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.

Palin family. Click image to expand.
The Palin family

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?

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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.

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.

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

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