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03.01.10

Meet the Mini-Palins

Sarah Palin may not be on the ballot this fall, but four candidates cast from her mold are mounting serious campaigns. They're youngish, attractive—and seriously pro-life.

Longtime Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison got whipped on Tuesday in the Republican primary for governor of Texas by Rick Perry. With Hutchison's retirement from the Senate, the Republicans are down to three female members. Will Congress' Republican caucus now go overwhelmingly male, just as it has already gone all white?

Maybe not: Enter the Sarah Palin Brigade. When Palin surfaced on the national scene in 2008, conservatives who had never shown the slightest interest in women immediately began touting her as the new face of female politics. Before her campaign went south, even liberals like MSNBC commentator Donny Deutsch called Palin the new "feminist ideal." Effusing about her gorgeous appearance in her signature tight skirts, he opined, "Women want to be her, men want to mate with her. It's as simple as that... If women live up to that feminist ideal, "men can take in" and "women can celebrate" a "woman in power."

In 1973, five years after feminists threw underwear into a freedom trash can to protest the Miss America contest, Nevada's would-be senator, Sue Lowden, a Palinesque would-be beauty queen, then Miss New Jersey, took her crown as second runner-up.

Feminist commentators went ballistic. As the great essayist Rebecca Traister put it, if a woman finally climbs the heights of power "plying feminine wiles, and conforming to every outdated notion of what it means to be a woman ... stop the election; I want to get off." Feminists like Traister might have thought they got a reprieve from the new female brand when Palin lost. But Republicans are popping out Palin variations all over the place. Women are making impressive showings in at least four Republican primaries where the GOP stands a reasonable chance of taking the Senate seat in the general.

And these aren't your mother's Hutchison Republicans: the 60-plus, first-women-in-their-law-school class types who have few or no children, are mildly pro-choice and fiscally conservative—ladies who came into politics, whether they admit it or not, in the wake of the feminist movement. Like their precursor, the mini-Palins—Jane Norton (Colorado), Sue Lowden (Nevada), Kelly Ayotte (New Hampshire), and Cherilyn Eagar (Utah)—are all under (most well under) 60, beautiful, impressively fecund, unreservedly conservative, and stonily pro-life.

Three have almost identical traditional female résumés (the fourth, Ayotte, a former state attorney general, is a lawyer). A bachelor's degree from a non-elite school. Went into show business, or became public school teachers—jobs that have been available to women since the golden age before the publication of The Feminine Mystique. In 1973, five years after feminists threw underwear into a freedom trash can to protest the Miss America contest, Nevada's would-be senator, Sue Lowden, a Palin-esque would-be beauty queen, then Miss New Jersey, took her crown as second runner-up.

The traditional female candidates embrace religions with traditional beliefs, including, of course, traditional views of rights for women, gay men, and lesbians. Eagar is a lifelong and active Mormon, and Lowden describes her opposition to abortion rights as the product of her deepening Roman Catholic faith. Like Palin, Norton actively participates in a Pentacostal house of worship; she belongs to the Smoky Hill Vineyard Church. The pastor, Greg Thompson, says “of course” the church “is pro-life” and “believes that marriage is between a man and a woman.” The Vineyard movement has produced much writing and speaking against abortions and in favor of loving homosexuals so strongly that they'll abandon their sexual "attractions."

The new model female candidates have even thinner résumés than Palin—when it comes to running for office on their own and serving in the top chairs, anyway. Prior to their aspiration to be elected to the United States Senate, only Nevada's Lowden was ever elected to anything on her own; in addition to Miss New Jersey of course, she served in the Nevada state senate for four years 15 years ago.

Both Norton and Ayotte have records of public service, having held a variety of civil service or appointed offices under Republican executives; Norton was selected by then-incumbent Gov. Bill Owens to run with him as lieutenant governor in his second term, and Ayotte's New Hampshire attorney generalship is an appointed position. Eagar has never held elected office at any level.

Indeed, there is a pervasively ersatz quality to the biographies. The candidates all present themselves as busy businesswomen. But in truth almost all the candidates are working for their husbands. Former newscaster Sue Lowden's official biography reports that, "As a Nevada gaming licensee, she currently serves as a Member of the Board of Directors and Secretary-Treasurer of Archon Corporation, a gaming and investment company."

The chairman of the board, president, and chief executive officer of Archon Corporation is Lowden's husband, Paul Lowden, an officer of the company for decades. Cherilyn Eagar had to take leave of her job as a marketing vice president for Webstarget, an Internet real-estate marketing firm, probably not the best business to be in these days anyway, but apparently she got no argument from Webstarget's "founder and president," hubby "Randy Eagar." Even lawyer Ayotte, who resigned from her prosecutor's job last summer to run for senator, describes her role at the family snow-plowing buisness on her campaign Web site.

And boy are they conservative. Eagar is a Mormon activist from the old STOP ERA Phyllis Schlafly days. She is featured in one of Sean Hannity's books and worked for Pat Buchanan in 2000. Norton, who may very well win the Colorado primary and the election, supports amending the Constitution to prohibit abortion and gay marriage and recently called on President Obama not to stand for reelection. Ayotte, similarly well-positioned in New Hampshire, is a hero to pro-lifers for her insistence on pursuing an ultimately successful appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of New Hampshire's parental-notification law, against the expressed wishes of the newly elected Democratic governor. Indeed, all four are elaborately and explicitly opposed to women having access to abortions in all but the most extreme cases, if at all. Their most "liberal" position is to make an exception for rape or the mother's life.

The Palin Four will put the new model of female politician—modestly educated, electorally inexperienced, traditionally religious, beauty-queen types who oppose abortion for all other women unless the woman was raped or will die—to the ultimate test, the voting booth. If even some of them win, it opens a whole new vision for female political life—the polar opposite of what the women who started modern feminism were thinking of. The irony would be delicious if it weren't so bitter.

CORRECTION: This article originally stated the Texas primary is next week. It has been updated to today.

Linda Hirshman is a retired professor of philosophy. She is the author of Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World. She is writing a book about the gay revolution.