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?"
Sally Quinn, the veteran Washington Post reporter, wrote on the Post's Web site "On Faith" that Palin's "first priority has to be her children. When the phone rings at three in the morning and one of her children is really sick what choice will she make?" Quinn went on to mention that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi held off on her high-powered career until her five children were "older."
"A mother's role is different from a father's," she concluded.
So where are the feminists?
The very people who have done the most to make Americans aware of sexism and its dangers – defenders of women like Anita Hill, Lilly Ledbetter and Clinton – have remained mum where Palin is concerned.
True, they stand in staunch opposition to Palin's ultra-right-wing positions. True, too, that Palin was not the least bit sympathetic to what she called Clinton's "perceived whine about excess criticism" during the Democratic primaries. And her selection, given her short tenure as governor, certainly raises questions.
But while it is fair to scrutinize her experience, preparedness and political views, it is decidedly off-limits to question whether Palin should have turned down the vice presidential nomination because of her family. It is not fair to suggest that because she has five children, a baby with special needs and a grandchild on the way, that she should not take on the burden of the federal government. It is not fair because it is not a standard to which men are held. And no one knows that better than feminists.
But it took Rudy Giuliani to make the point.
"How dare they question whether Sarah Palin has enough time to spend with her children and be vice president?" Giuliani said to a cheering crowd at the Republican National Convention last night. "When do they ever ask a man that question?"
Consistency demands that even though she may offend every political bone in their body, feminist leaders should stand firm on Palin's right to seek any job she desires. How she runs her family and divides her time between work and home is her business. Not ours.
Was it wrong for John Kennedy or Jimmy Carter to uproot their families to move to Washington? For Bill Clinton? What about Barack Obama?
When Bobby Kennedy ran for president in 1968, he and his wife, Ethel, had 10 children and one on the way. A legitimate issue?
Palin's national debut went well. She was smart, she was witty, she was warm, even winning. She threw out the red meat (she is a hunter, after all). She told a joke.
"I love those hockey moms," she said. "You know, they say the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull: lipstick."
She accepted the public spotlight and, in so doing, opened herself up to national debate. The Obama campaign has every right to go after her. Her record as a governor and mayor is there for the investigating; her politics is fair game.
But whether she can get home in time for dinner is not our concern.
Jodi Enda is a Washington writer.