty circles? (The value of Ivy League degrees, like sub-prime mortgages, has certainly been plummeting. As a Yale Ph.D., I have a perfect right to my scorn.) People who can't see how smart Palin is are trapped in their own narrow parochialism -- the tedious, hackneyed forms of their upper-middle-class syntax and vocabulary.

As someone whose first seven years were spent among Italian-American immigrants (I never met an elderly person who spoke English until we moved from Endicott to rural Oxford, New York, when I was in first grade), I am very used to understanding meaning through what might seem to others to be outlandish or fractured variations on standard English. Furthermore, I have spent virtually my entire teaching career (nearly four decades) in arts colleges, where the expressiveness of highly talented students in dance, music and the visual arts takes a hundred different forms. Finally, as a lover of poetry (my last book was about that), I savor every kind of experimentation with standard English -- beginning with Shakespeare, who was the greatest improviser of them all at a time when there were no grammar rules.

Many others listening to Sarah Palin at her debate went into conniptions about what they assailed as her incoherence or incompetence. But I was never in doubt about what she intended at any given moment. On the contrary, I was admiring not only her always shapely and syncopated syllables but the innate structures of her discourse -- which did seem to fly by in fragments at times but are plainly ready to be filled with deeper policy knowledge, as she gains it (hopefully over the next eight years of the Obama presidencies). This is a tremendously talented politician whose moment has not yet come. That she holds views completely opposed to mine is irrelevant.

Even if she disappears from the scene forever after a McCain defeat, Palin will still have made an enormous and lasting contribution to feminism. As I said in my last column, Palin has made the biggest step forward in reshaping the persona of female authority since Madonna danced her dominatrix way through the shattered puritan barricades of the feminist establishment. In 1990, in a highly controversial New York Times op-ed that attacked old-guard feminist ideology, I declared that "Madonna is the future of feminism" -- a prophecy that was ridiculed at the time but that turned out to be quite true. Madonna put pro-sex feminism on the international map.

But it is now 18 years later -- the span of an entire generation. The instabilities and diminishments for young women raised in an increasingly shallow media environment have become all too obvious. I had grown up in a vibrant pop culture with glorious women stars of voluptuous sensuality -- above all Elizabeth Taylor, sewn into that silky white slip as the vixen Manhattan call girl of "Butterfield 8." In college, I feasted on foreign films starring sexual sophisticates like Jeanne Moreau, Anouk Aimée and Catherine Deneuve. Sex today, however, has become brittle and superficial. Except for the occasional diverting flash of Lindsay Lohan's borrowed bosom, I see nothing whatever that is worth a second glance. Pro-sex feminism has worked itself out and, like all movements, has degenerated into clichés. And even Madonna, with her skeletal megalomania, looks like a refugee from a horror movie.

The next phase of feminism must circle back and reappropriate the ancient persona of the mother -- without losing career ambition or power of assertion. Betty Friedan, who had first attacked the cult of postwar domesticity, had long warned second-wave feminists such as Gloria Steinem about the damaging exclusion of homemakers from their value system. The animus of liberal feminists toward religion must also end (I am speaking as an atheist). Feminism must reexamine all of its assumptions, including its death grip on abortion, if it wishes to survive.

The hysterical emotionalism and eruptions of amoral malice at the arrival of Sarah Palin exposed the weaknesses and limitations of current feminism. But I am convinced that Palin's bracing mix of male and female voices, as well as her grounding in frontier grit and audacity, will prove to be a galvanizing influence on aspiring Democratic women politicians too, from the municipal level on up. Palin has shown a brand-new way of defining female ambition -- without losing femininity, spontaneity or humor. She's no pre-programmed wonk of the backstage Hillary Clinton school; she's pugnacious and self-created, the product of no educational or political elite -- which is why her outsider style has been so hard for media lemmings to comprehend. And by the way, I think Tina Fey's witty impersonations of Palin have been fabulous. But while Fey has nailed Palin's cadences and charm, she can't capture the energy, which is a force of nature.

