WASHINGTON Sarah Palin, a working mother-of-five whose down-to-earth appeal has electrified the Republican Party's bid to retain the U.S. presidency, reflects a new attitude toward women in America's religious right.
Analysts say Palin, the nominee for vice president who has galvanized the party's conservative Christian base, highlights how the movement has evolved from its staunchly anti-feminist roots in the 1970s as it tries to broaden its appeal.
The movement, which has no formal structure but includes a number of prominent Christian groups, has a big influence on Republican politics. It has become younger, more female and less white-dominated and extended beyond its Southern roots.
Polls suggest Alaska Governor Palin's starring role as Sen. John McCain's running mate for the November 4 election against Democrats Barack Obama and Joe Biden has helped the Republican ticket make inroads with female voters.
Some women have been put off by her strong opposition to abortion, to gay rights and her lack of experience and expertise in national or international affairs.
But she has generated a new enthusiasm among the conservative evangelicals who comprise the Republican Party's most important constituency. McCain, who was lagging Obama in national polls before selecting Palin, is now running even or slightly ahead in opinion polls.
About one in four U.S. adults are evangelical and while the religious right hardly speaks for all of them it does represent the views of many.
Palin represents one way it has redefined itself in the 21st century while sticking to its guns on its red meat issues like opposing abortion rights and gay marriage.
"The movement began its ascendancy as an anti-feminist movement but over the last decade it has moved with the times and is playing down its emphasis on traditional gender roles," said David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta.
The movement's early leaders such as the late Jerry Falwell railed against "women's liberation" and exhorted women to submit to the authorities of their husbands in marriage and their male pastors in church.
They evoked a traditional family where fathers worked, mothers stayed at home with the children and everyone worshiped together in church on Sunday. But even supporters of such a view admit the realities of modern life make this difficult.
"In a perfect world the mom should stay at home but it's not a perfect world," Kay Godwin, 62, of the Georgia Christian Alliance, said while attending a "values voter" summit held in Washington at the weekend.
EXCITED BY PALIN
Many activists at the summit were university students, including young women who were inspired by Palin.
"I'm very excited about Palin," said 18-year-old Rebecca Craig, an intern with Americans United for Life, an anti-abortion rights group.
Analysts say the movement's new warriors differed significantly from those who marched into the culture wars under its banner in the 1970s and 1980s.
"The religious right has built an infrastructure of lasting influence by funding programs and initiatives geared toward younger leaders," said Michael Lindsay, a political sociologist at Rice University in Houston.
"There's an army of college students and young professionals who are the foot soldiers of the religious right," he said.
The movement also has reached out to non-whites, seeing ground to be gained among socially conservative blacks and Hispanics, though gains for the Republican Party especially among African Americans have been limited.
Some analysts said Palin was not such a mold-breaker.
"She does not in any way challenge the traditional conceptions of men and women that are present among conservative evangelicals. She is a mother of five, she talks about God as having a plan for people's lives," said David Domke, a professor of communication at the University of Washington in Seattle.
"Her role on the ticket is to support the presidential candidate and this fits very much what would be the expectations for the woman," Domke said.
Critics of the anti-feminist plank of the religious right's platform remains entrenched in its unyielding opposition to abortion rights -- a position that polls consistently show a majority of American women oppose.
(Editing by David Storey)