Victor Davis Hanson

The media went hysterical over Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska and Republican nominee for vice president. She may have appeared to the public as an independent, capable professional woman, but to a particular elite she couldn't possibly be a real feminist or even a serious candidate. And that raises questions about what is -- and what is not -- feminism.

Feminism grew out of the 1960s to address sexual inequality. At an early age, I was mentored on most feminist arguments by my late mother. She graduated from Stanford Law School in the 1940s but then was offered only a single job as a legal secretary. Instead, she went back home to raise three children with my father, a teacher and farmer, and only returned to legal work in her 40s. She was eventually named a California superior court judge and, later, a state appellate court justice.

Hers was a common and compelling feminist argument of the times, and went something like this: Women should receive equal pay for equal work, and not be considered mere appendages of their husbands. Childrearing -- if properly practiced as a joint enterprise -- did not preclude women from pursuing careers. A woman's worth was not to be necessarily judged by having either too many or too few children, given the privacy of such decisions and the co-responsibility of male partners.

In such an ideal gender-blind workplace, women were not to be defined by their husband's or father's success or failure. The beauty of women's liberation was that it was not hierarchical but included the unmarried woman who drove a combine on her own farm, the corporate attorney and the homemaker who chose to home-school her children.

Women in the workplace did not look for special favors. And they surely did not wish to deny innately feminine differences. Instead, they asked only that men should not establish arbitrary rules of the game that favored their male gender.

Soon radical changes in American attitudes about birth control, abortion, dating, marriage and health care became, for some, part and parcel of women's liberation. But in its essence feminism still was about equality of opportunity, and so included women of all political and religious beliefs.

That old definition of feminism is now dead. It has been replaced by a new creed that is far more restrictive -- as the controversy over Sarah Palin attests. Out of the recent media frenzy, four general truths emerged about the new feminism:


Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.