Wyoming and Utah are the two Western "states" you must have been referring to when you mentioned that they had women's suffrage long before 1919. But they weren't "states" at the time they had women's suffrage; they were territories. Indeed, Utah had to give up women's suffrage as one of the conditions for becoming a state, along with acceptance of polygamy. (As an aside: curious how the Left traditionally looks down upon Mormonism as misogynistic when it was the almost exclusively Mormon Utah that was one of the pioneers of women's suffrage!)

And the East Coast wasn't all that bad. New Jersey had women's suffrage before being one of the original 13 states to create the United States, which of course they had to give up.

Tony Kondaks
Mesa, Arizona

Thank you very much for this important clarification. When Wyoming joined the Union in 1890, it was allowed to keep women's suffrage. As late as 1915, the state legislatures of Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey (in the supposedly more cultured Northeast) rejected women's right to vote. But the Western states had been far more open-minded. Washington state granted women's suffrage in 1910, California in 1911, Montana and Nevada in 1914. Frontier men obviously found it easier to accept feisty frontier women as their equals!

I am a fifth-generation Mormon now living in Utah who grew up in Oregon as a liberal Republican of the Hatfield/McCall variety. I now identify with neither party particularly and have gone both ways in presidential elections. If anything, I consider myself a default libertarian and, as such, find myself philosophically at odds with both parties. I dislike the Democratic Party's efforts at forced equality and the Republican Party's efforts at forced comformity on cultural issues.

That said, I was taken with the Palin nomination from the beginning, largely because she embodies the mythology of the West and recalls my own pioneer ancestors. Mormon women were left alone, often for years at a time, as their men went away to serve missions or in the military (the Mormon Battalion in the Mexican War). They therefore not only had to raise children but to deal with everything else life could throw at them in an isolated, harsh desert environment. Not unlike the women you describe in your article, the Mormon pioneer woman could cook, manage five kids, pull a cow from a blizzard and shoot a deer or a hostile Indian. If memory serves, Utah was the first state to grant suffrage to women, and even Brigham Young sent his wives east for higher education. In one of his books about Mormon history, Wallace Stegner wrote, "Their women were incredible."

So what you describe as a new feminism is really the old, self-reliant feminism of our pioneer ancestors, which remains very much alive in women of the West and elsewhere, I am sure. This largely explains Sarah Palin's appeal. Your article captures it well.

Stephen J. Hill

I am delighted to present your testimony about Mormon women to Salon readers. Do I hear Hollywood screenplay? Quaker pioneers (see Gary Cooper in "Friendly Persuasion") have gotten way more movie attention. The imbalance should be rectified.

I live in Western New York in Chautauqua County (the snow belt). I am not Italian (I am seventh-generation German-Polish), but many Italians live here, and they have always been my favorite people -- names like Bongiovanni, Priveterra, Galardo, Collechi and many more.

Let me tell you, there still are Italian woman here like the ones you described in your column. They have small farms and sell vegetables at the roadside stands. In the summer months, they get up at 6 a.m. and work the farms all day. A woman named Lena ran a pizza place -- she was big and strong and tough, and her husband was a grape farmer. She would kick our butts if we messed around at all at the pizza place or around her house (I lived around the corner from her).

This is small-town USA, and Sarah Palin is one of us the same way Lena was. We all liked Lena and like Sarah too in the same way. This is Sarah's appeal -- she is as real as the small-town farm lady that you told about in your story about the runaway calf.

Dunkirk, NY

The elderly Italian widows of the hilly North Side in Endicott (my hometown) were ferocious! They might be quite tiny, but they could plow into a crowd and bowl people over like ninepins. Once embarked on a mission, they were unstoppable. They were tornadoes of energy but never seemed to sleep. In my first book, "Sexual Personae," I reproduced Michelangelo's fierce, brawny Cumaean Sibyl from the Sistine Chapel partly because she's a dead ringer for the juggernaut Italian women of my youth.

