Questions for a Superhuman Mom
The complicated business of judging Sarah Palin.
Posted Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2008, at 5:44 PM
Sarah Palin calls herself a "hockey mom" and "as pro-life as any candidate can be"—but not, as far as we know, a feminist. And why would she? Feminist has long been a dirty word for conservatives, and so it's not their label for her, even though it describes Sarah Palin to a T in so many ways: the working mother/ crusader/ political activist. Margaret Thatcher didn't use the "f" word either.
So what does it mean to be a conservative feminist, Sarah Palin-style?
It means doing it all—on steroids. Lois Romano of the Washington Post tells us today that when Palin got to the Alaska governor's mansion, she fired the chef so she could do her own cooking. She has five kids spanning 18 years but has had no full-time babysitter. She went back to work as governor when baby Trig was 3 days old. She commutes every day from Anchorage to Wasilla, which looks to be about 90 miles round trip. She nurses Trig during meetings. She shuttles from Blackberry to breast pump in the middle of the night. She flew to Texas when she was eight months pregnant, gave a big keynote speech, felt her amniotic fluid leaking, and then flew back home to have the baby—without getting her doctor's permission first.
And these are the snippets of the burgeoning Palin legend that dominated the conversations we had over the weekend, at baby showers and backyard barbecues, as they may have yours. Privately, the women we encountered sat in judgment of Palin. Some were outraged that the mother of a special-needs baby accepted the vice presidential nomination. Others were affronted at that outrage. Like it or not, in whispers and sometimes shouts, this is what women do when they talk to each other: We worry over our own choices and their effect on our families; compare ourselves to other women; and then approve, or shrug, or condemn.
Some of the questions we heard and asked in talking to friends and colleagues about Palin were echoed in today's New York Times story on mothers and Palin: Should she have made absolutely sure her birth control was effective, given the odds of a birth defect for a mother of her age? Was it reckless to fly after her water broke, especially without getting her doctor's sign-off? What's her husband's role in all of this—apparently he's on leave from his job now, but how did they swing it when he did work, and what does he think of being a stay-at-home dad, if that's really what he's doing?
OK, so who are we to judge the reproductive choices of Sarah Palin or those of her children? How dare anyone presume to opine about her work/life balance? Is that question itself the correct feminist response—along with another query: Would men ever be judged so harshly?
Publicly, that's why the judges themselves are being judged. On Jezebel they are angry at female opprobrium. Elsewhere, working women are berated for passing judgment on another working woman. Barack Obama has already said that drawing conclusions about Palin because of her daughter Bristol's pregnancy is out of bounds. We agree. Any feminist who takes the position that 17 is old enough to abort a baby cannot also take the position that the 17-year-old's mother is somehow responsible for her pregnancy.
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. Her forthcoming book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character. Find her at email@example.com or on Facebook or Twitter.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.
Photograph of the Palin family by J.D. Pooley/Getty Images.