Pit Bull Palin

Sarah Palin showed exactly what kind of politician she is, but feminists still have a duty to defend her when the attacks are sexist.

AFP/Getty Images

She wasn't Hillary Clinton.

Sarah Palin did many of the things she needed to do last night. She established herself as a politician with gumption, a candidate who would not shy away from battle, a conservative who would carry her small-town ideals to the corridors of Washington.

She billed herself as an advocate: for special-needs children, for soldiers, for farmers, for workers. And she showed herself a willing political brawler, mocking Barack Obama as an elitist in an empty suit, as a big dreamer and fancy talker with nothing to show for it. In fact, she daringly took her own weakness – a lack of experience – and glued it firmly to Obama, a new twist on the act of "Swift boating." Talk about audacity! (The opposite tactic of turning their opponents' strengths into weaknesses is one of the things Republicans do best, so Obama should have expected something like this.)

And despite all the talk about the Palin pick being an overture to Hillary Clinton supporters, what Palin did not do was speak to the women who already voted against Obama this year. Though she spoke last week of breaking the glass ceiling, Palin did nothing last night to reach out to the 18 million people who backed Clinton in the Democratic primaries, nothing to win over the heartbroken throngs still mourning Clinton's loss.

Perhaps she couldn't. Palin and Clinton are on opposite sides of too many issues, from abortion to the economy to the environment. Clinton's allure was her knowledge, her experience and her leadership, things no newcomer to the national scene could replicate. Clinton also was heralded as a leader of women, a feminist icon who never wavered from her famous declaration that "women's rights are human rights."

Palin opposes abortion rights and sex ed in schools. She favors teaching creationism instead. She is aligned more closely with Phyllis Schlafly, who led the successful crusade against the Equal Rights Amendment, than to the Betty Friedan, whose book, "The Feminine Mystique," ignited the modern women's rights movement.

Maybe the one thing that these two women have in common lies in the sexist responses that have greeted both their campaigns for national office. With Palin, it started immediately. Here's CNN anchor John Roberts shortly after Senator John McCain announced his choice of a running mate:

"You know, there's one other issue – we've talked about her experience and what depth of experience she has; the fact that maybe she tries to peel off a few women voters on the Democratic side, who really wanted to see a woman in the White House in some way, shape, or form. There's also this issue that on April 18th, she gave birth to a baby with Down's Syndrome," Roberts said. "The baby is just slightly more than four months old now. Children with Down's syndrome require an awful lot of attention. The role of vice president, it seems to me, would take up an awful lot of her time, and it raises the issue of how much time will she have to dedicate to her newborn child?"

It didn't stop there. The New York Times featured a story on its front page Tuesday with the headline "A New Twist in the Debate on Mothers." "With five children, including an infant with Down syndrome and, as the country learned Monday, a pregnant 17-year-old, Ms. Palin has set off a fierce argument among women about whether there are enough hours in the day for her to take on the vice presidency, and whether she is right to try."

People magazine offered a poll on its Web site. It asked readers, "If you were facing the same family issues as Sarah Palin would you have accepted John McCain's offer to run for vice president?"