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Pink Elephants

The strange feminism of Sarah Palin and Liz Cheney.

“Someone had better tell Washington that the pink elephant is on the move!” So crowed Sarah Palin earlier this month at a high-voltage campaign rally for Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann at the Minneapolis Convention Center. While chock-full of the liberal-bashing you’d expect from the dynamic duo, the event also had a weird strain of girl power running through it. The two women entered to country cutie Martina McBride’s “This One’s for the Girls,” and, in introducing Palin, Bachmann gushed about how “drop-dead gorgeous” her sister-in-arms is, both inside and out. Palin, in turn, gave a shout-out to all the courageous Republican ladies fighting to save America from Democratic depravity (with a special nod to Bachmann, of course, for “leading the stampede”); invoked original tough gal Margaret Thatcher; and touted studies showing that “most” of the leaders of the Tea Party movement are women. In a call to arms worthy of EMILY’s List, the former veep candidate told the cheering throngs, “2010 is shaping up to be the year that conservative women stand up to take back the country.”

I don’t know about taking back the country, but a certain breed of fire-breathing pink pachyderm is clearly on the rise. I mean, when you think GOP rock star, who leaps to mind? Eric Cantor? Mitch McConnell? Mitt Romney? Michael Steele? Please. These guys aren’t exactly thrilling the masses or the commentariat. Further toward the edge of the ideological spectrum, male pols like Senator Jim DeMint and Representative Steve King may be fighting the right’s fight, but they’re nowhere close to becoming household names, much less cultural icons. Instead, it’s pugilistic lasses Palin, Bachmann, and, increasingly, Liz Cheney who are channeling—and fueling—the passions of the base with their in-your-face conservatism.

On one level, I find this trend disturbing. On another, I cannot help but be impressed by—and even a bit grateful to—these conservative girls gone wild. Say what you will about their ideology; these angry female fringe-dwellers are arguably doing more than anyone to tear down some of the most tiresome stereotypes about women in politics.

You know what I’m talking about: Every few years someone writes a book, publishes a study, or simply drops a quote suggesting what a kinder, gentler, less competitive, more collaborative, less power-crazed, and fundamentally more ethical place Washington would be if only the gals were in charge. When I was examining this bit of conventional wisdom several years ago, one of my favorite quotes was an admonition from Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski to Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison: “Civility must start with us.” Former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers pursued a related theme in her 2008 book, Why Women Should Rule the World. (Sample observation by Myers: “Women tend to be better communicators, better listeners, better at forming consensus.”) And, in 2006, then-Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel giddily predicted to The New York Times that scandal-weary voters would sweep a wave of his party’s female candidates into Congress because women represented “clean and change.” It’s difference feminism Beltway style, with a high-minded, virtuous sisterhood bringing conciliation, empathy, and an almost maternal tenderness to the masculine blood sport of U.S. politics.

As gross generalizations go, this is, perhaps, more flattering than the one about women being too soft-hearted and weak-kneed to lead. But it’s still largely B.S. Of course there are differences between the sexes. But women who make it to the top of the political heap arrive with their own glut of ambition, toughness, and arrogance. Mikulski, it bears noting, has been repeatedly voted “meanest” senator in Washingtonian magazine’s annual survey of Hill staffers. And, for those who believe political gals are inherently more easygoing, conciliatory, or forgiving than their male counterparts, I have two words: Hillary Clinton. Two more: Nancy Pelosi.

As more women come to power, the stereotypes are fading. But the process can be maddeningly slow and, more often than not, undramatic. Which is why it’s so electrifying when figures like Palin, Bachmann, and Cheney emerge from the pack to drive the point home. Forget civility and compromise: These ladies stand out for their ability to rant, rave, name-call, finger-point, and peddle the most outrageous distortions in service to their cause. (Death panels anyone?) And none seems burdened by the reluctance to self-promote that so often undermines professional women. Thus far, Cheney is the most reserved of the three. But her politics are just as hard-edged, her partisan attacks are just as vicious, and, in her current incarnation as a TV pundit/candidate-in-training, she has a reputation both for combativeness and for not letting anyone else get a word in edgewise. Talk about your male stereotypes.

It makes perfect sense that hard-right firebrands are commanding center stage in today’s Republican Party. Among Obama-era conservatives, rage is all the rage. But what is it that makes bellicose conservative women in particular so popular? Part of it may be novelty. Confronting a still male-dominated punditocracy, the chat shows are hungry for guests who can break up the parade of boring old white guys in somber suits. Mouthy, telegenic women are like catnip for bookers. More elementally, sex may factor into the equation as well. In 2008, many speculated that Palin’s higher favorables among men had at least a little to do with the fact that Republican guys (including pointy-headed analysts) could not stop talking about how hot she was. Nothing inflames like a beauty queen with a gun.

Admittedly, a pro-life, anti-gay-marriage, creationist beauty queen ranting about death panels is not exactly the feminist ideal. And neither Palin nor Bachmann nor Cheney is likely to wind up on NOW’s list of favored candidates. Still, simply by being themselves—truculent, arrogant, awful—these women give the lie to lingering stereotypes that ultimately serve no one well. Somewhere, Betty Friedan may not be smiling exactly. But she’s almost certainly intrigued.

Michelle Cottle is a senior editor of The New Republic.