In the space of a few paragraphs in your latest column, you made me laugh and brought tears to my eyes. I'm a third- and fourth-generation Italian-American in my late thirties, but as the product of three generations of Italian-American women (all through the distaff side) who were both the oldest child and who married and had children at a young age, I have many memories from my early childhood in the 1970s of a host of great-grandmothers, aunts of various generational removes, and countless female cousins, many of whom were born and lived until their young adulthood in the mountainous, isolated interior of Campagna.

I have never met tougher, stronger women (in every respect) than the women of my great-grandmother and grandmother's generation. And as you remarked, loud! (Much louder than the men, in fact.) The older ones, while sitting together around the kitchen table, would bust out into some of the most beautiful singing voices I've heard (traditional southern Italian field songs, I was later told).

Your story about the calf reminded me of one that I recall personally. It was the mid-1970s, and my young uncle's car had gotten stuck on the beach during a sudden, howling thunderstorm. Our beach house was bursting at the seams with family members willing to help push the car back to the road. Among those chosen to take up the task were Louise and Jean, two of my grandmother's female cousins. They were fraternal twin sisters, the last in the family to be born in Italy. At the time they were pushing 55 but were in great shape, strapping and the size of Amazons, their skin tanned into a dark, olive complexion. I wasn't allowed to go because I was only eight years old.

An hour later, they came back to the house, soaking wet but mission accomplished. They entered carrying Mickey, their cousin, a man of slight frame, who had been knocked over by the wind and who had sprained his ankle. The first thing Louise and Jean did when they came through the door was to drop Mickey unceremoniously on the couch and ask me to fetch them beers from the refrigerator. To this day, I look back and think: Those were two of the sexiest women I ever laid my eyes on!

Not surprisingly, when I later went to college, during the height of the PC wars in the late eighties, campus feminism often puzzled me and sometimes angered me. These women would never in a million years choose my great-aunts and cousins as their role models. In fact, they'd probably cast scorn on them as backwards hillbillies. And you know what, those relatives of mine were hillbillies, in a way, or their equivalent in rural southern Italy. But I suppose the sisterhood of feminism was a rather small tent, the way it played out on campus. Their loss, as you've pointed out for years.

When I saw Sarah Palin's speeches just before and during the Republican convention, I turned to my boyfriend and said, "This woman is the biggest threat to Democratic chances to the presidency since Reagan." He understood immediately, but others I said that to initially had no idea what I was talking about. Clearly, they never had a Louise or Jean in the family!

Joe Baranello

I love this story! It captures the indomitable, muscular energy of women of the agrarian phase of culture, which I too witnessed in my childhood. (My mother and all four of my grandparents were born in the Italian countryside.) There can be no doubt that this is the primary reason for my dissident protest against the bourgeois proprieties and whiny male-bashing of Anglo-American feminism. Take-charge feminism doesn't try to game the system or run to authority figures for protection. It's hands-on in the moment, forcing respect for female power by earning it.

In a television interview, Germaine Greer was asked about Bill Clinton. She rejected the conclusion that he is a feminist just because he supports a woman's right to choose abortion (notice how the word "abortion" in that repeated phrase is coyly dropped by the ambivalent and squeamish). Greer: "Of course he supports abortion rights. I never met a libertine who wasn't pro-abortion."

Maggie Balistreri

Whoa -- what a rapier thrust! And richly deserved. The feminist coddling of Bill Clinton has been appalling. I admire Germaine Greer enormously. She is bold, independent, learned and devastatingly witty. It was an absolute scandal that for several decades the poststructuralist maunderings of a second-rate crew of French women intellectuals (Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigirary, etc.) were imposed on smart women undergraduates at elite universities, while Greer's work was not assigned. Lo, the professor clones and how they do dither!

It's pretty gutsy for you to admit that abortion is murder, "the extermination of the powerless by the powerful." It's also pretty gutsy for you to admit that hardened criminals need to be zapped (I agree).

I'm a follower of Jesus Christ who is friends with quite a few "liberals" who are not as honest as you. So, following the teachings of Jesus causes me to think about life as a mission to "speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves." This doesn't only include the unborn (thanks for calling them individuals --also refreshing), but many times the women who are forced into having an abortion by boyfriends, embarrassed parents or other outside pressures.

I've volunteered in a well-run pregnancy center for nearly 13 years and have come face to face with women who face all kinds of pressures. In my nine years of doing peer counseling there, I believe I've only met one woman who thought abortion was her right and wanted one right away. Most of the women I've encountered don't want an abortion. Even the ones who end up having one and then have come back to me to debrief about it end up saying how hard it was, how they wish this had never happened.

I've come to believe that abortion is a nasty symptom of a much deeper problem -- a society that eats, lives and breathes sex. So, while we're eating, living and breathing it, why isn't anyone really talking about sex as an emotional and spiritual act as well as a physical one? (Actually, Lauren Winner in “Real Sex” talks about this, but she's writing to Christians --not a mainstream audience.) Wow -- nothing can screw up intimacy for women more than having a lineup of beaux they've slept with -- even if they were using birth control. Many women that I've talked with at the center are trying to find that intimate connection by having sex with men they think they could possibly love one day, but they are fooled. They awake empty and, for lack of thought, continue to "look for love in all the wrong places."

So I believe abortion is the fallout of some pretty messed-up views about sex. And our attempt as a society to let women do whatever they want with their bodies (as if the things we do have absolutely no effect on anyone else) has a huge price tag. It costs a lot of women a loss of intimacy for life. Pretty ironic, I think.

Warm thoughts,
Paula Cook
Dayton, Virginia

Thank you so much for this letter, which I am sure many other Salon readers will also find very unsettling. You raise crucial issues about the psychological turbulence that has been an unanticipated consequence of the sexual revolution. My generation of baby-boom women tried to destroy the traditional double standard, which we viewed as an oppressive constraint on women's liberty. But over time, it became apparent that younger women, raised in a more permissive environment, were under much more severe sexual demands and pressures than we had been in the cloistered 1950s. I began raising the alarm about this in my controversial writings about date rape in the early 1990s. There needs to be much more honest public discussion of these issues, without the usual breakdown into partisan animosity. Whether we like it or not, nature has ordained that the female reproductive system, which shelters every fetus, is far more complex and fragile than male sexuality.

I am stunned by your sensitivity to what a conservative pro-life traditional woman feels about old-school feminism and our rude exclusion from it -- until now. Sarah Palin does indeed give women like me a voice at last.

I am a 51-year-old, devout Latter-day Saint. I have been married 32 years and have five children and one grandson with a granddaughter on the way. My two sons are both Eagle Scouts. I am a published fine artist. My work with the Arizona State Game and Fish Department has been distributed to universities, schools and libraries throughout the state for many years. I have been a working mom as well as a stay-at-home mom.

I, like millions of women, have volunteered countless hours to church, school and community service. In addition to that, I have donated my time to many world-relief efforts through the humanitarian service arm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On a more local level, I have taken meals to the invalid, packed relief boxes, sewed humanitarian kits, tied quilts for Kosovo, and organized collections for local charities, and I babysit for neighbors in a pinch. As an avid animal lover, I am known to rescue dogs and stray birds.

Women who deem themselves "liberated" have always grossly minimized women like me who feel great, genuine joy in being a wife and mother. In the workplace, I was brutally criticized by other women who felt my large family reflected poor planning and a drain on national resources. It didn't matter that my children could cook, sew, excel scholastically at school, perform community service, teach younger siblings music lessons and complete long chore lists while I was at work.

The work ethic of my very functional and social children then prompted my female co-workers to criticize me for being too harsh on them when I brought the Nintendo controllers with me to work (so the boys at home would read a book instead). They said I should let my children "have fun." If I mentioned a fun Sunday school lesson craft we did, I was criticized for being "religious." But later, the office manager asked me to draw visual aides for her church nursery class. She also asked me to teach her how to sew after I gave the office girls homemade Christmas gifts. The liberal women I worked with seemed uncomfortable with someone like me who cheerfully ignored their personal attacks and shared my talents with them when asked. I was never fully accepted. I didn't see them as obstacles to me being me; yet that is how they regarded me.

It seems many feminists talk large about the world family and our accountability to it, yet do little to personally follow through on that ideal. As a conservative woman, and especially as a conservative LDS woman, I invest quite a bit of myself in the world as a lifestyle choice. My family is no different. My oldest daughter spent a semester abroad as a literacy employee of the Mexican government, living at the base of an active volcano in a one dirt-road village. She voluntarily served an 18-month mission to Brazil. Later, she used her Portuguese language skills again in Mozambique, working with families directly affected by TB, malaria and AIDS. My husband and two sons all were volunteer missionaries for two years, serving the people of Japan, Ukraine and Mexico. The missionaries pay their own way and love the people and cultures that they serve for the rest of their lives.

Ours is hardly a myopic, sheltered or uninvolved view of our neighbors, our countrymen, and our world family. Our contribution to the larger society is unsung but quite alive and well. Thank you very much for your remarkable articulation of a force that should have been invited into a more flexible "sisterhood" a long time ago.

Respectfully yours,
Cindi Tanner

Your letter brought tears to my eyes. I am profoundly impressed by the active involvement of your family in ministering to the world's needs. How few of the liberal Democrats of the Northeastern professional world come near this level of self-sacrifice and commitment. Letters like yours are truly an inspiration.

My parents are lifelong Democrats, I have always voted Democrat (I am 26), and I have always considered myself a feminist, right down to my major at Union College in Women's Studies. However, more and more, all I see from fellow feminists is outrage when I express a view that is even remotely different from theirs. I am pro-choice, pro-death penalty for serious crimes (I would take your view a bit farther to include pedophiles with more than two offenses), pro-gay rights, etc.

I am all for feminists of all walks of life, all views, all choices. I mean, that's what I understand feminism to be about -- women having the ability to make their own choices. While I may agree with some choices more then others, and firmly believe some are better than others, we are truly cutting out a huge portion of the population by attaching "absolutes" to feminist ideology. Instead of being the party of independent choice and thought, Dems are becoming as strident and intolerant as how I always saw the Republicans.

Additionally, I really see feminists of the Gloria Steinem group (i.e., most of the ones I know) not wanting women to take responsibility for their own actions. It's always a blame game. I am unsure as to how taking agency and responsibility away from women is advancing feminism. If anything, it does the opposite and gives men and women who haven't bought into the idea of equal rights ammunition as to why they shouldn't.

I agree that it's the pioneer women (or women like Sarah Palin), who took action, who did what the men did, who were strong and resilient and refused to complain who really prove that women are equal, as opposed to constantly complaining about what is keeping us down, and why we are objectified, etc. I guess basically what I am saying is that I agree with you wholeheartedly and that it saddens me to see how mainstream feminists have treated your views, because you deal in reality and responsibility, while all they do is subscribe to the victim complex. I realize now that this is basically how most of them will and do view me, but I just won't keep my mouth shut (that has actually never been easy for me!).

If Sarah Palin has done anything, it is to truly expose mainstream feminists (and Democrats for that matter) as hypocritical elitists who really aren't as tolerant as people think they are and who only support women who agree with them on every single issue.

Katie Cunningham

The reform of feminism must come from idealistic young women such as yourself. Independent thought and speech should be a Democratic as well as a feminist principle. I still cannot grasp how quickly the resurgent women's movement, a product of the rebellious 1960s, turned so repressively ideological. Despite the apparent multiple strands in feminism, there remains a grotesquely punitive streak in too many feminists, who have latched onto their belief system with fundamentalist religiosity. The only cure is the dialectic of debate: liberal feminists must start listening to strong-minded conservative women, and vice versa.

NOTE: I will be giving the keynote address for the Theodore Roethke centenary celebration at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on Oct. 17. My lecture is scheduled for 10 a.m. in Rackham Amphitheatre. I will also be part of a panel discussion starting at 1 p.m. All events, including a performance at 3 p.m. by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer William Bolcom, are free and open to the public.

Camille Paglia's column appears on the second Wednesday of each month. Every third column is devoted to reader letters. Please send questions for her next letters column to this mailbox. Your name and town will be published unless you request anonymity.

By Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.  Her most recent book is "Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars." You can email her at

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