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The emergence of Sarah Palin and other perky-but-tough "mama grizzlies" is well-calculated. The Right wing is searching for a style that appeals to younger women.

It may seem contradictory that super-conservative misogynists want women on their side. But women are essential to building any movement. They are major opinion shapers and reliable foot-soldiers, if not quite accepted as serious leaders on the far-right team. For precedents, look at the history of the rise of fascism.

Kinder, kirche, kche

The classic work on how women were both targets and agents of the Nazi movement is When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany, edited by Renate Bridenthal, Atina Grossman and Marion Kaplan (Monthly Review Press). It shows how the Nazi program for women -- kinder, kirche, kche -- children, church, kitchen -- gradually became the rule of the land.

During the 1930s in Germany, the explosive social progress of the radical Weimar period was replaced with nationalism, racial supremacy, restricted roles for women, and extermination camps for Jews, gays, communists, gypsies, unionists, the disabled and mentally ill. Many women stood up to the onslaught, but several factors weakened feminist opposition.

On the Left, the German Communist Party defended the rights of women workers and fought for legalized abortion. Communists promoted women's equality as part of ending the exploitation of German workers as a whole. But because of sexism and competitive hostility to other Left groups, the party opposed an independent women's movement that would bring together women from different political milieus.

Moderate middle-class feminists, on the other hand, based their demands on the concept of female moral superiority. This theory of genetic superiority paved the way to acceptance of racist claims of innate national characteristics. For example, the conservative wing of the abortion rights struggle, instead of demanding women's right to control their own bodies, took on overtones of eugenicism, which promotes breeding for "superior" human qualities.

In another example, middle class housewives formed federations in order to improve women's status in the home. The groups initially focused on domestic skills and charitable projects, but became mechanisms for opposing servants' demands for better treatment. Advocates for the uplift of domesticity didn't want to appear extreme, so they froze out Jewish members as anti-Semitism rose.

Such problems opened the way for some women's alliances with fascists who like them promoted eugenics and celebrated women's special spiritual role as homemakers -- and Aryan breeders.

Today: erosion to the right

How do things compare now Neo-cons have pushed the "norm" far to the right. "Liberal" is a dirty word and a deeply Establishment president gets called a socialist. Opponents of Obama's deal to preserve tax breaks for millionaires were called "extreme."

Corporate-sponsored Women's Expos are held annually in cities across the country promoting every commodity except a feminist consciousness. (Expo examples:Long Island NY; Madison WI; Los Angeles CA; Seattle WA.) Empowerment can be achieved by aiming for the limits of health, fitness, gourmet living and style; and earning or marrying a hefty paycheck.

Appeals to family values and religiosity are heard from all sides. President Obama attends and addresses annual National Prayer Breakfasts organized by a conservative, homophobic evangelistic network. In 2010, liberal church and gay groups urged Obama not to attend. They held a counter-event -- the American Prayer Hour. (How bold is that)

As a senator, Hillary Clinton was a regular at weekly Senate prayer breakfasts, and announced that abortion should be legal but "rare," specifying that she was not "pro-abortion" but "pro-choice." Some national reproductive rights groups have taken the same line and called for finding common cause on issues of contraception with right-to-life opponents. This policy has weakened understanding of the importance of abortion rights while failing to appease an implacable enemy.

Nationalism is also spreading. The current Democratic senator for New York, Kirsten Gillibrand, motivated ending "Don't Ask Don't Tell" on militaristic terms: "If you care about national security, if you care about our military readiness, then you will repeal this corrosive policy." Gratuitous nationalism also marked a celebration of the passage of the healthcare bill for 9/11 emergency workers: Democratic Senators "were greeted with a huge ovation and repeated chants of 'U.S.A.! U.S.A.!'"

Don't be conned

The moral to this story is another lesson from the rise of fascism in Germany: Don't be fooled by those who say the way to battle neo-cons is to meet them halfway.

To defeat these enemies of women, people of color, immigrants, gays, and workers, progressive forces cannot adapt to their terminology, prejudices or comfort zones. It's time to stand strong as feminists in fighting for the most oppressed. To be as proudly radical as our demands for equality naturally are. It's not only "mama grizzlies" that know how to fight!

January 17, 2011