Big victories often render the victors irrelevant. When Dr. Jonas Salk discovered a vaccine for polio in 1955, this landmark achievement for mankind meant the army of scientists who had been fighting to find a cure had to look for new work.

We can only hope that the same fate will befall the researchers who today are working to cure AIDS, cancer and a host of other human ills.

The gender warriors face a similar fate. Today, the central tenant of feminism, that women and men are equals, is all but universally accepted in the Western world. There is no serious debate about whether women deserve the same opportunities as men: Americans overwhelmingly agree that women can be doctors, lawyers, serve in the highest reaches of government, or choose to stay home with their children.

The freedom and success that American women enjoy is a tribute to the early feminist leaders who fought for equality in opportunity.

Sadly, much of the Old Guard feminist movement now is loath to acknowledge women’s progress, preferring instead to refight past battles. Their current agenda is out of step with mainstream America, promoting ever-larger government as the solution to nearly every problem.

The 2004 election showcased how traditional feminist groups, led by the National Organization for Women, or NOW, fail to speak for most women and increasingly represent a fringe of politics.

The campaign season began with NOW endorsing a presidential candidate for the first time in 20 years: Carol Mosley Braun. Ambassador Braun made Gov. Howard Dean look moderate. She advocated a complete federal takeover of health care, a mandatory “living wage,” and a massive expansion of Washington’s control over K-12 education. Even the New York Times called NOW’s endorsement “silly.”

In April, feminist groups joined forces for the “March for Women’s Lives,” an event that drew more than 1 million activists to Washington, D.C. But to outsiders, the march looked less a celebration of reproductive choice and more a celebration of abortion.

Signs that used the word “abortion” as a synonym for murder, like “abort Ashcroft” or “Barbara made the wrong choice,” peppered the National Mall. In the months that followed, Planned Parenthood sold (and then later dropped) T-shirts that tastelessly proclaimed, “I had an abortion.”

Such actions left the impression that feminist groups are either coldhearted or oblivious to what even most women who are abortion-rights advocates recognize as complicated moral issues.

Throughout the campaign, the feminist movement belittled the progress of women in Afghanistan and Iraq. Reasonable people can disagree about whether the United States ought to have toppled Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. But only blind partisans would focus solely on the challenges and fail to celebrate that young girls are now free to attend school in Afghanistan and that Iraqi women no longer live in fear of a dictator.

While American women focused on critical issues, like terrorism, feminists fixated on illusory problems like the “wage gap.” This misleading and often repeated statistic compares a working woman’s median wage with that of a working man and finds, not surprisingly, that women on average earn less.

But the statistic ignores relevant factors like educational attainment, occupation and experience (women typically take about a decade out of the workforce to care for family). Instead of considering how women’s decision-making processes, such as opting for greater flexibility instead of just trying to maximize pay, affect these numbers, Old Guard feminists continue to view any discrepancies as evidence of bias and call for government intervention to solve the so-called problem.

Yet the politics of victimhood don’t resonate with most American women. As the past election proved, women aren’t a special-interest group. Like men, they were most concerned about security, Iraq and economic growth.

Feminism must evolve or wither, and the word “choice” must apply to more than just abortion. What about choice in saving for retirement, where to send our children to school or how to spend our money? On these critical questions, today’s self-professed guardians of women’s rights offer nothing but big government and offensive paternalism.

The feminist stalwarts no longer speak for women. That’s OK, because women are speaking for themselves. And increasingly, women are saying they want to chart their own courses, free from the dictates of Washington. In that sense, feminism is more alive than ever.

This article appeared in the Arizona Republic alongside commentary by NOW president Kim Gandy.