The problem with being a conservative is that your philosophy is heavily invested in the past. It is the belief that social behavior must conform to the traditional values observed in another time.
There is some sense to this - there are eternal verities, after all. Stealing and dishonesty, for example, are as wrong in one age as they are in the next.
But it gets complicated for conservative minds who conceive of an unchanging black and white world when, in fact, it is a constantly changing world often painted in shades of gray. Inevitably, some of the principles conservatives hold fast to are erected on shifting ground. Even some of the great truths they believe in turn out over time to be not much more than the accumulated prejudices of the past.
There comes a moment when even they must acknowledge this social evolution and so they stake out new ground to defend as the benchmark to be protected from the inroads of further progress. When the world turns some more, they are forced to shift that position too.
Conservatives, in short, are like a family at the beach who must periodically move their belongings in advance of the incoming tide.
We have seen this happen on many social issues resisted at first by conservatives then embraced by them because they had no choice. We have seen it in the last week in reference to the federal bailout of Wall Street. Within the Bush administration, conservative thought has gone from the government is our enemy to the government is our savior.
But the issue I am thinking of today is the equality of women. The conservatives of their day were against women voting, they were against equal pay for women (in fact, they looked down their noses at women working at all, especially married women) and they believed women should not wear make-up or short dresses. They generally thought of women as "the weaker sex" to be patronized, ignored or spoken for by men. All of this in the living memory of our oldest citizens.
Today we have Sarah Palin. Conservatives, heirs to the old-fashioned tut-tutting, gender-biased tradition, are oblivious to irony when they hail her as "the hottest governor of the coldest state." Yet without the liberals and progressives who went before, Sarah Palin would still be a hockey mom in Wasilla.
These resentments against working mothers are very fresh. Consider what Sen. Rick Santorum wrote in his 2005 book: "It Takes a Family: Conservatives and the Common Good."
"In far too many families with young children, both parents are working, when, if they really took an honest look at the budget, they might find they don't both need to."
Santorum was then alarmed because women had told him that it was more "socially affirming to work outside the home than to give up their careers to take care of their children."
"What happened in America so that mothers and fathers who leave their children in the care of someone else - or worse yet, home alone after school between three and six in the afternoon - find themselves more affirmed by society? Here, we can thank the influence of radical feminism."
Just three years later, of course, he has moved his belongings farther up the beach, as all conservatives are doomed to do, and has been quoted in blogs as defending the McCain-Palin ticket against its critics. In the whole conservative camp, there are apparently no misgivings now about working mothers and the working fathers who stand by their side. They are affirmed - and radical feminism has nothing to do with it.