It’s a pink-letter year for Republican women. This season, more female GOP candidates than in any previous election cycle are running for national and state offices, beating the previous record year – 1994 – by 38 women. That’s a surprising development for the GOP. After all, this is the Party that as recently as last fall launched a “Republican Accomplishments” webpage and failed to include a single female representative, senator, Supreme Court justice, governor, cabinet member, or vice presidential candidate.
Many would like to give the credit for the sudden rise of GOP women to that VP candidate. After all, two of the recent primaries’ biggest winners, Carly Fiorina and Nikki Haley, were endorsed by Sarah Palin. Her backing, and their success, have been touted as a litmus test for Palin’s influence in the conservative camp, and an answer to the million-voter question: she can win hearts, but can she win races? The response seems to be a resounding yes, she can.
But it’s worth looking beyond well-known candidates like Haley and Fiorina and asking about all the other women running in 2010 – the ones Palin hasn’t endorsed. Why are they here? The increase in female candidates since the last presidential election is startling: almost twice the number of GOP women are running for U.S. House or Senate seats now than were in 2008. The difference between then and now is Sarah Palin. The seismic shift in women’s roles at work and at home had, until Palin, gone largely unacknowledged among Republican leadership, where the majority of conservative female role models have been candidates’ wives. Just this year, the number of women in the American workforce exceeded men, a reality that working mothers – struggling to make ends meet while rearing their kids – see reflected in Palin. She does it all, and she doesn’t make it look easy.
Palin’s gritty, optimistic, “mamma grizzly” style is immanently relatable. She has five kids. She has a job. She has a husband who travels a lot. She has a child with a disability. She’s not a Hollywood glamour-puff or a silver spoon baby, but a real woman with real problems and real responsibilities. Her life is messy. While Democrats like Hilary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi are idealized versions of modern womanhood, with all the advantages of brand name education and political pedigree, Palin is everywoman. She’s spunky and homespun, your better-than-average-looking neighbor down the street who probably buys store brand soup instead of the fancy Campbell’s stuff.
It’s this unapologetic normalcy that draws women to Palin, and inspires them too. When Palin walked out of the unknown and onto that convention stage in 2008, conservative, pro-family, pro-life women looked at her and finally saw someone they recognized: themselves. This year, Republican women are acting on the possibilities of that night, in spite of significant challenges. Ironically, Palin’s trial by fire has helped here too. She survived an unbelievable amount of vitriol – but survive she did, and today, no conservative female candidate faces an unknown landscape. A hostile landscape, certainly, but not an unknown one.
As she did with Nikki Haley, Palin has warned women running for election that their path will be difficult, while encouraging them to forge ahead. And far from scaring off conservative women, liberal dislike of Palin seems to be galvanizing them. In primaries across the country, her advice, and her example, are paying off. Whatever the results in November, this will be a political season to remember. And whether officially endorsed or not, conservative women around the country are proving the old adage true: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Skyla Freeman (http://skylafreeman.com/) is a freelance writer and blogger, and a former White House writer for President George W. Bush.