JACKI LYDEN, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.
Hillary Clinton has one definition of feminism. Here she is on the campaign trail in January.
Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): We obviously still have problems of gender equality, you know, equal pay is not yet equal. A woman makes 77 cents on a dollar and women of color make 67 cents.
LYDEN: Sarah Palin exemplifies a much different brand of feminism. Since 2006, she's been a member of the anti-abortion rights organization Feminists for Life.
Last week, of course, the governor accepted the Republican nomination for vice president. In doing so, she said her parents raised her with a simple idea.
Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska; Vice Presidential Nominee): That this is America and every woman can walk through every door of opportunity. And my parents are here tonight...
Professor ESTELLE FREEDMAN (History, Stanford University; Author, "No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women."): Democrats and Republicans are both sounding very much like would-be feminists.
LYDEN: That's Professor Estelle Freedman. She teaches history at Stanford University and wrote the book "No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women." In a campaign season in which language is appropriated and reappropriated, I asked her if both Senator Hillary Clinton and Governor Sarah Palin could be feminists.
Prof. FREEDMAN: That really gets to the heart of what is a feminist, and it's a very malleable term. It historically - and I should say, the term only is used after the late 19th century, but if we use it ahistorically, all the women's rights movements and all the historical movements for women's full humanity, for education, spiritual equality, and the like, there have been varieties of feminism: liberal, radical, socialist, ecofeminism. Can there be conservative feminism?
That is an interesting question right now because conservative women have mobilized in the United States, certainly since the 1920s. There have been a strong movement of women against Communism, against sex education in the schools, for strong national defense. Think Phyllis Schlafly. But until now they didn't call themselves feminists.
LYDEN: Well, in fact I was thinking of Phyllis Schlafly.
Prof. FREEDMAN: Yes.
LYDEN: Particularly when she began the Eagle Forum.
Prof. FREEDMAN: Yes.
LYDEN: She did not like the term feminism, and for a long time, conservative activists who were women didn't seem to use it and now it seems that it's being embraced.
Prof. FREEDMAN: I think you're making a very good point. And I think that there's several ways of understanding that. One is that there are some conservative women who agree with parts of feminist politics from a libertarian individual rights position, and who sincerely see a link between equal opportunity and their classic conservative politics. That is, everyone should have opportunity, but individuals rather than government.
Then I think there's a more cynical or a more politically exploitative use which is to sort of subvert or appropriate the feminist label and to say because I'm a woman and I agree with the conservative policies, I'm going to call myself a feminist and I'm going to therefore try to bring in women's votes. And so, some of it I think may be sincere in agreement, and some of it really may be more appropriative, if not subverting the term feminist.
LYDEN: The question of womanhood is heavily at play this election season. Is there more pressure today for female candidates to be both feminine and powerful?
Prof. FREEDMAN: Yes, I think you're right. I think that what you're raising is the question of gender; that is, masculinity and femininity. Not just are you a woman or a man, but how do you present yourself in gender terms? So note that Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, while they have very different politics, have both had to adopt, to an extent, a certain masculinist identity. You have to be a hunter, for example. That's not what earlier generations of women in politics, conservative or liberal, would've had to do.
LYDEN: So Hillary drinks a beer, Sarah Palin holds up a shotgun.
Prof. FREEDMAN: Yes. And I would also say that is interesting in terms of men in the campaign too. Not just in this campaign, but that men are walking a slightly different line now. I think in some ways John McCain is more of the traditional, the military background and the strong defense fit into traditional notions of masculinity, whereas Barack Obama as an African-American man has a real challenge. I think some of the criticisms of Obama as being too aloof or being - not going after red meat enough, or not being aggressive enough -are really questioning his masculinity in some ways.
But given historic stereotypes about fear of African-American men's masculinity, fears of their aggression, really, he is, I think, been successful partly because he embodies an earlier model of black male politicians for whom respectability and reason were tickets into full citizenship.
And yet you have people almost baiting him to try to be more macho. So I think that the gender issue has affected both women and men, at least outsiders, let's put it that way. I think perhaps white male politicians may be less confronted with the issue, but women, African-American and perhaps other minority group men may have to navigate that gender line differently.
LYDEN: As a historian, is Sarah Palin a singular figure? Have we seen anyone else like her?
Prof. FREEDMAN: She combines elements of earlier conservative women who have been for a strong national defense, but limited government spending for social issues, but I do think that she is of a younger generation who can assume that she can aspire to do anything. And I think that's different than an earlier generation of conservative women.
LYDEN: Estelle Freedman is the author of "No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women." Thank you very much for joining us.
Prof. FREEDMAN: Thank you very much.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.