The complicated business of judging Sarah Palin.

Women writing about politics, etc.
Sept. 2 2008 5:44 PM

Questions for a Superhuman Mom

The complicated business of judging Sarah Palin.

(Continued from Page 1)

But what about Sarah Palin's choices for herself? Can we presume to judge anything about her candidacy from her decisions as a mother? And if we cannot, what are we left to judge her on, given her thin policy record? Palin has been governor for only 20 months. But she's been a mom for decades, and the McCain campaign seems to want us to use that experience as a proxy for her professional leadership. That's why she introduced herself as a hockey mom and painstakingly named all of her family members. And that's why selling her amazing personal story has become the McCain campaign's main pitch for her. The idea seems to be that if Sarah Palin is Martha Stewart, Mary Poppins, and Mother Teresa all rolled into one, who cares if she has views on the dangerousness of Iran? Today came a McCain press release trumpeting a Wall Street Journal op-ed headline: "Ignore the Chauvinists. Palin Has Real Experience." It makes claims about Palin's energy expertise, her corruption-fighting, and her stance on conservation. But even taken on its face, it's pretty slim reading.

Which brings us back to Sarah Palin the Super Mom. The woman who evidently believes that having it all means doing it all and who seems to see asking for help—be it child care or maternity leave—as weakness.

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We don't begrudge Sarah Palin her decision to run for vice president, or her decision to have a baby with Down syndrome, or even the act of doing both at the same time. Under most circumstances, that kind of ceiling-cracking would have us burning our nursing bras in solidarity. But oh how we wish we didn't have to hear about her pulling off all these feats without household help—and without, or so she's determined to make it appear, breaking a sweat or gaining a pound. Most of us mommies wish we could tote our kids to the office and work uninterrupted as they macramé quietly in their Pack-'n'-Plays. It never worked for us, though. Does this woman sleep? Do conservative feminists really have to be the kind of larger-than-life working mothers who make every pro-family policy or job-based concession the rest of us require, and have finally demanded, seem like self-indulgence?

Think of the family-friendly policies Palin's example would seem to brush aside. No need for child care subsidies or universal preschool if a mother of five can run the state without a babysitter. Who really needs family leave laws that protect women's jobs if a governor can go back to work a few days after giving birth? And no need, it would seem, for employers to make any kind of concession to the complications that working parents bring with them to the workplace. Feminism, to the GOP, appears to mean never having to say you're exhausted.

This brings us to the pregnancy of Bristol Palin. We want to reiterate that this shouldn't be used to bludgeon Palin. Accidents happen. But is it passing judgment to observe that for most mothers, a pregnant teenager is a sign of parenting gone awry? Is it unfair to wonder whether Sarah Palin has the right to haul her beautiful children into the spotlight when it makes her look like a Super Mom, then sweep them into the shadows when they make a mistake?

The Sarah Palin candidacy could have been a moment for women to celebrate, in glass-ceiling terms if not policy advances. But it never should have stood for the notion that the only way a woman is going to make it to the White House is if she's the best mom in America first.

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate