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The news cycles have been filled with debates about feminism in recent days.  What is a feminist?  Does Sarah Palin qualify?  How about Carly Fiorina?  Is there a glass ceiling any more?  What are women fighting for?  On and on go the discussions.

At the risk of putting myself into a niche, let me say that I came of age after “The Feminine Mystique” had been published, and was always led to believe that I could pretty much be anything I wanted to be.  On the other hand, I had the misfortune of finding that, during my first  job with the Hartford Stage Company, I was groped by a jerk who I had stopped to ask directions from, and dismissed by an arrogant middle-aged managing director who was overheard to say, “I don’t want any stupid little girls working for me.”  So much for entry-level positions and on the job learning experiences.

I have worked hard to achieve goals throughout my career and have been rewarded by awards and promotions.  I have never felt the need to join the chorus of women who are angry at men for the perceived advantages they have in the job market or the world — I found that the doors I wanted to walk through were open to me.  And since becoming a mother, I’ve tried to instill in my daughters the belief that the world is similarly open to them and that, if they work hard, stay focused, and are motivated, anything is possible.

So over the last eighteen months I’ve been somewhat mystified as I watch Sarah Palin and the many reactions she stirs up.  On the one hand, Palin’s politics and conservatism apall me.  Sometimes I can not believe what comes out of her mouth, nor can I believe how stupid her handlers and communication consultants have been in preparing her for public remarks or photo shots (who can forget the interview in front of the turkey slaughtering operation just before Thanksgiving?)  On the other hand, she and her operatives have been very smart in picking political races and locations for her to show up for.  She’s been speaking before crowds who are excited to see her, and like ’em or not, she’s endorsed some winners.  I have to believe that her appearances and endorsements are going to help provide the basis for another political run in the near future.

Palin sure isn’t my kind of feminist, but I wouldn’t ever exclude her from wearing that label.  She’s worked hard to develop her career while parenting her children, and like her or not, she’s certainly helped elevate the visibility of women in politics.  Then there’s the politicians in California.  Meg Whitman, who will run for Governor against the ubiquitous Jerry Brown, has reportedly sunk more than $60 million of her own fortune into the campaign — earnings that came from her founding and development of the online auction site eBay.  While there have been complaints about how much money Whitman has spent (I gasp to think of how many people could have received health care for that money, or how much economic subsidy could have gone to unemployed fishermen and women on the Gulf Coast, for instance) the fact is, she worked hard to earn it, and it’s her right to spend it as she chooses.  And more power to her.

I have more trouble with Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO who will face off against Barbara Boxer for Senator from California, who lately looks like a catty doofus.  Ms. Fiorina, who dropped $8 million or so in her primary battle, joins the “please send the communication consultants over” club, for having sat there prior to a TV interview while she offered opinions on Boxer’s hair and other big topics through an open mic.  Please, could you do a little better than this as you move through your campaign appearances, Ms. Fiorina?

Nevertheless, it seems to me that Palin and Whitman, and even Fiorina, get to wear the feminist label, even if we don’t like their politics.  Feminism does not require a liberal political position — it’s about making change in political, economic, and social arenas that establish greater rights and protections for women.  And while it’s true that some of these candidates hold social positions that are counter to women’s legal and social rights (the fact that they are opposed to reproductive choice, most notably) they are out there and, by their commitment to advancing the status of women, I believe they share something with feminists of many ages, including Hillary Clinton, Alice Walker,  Abigail Adams, Emma Goldman, Sojourner Truth, and Mary Wollstonecraft.

I’m not saying I like what I’m seeing.  These women don’t offer up the social values that I want my daughters to see and embrace.  But I do want my daughters – and yours – to know that they can run for high office if they want, or start a company that transforms our understanding of how things are bought and sold online, or run a major international corporation.  Just don’t spend time talking about your opponent’s hair or tweeting about Mama Grizzlies and pit bulls with lipstick.

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