Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)–Amid the year-end U.S. news retrospectives, joyful, holiday-style fare is likely to be a bit outweighed by our heavy load of bad debts and reeling economy.

But women have something in the way of holiday cheer to harvest from a historic presidential campaign.

Even though Sen. Hillary Clinton and Gov. Sarah Palin both lost their respective bids for the U.S. presidency and vice presidency, they will likely be giving people a virus long into 2009 and beyond. That’s good news.

British biologist Richard Dawkins, author of the 1979 classic “The Selfish Gene,” spent years studying how genes pass on and change physical traits.

He wondered if cultural change was similar.

In over three decades of studying how genes work, he decided there was. He defined units of cultural change as “memes”–a term derived from the Greek word for mimic–and said they spread like viruses. They could, in fact, be called “change viruses.”

Drawing on Dawkins’ work, Susan Blackmore of the University of the West of England, asked, in her 1999 book “The Meme Machine,” which ideas tend to be imitated and spread. She noted that the most visible travel fastest.

So, to the degree that women are gaining more access to jobs, power, politics and the media, their lifestyles are spreading faster.

“Non-traditional women today are spreading (ideas) of equality and independence for women,” notes Blackmore. In contrast, women in traditional roles are more apt to be at home, bypassed by media attention. In that relative obscurity they are less likely to trigger the change virus.

Palin’s Viral Victory

In this light, Sarah Palin’s meteoric path to prime time this year is a feminist victory.

Conservative women used to be low-level spear carriers. The fact that the GOP base rallied around Palin legitimizes women as leaders in general, even though a lot of us don’t want to follow where she would lead.

With her energetic stump speeches, her assertiveness and lack of traditional reticence to seeking power, Palin fits the feminist model, in style if not in substance. She is the mother of five children, one of whom has special needs, so she may also help legitimize the idea that women with children can be public leaders. It was rare on the right, at least according to my reading, to find outrage over the idea that she would even consider a political role, given her family situation.

The Palin pick, wrote critic Michael Medved, proved “that this idea that conservatives frown on women with careers is a bad rap.”

U.S. News and World Report noted that the “antifeminist diatribes of old-guard religious right leaders like (Jerry) Falwell and (Pat) Robertson could have been interpreted, at least in part, as a criticism of women who left the traditional sphere of home and family to pursue careers. If that was the case in the older culture war, it’s clear that ‘working moms’ are now valued by members of the conservative movement, including social conservatives.”

Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, authors of “Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream,” say demonizing women who work outside the home is a losing strategy. They believe values issues are a distraction from the economic concerns of anxious workers and a growing swath of the middle class.

Pregnant Daughter Played Well

Even when it was revealed that Palin’s daughter Bristol was expecting a child out of wedlock, social conservatives did not balk.

In fact it played well among those dedicated to exalting any alternative to abortion.

“Fortunately, Bristol is following her mother and father’s example of choosing life in the midst of a difficult situation,” Tony Perkins, president of the influential Family Research Council, said in a press statement. (But Perkins attacked Jamie Lynn Spears, the teen TV star of Nickelodeon’s “Zoey 101,” as a bad role model when she announced her out-of-wedlock pregnancy earlier in 2008.)

That one woman was a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination and that a woman was on the GOP ticket sends messages people don’t understand they are getting. They are absorbing the change virus.

Clinton won 18 million votes as she proved herself a tough campaigner, able to walk into a bar and belt one down like one of the boys. She spread the change virus by breaking the mold of how female candidates are supposed to behave.

Of course, not all the news is good.

Palin–who didn’t seem to know what the Bush doctrine was when pressed by ABC news anchor Charles Gibson–calls to mind the popular saying among second-wave feminists in the 1970s that we will know we’re equal when a mediocre woman can get as far as a mediocre man.

On the other hand, I was part of a group of women who “liberated” the men’s dining room at the elite restaurant Loch Ober’s in Boston in 1970. We were talking then about the possibility of a woman being elected as president. We hoped we’d see it in our lifetimes.

That hope has dimmed considerably, at least for veteran feminists, for whom the number of four-year presidential campaign cycles no longer seems infinite.

A Thicket of Sexism for Hillary

Hillary ran into a thicket of sexism, with the overheated coverage of her “cackle.”

Patrick Healy of the New York Times dubbed it the “Clinton Cackle,” Frank Rich of the Times called it “calculating” and pundit Dick Morris called her laugh “loud, inappropriate and mirthless . . . A scary sound that was somewhere between a cackle and a screech.”

And then there was her cleavage. When Hillary appeared on the Senate floor with a modest decolletage, you would have thought Pamela Anderson had wandered into the chamber in a bustier. According to Media Matters for America, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on July 30, MSNBC gave 23 minutes and 42 seconds to segments discussing Clinton’s cleavage. CNN devoted 3 minutes and 54 seconds to the story, while Fox News devoted none.

Then, during a CNN discussion, NPR’s Ken Rudin stated: “Let’s be honest here, Hillary Clinton is Glenn Close in ‘Fatal Attraction.’ She’s going to keep coming back, and they’re not going to stop her.”

She was also accused by an MSNBC reporter of “pimping out” her daughter Chelsea by including her in the campaign.

Nonetheless, she was taken very seriously as a candidate.

That is a far cry from the treatment given to those of us who marched around the nation to celebrate the 50th anniversary of suffrage in 1970.

That night, ABC anchor Howard K. Smith began his lead-in to the national news with a quote from Spiro T. Agnew: “Three things have been difficult to tame: the ocean, fools and women. We may soon be able to tame the ocean, but fools and women will take a little longer.”

Compared to those times, these are different days. The change virus is working. It may not be spreading as fast as many of us would like. But on the other hand, it’s probably delivering results much faster than either Smith or Agnew could possibly have imagined.

For that, we owe a tip of the hat to both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin.

Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of “Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women” (University Press of New England).

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