The day of the Sarah Palin announcement, I called the small cadre of senior female writers and editors who work at The New Republic to see if any of them wanted to write a piece about their reaction. Not surprisingly, the women of TNR had a lot to say. But it was also the eve of a holiday weekend, and, with seven small children and one full-time staffer among the four of us, we had to scramble to find the time.
Sarah Palins we are not. Central to the narrative that the McCain campaign is selling about Palin is that, in addition to being the reformist governor of Alaska, she's a supermom, too. During his announcement, McCain referred to Palin as a "devoted wife and mother of five," while Palin, who began her speech by introducing her children, referred to herself variously as "just your average hockey mom in Alaska," "the team mom," and "the mother of one of those troops" (her son Track heads to Iraq this month). And she does all that mothering in addition to running a state.
Stories of Palin's working-mom feats abound: She gave birth to her daughter and was back at work the very next day! She flew to a Texas meeting of governors while eight months pregnant with her son, laboring on the plane home! She brought her newborn with her to the office, reportedly nursing through a meeting! How can you feminists not love her? the GOP seems to say. OK, so there's that little thing about Roe v. Wade, but, surely, Palin proves women can have it all. And she makes it seem so achievable. You just do it. As Palin recently explained to People magazine, "What I've had to do, though, is in the middle of the night, put down the BlackBerries and pick up the breast pump. Do a couple of things different and still get it all done."
It's a distinctly Republican vision of feminism: If you can't do it all, you're just not working hard enough. And, if you want more societal or governmental support, Palin's ideology has a word for that: whining. That's how she described Hillary Clinton's reaction to sexism on the campaign trail (that is, before Clinton became her personal hero), advising her in a Newsweek interview to "work harder."
But the reason most of us are not Sarah Palins has nothing to do with lack of effort or of desire. We also want it all. It's just that we have less to work with. Palin not only has the type of office (namely, her own) where you can bring your daughter to work more than one day a year; she has a large and supportive family network (her husband is currently devoting himself full-time to the kids) and plenty of financial resources. The deepest insult is that Palin's brand of up-by-your-bootstraps feminism allows the McCain campaign to appear to support working moms--plus hockey moms, team moms, soldiers' moms--while rejecting the policies that would actually make their lives better.
There are several attacks that have been leveled at Palin for running as a working mom that are flat-out unfair. Chief among them is that Palin's career prevents her from being a good mother. Shortly after her selection, John Roberts at CNN questioned whether Palin should be out on the campaign trail with a special-needs four-month-old. This line of attack only became more frenzied with the news that Palin's 17-year-old daughter is pregnant. This is the sort of judgmental mommy-war nonsense that would never be directed at a male politician: No one seriously thought Al Gore should have stayed home and stopped saving Planet Earth when his son was nabbed breaking the speed limit last year in a drug-laced Prius.
Equally unfair are criticisms of Palin for politicizing her role as working mom. While it's true that Hillary Clinton did not make being a mother a big part of her campaign, Joe Biden highlighted his working-dad role in Denver with son Beau speaking movingly of Biden as an "incredible father" who would "travel to and from Washington four hours a day" on the train "to be there to put us to bed, to be there when we woke from a bad dream, to make us breakfast." Sure, Palin's talk of being a hockey mom of five is politically expedient. But so is Biden's tale of being an "Amtrak dad."
The one legitimate criticism that hasn't really been out there yet--but that should be--is that, in turning herself into Everywoman, Palin is significantly misrepresenting most every woman. The underlying point of the Biden story is that he made sacrifices--bowing out of the public ceremony for his oath of office when his kids were in the hospital, forgoing evening events in Washington--to be a parent first. In contrast, Palin's parenting story is not about sacrifice or even the struggle for balance but about blithely doing it all. This vision of parenting is not only unrealistic--it devalues the job. Whether you work or stay at home, parenting is an exhausting around-the-clock juggling act; the list of people I have to thank for giving me the emotional energy and time just to write this article reads like an Oscar acceptance speech. Once the difficulty and sacrifice of the job have been elided, the basis for policy solutions is seriously undermined.
And these solutions are sorely needed. Over 70 percent of mothers with children under the age of 18 work. Yet women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men (on average, the families of working women lose nearly $10, 000 a year because of the earnings gap). Affordable child care is largely unavailable: In 2004, a single parent with average earnings spent about 37 percent of the family's after-tax income on center-based child care. This is an incredible financial burden, particularly for the 30 percent of working families headed by single mothers. And, with rising gas and food prices, the strain has only gotten worse.
Palin, by contrast, has a six-figure salary and an incredible support system--a husband with flexible jobs rather than a competing career, a close-knit community, and a host of nearby grandparents, aunts, and uncles to lend a hand on the domestic front. Palin freely admits to these advantages but offers no solutions for the majority of women who don't have them.
Palin is staunchly pro-life, but, beyond this very public position, she has a slender record on issues that affect working moms. She is a member of Feminists for Life, an anti-abortion group that also advocates for equal pay for women, for part-time and telecommuting situations for working moms, and against domestic violence. (The group supported Biden's Violence Against Women Act.) Presumably Palin shares these views. But, despite all her emphasis on being a working mom and breaking the glass ceiling, in her debut and acceptance speeches Palin never once mentioned her support for any of these issues or the legislation designed to address them. And she said nary a word about affordable child care. Her record on this issue is even more discouraging: Though it's true she did declare May 9 Child-Care Provider Appreciation Day, she also line-item vetoed the funding for a vocational residential facility that included a child care center for students, as well as the funds for breast-feeding pumps, among other supplies, for a Women, Infants, and Children program for poor women.
This is, of course, precisely the Republican Party line. The 2008 Republican Party platform advocates more part-time and flexible jobs for working parents but contains not a single mention of affordable child care or equal pay. And McCain's record on issues that affect working moms is on the same sorry page as his party's--he skipped a vote on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (which helps ensure women get equal pay); he opposed expanding the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which covers uninsured children, to include their parents; and he has consistently opposed not only abortion rights but family-planning legislation, even for low-income women.
By running as a spunky can-do Republican-style feminist mom who meets challenges head-on instead of whining about them, Palin may appeal to some working mothers, as the GOP intends. But it's more likely that a different demographic will find this winsome: anti-feminist men. Tarring anyone who struggles as a whiner is a common GOP tactic--from African Americans (Rush Limbaugh on Michelle Obama's undergraduate thesis on race: "It's a full whine") to the poor (Michael Savage on welfare recipients: "these couch-warming leeches ... have the nerve to whine") to, well, just about everyone (Phil Gramm: "We have sort of become a nation of whiners").
There is, however, an upside to Palin's presence, an important reminder to working moms: Feminism is not just about having the opportunity to do it all. It's also about having the support to do as much as you can. This is why, in the end, feminism needs to be tied to not just an identity, but to an ideology that encourages that support. Sarah Palin's free-market feminism fails that mission on almost every count, diminishing the trade-offs and sacrifices that haunt working moms--even a couple of the TNR variety juggling over a holiday weekend to put their frustrations into words.
Katherine Marsh is managing editor of The New Republic.
By Katherine Marsh