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SUNDAY, SEPT. 21, 2008

We really have come a long way

In 1980, Lynn Caine spoke at Broward Community College in South Florida. Caine had written a best-selling book about suddenly becoming a widow. Left with two young children, she didn’t know how to do her family’s finances or how to fashion a social life in a culture built on couples.

I was a young reporter for the Fort Lauderdale News, and I covered Caine’s talk. Later that evening a group of us gathered with Caine at the home of a woman from the college. The woman’s neighbor told Caine about the husband who left her for another woman, left her broke with six kids.

A year or so later, Colette Dowling, author of “The Cinderella Complex,” spoke at the college. She said women had to take control of their personal happiness. They had to write their stories and not wait around for Prince Charming to pen the happily-ever-after endings.

By 1980, I had met only one woman doctor and just a handful of women lawyers. I’d never met a woman minister, judge or police officer. There were just two top-level women editors at the Fort Lauderdale News, and both were targets of disproportionate criticism by male and female staffers.

The struggles ahead for women seemed overwhelming. The Equal Rights Amendment was on its death watch. Equal pay for equal work sounded like a utopian slogan.

When women ask me what I think of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, I often tell them the history recounted above as the explanation for feeling excited about Palin’s candidacy. I don’t agree with her on most issues. I won’t vote for her. But Palin’s candidacy means it will never again be a big deal for a woman to be on the top ticket. Hallelujah for that.

Thirty years ago, during my initiation into the women’s movement, we feminists (and I still embrace the label) dreamed of the day we would see women everywhere in the world of power and influence. See them in doctor’s scrubs, in judge’s robes, in police uniforms, in the House and the Senate and, maybe someday, in the White House.

The women I crusaded with 30 years ago didn’t imagine that some of the women who finally got that power – women such as Condoleezza Rice and Sarah Palin – would be conservative and espouse traditional values. But these are their plotlines, freely chosen.

My colleague Doug Floyd, a First Amendment guru, says free speech is easy to defend when it’s popular speech we agree with. But when it’s odious – such as Nazis marching in parades – it gets tougher to tolerate. However, if the First Amendment is to remain a strong right, then popular and odious speech must be equally defended.

Palin’s campaign is odious to some, just as Hillary Clinton’s campaign was odious to others. But one of the main goals of women’s liberation was to someday see women succeed or fail on their own merits in a gender-neutral world. This is finally happening. So shouldn’t both Palin’s and Clinton’s campaigns be celebrated as milestones? I think so.

Thursday I spoke to a Gonzaga University journalism class. I told them about my experience with early feminism and asked if these stories sounded like ancient history. Yes, they said, they did. (The students were born in 1987, 1988 and 1989.)

“Times have changed drastically,” Michelle Koike said. “Many of my friends have moms who are doctors, lawyers, CEOs. The San Francisco police chief is now a Chinese woman.”

The GU students are just a few years younger than I was the night I chatted with the widow Lynne Caine and the neighbor woman left broke with six children, and we dreamed together impossible dreams for the future of women. When these students are my age 30 years from now, the Clinton and Palin campaigns will be ancient history. By then, conservative and liberal women – and women of every ideology in between – will have succeeded and failed on their own merits, in every public arena.

In my book, that’s a happily-ever-after ending.

Spokesman-Review editorial board member Rebecca Nappi can be reached at or (509) 459-5496.

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