The notabilities of the mainstream media are suffering acute PMS. That’s Palin Motherhood Syndrome. Instead of appreciating Sarah Palin as mother, experienced executive and smart politician, they’re venting their rage at the multi-tasking mom. How could she hide her pregnancy for so many months? How dare she return to work as governor of Alaska three days after giving birth? How could she deprive her teen-age daughter of effective sex education? And how could she have deprived both herself and the daughter of an abortion when that would have solved everything so neatly?
National Public Radio interviews women about what they think of the way Mrs. Palin fuels the “Mommy Wars.” Unlike the pollsters, NPR finds mostly women who describe the governor as “selfish” and “over-ambitious,” whose heart simply isn’t in the right place. The working mothers who juggle work and children say that juggling five children is wrong, but don’t say exactly what the perfect number would be. Four? Three? Six? Some of these women were liberal feminists who only yesterday applauded women who combine children and careers. Not now. Not with Mrs. Palin. The times, they must be a-changing back.
Modern feminism pushed careers for mothers with such success that by 1980 more than half (54 percent) of married women with children under 18 worked outside the home. Newsweek magazine that year identified “the Superwoman Squeeze,” cataloging the pressures exerted on the 18-hour mom. By 1998 more than 60 percent of children under six had working mothers. Stories abound of women leaving the workplace to enjoy the domestic tranquility of mothering, but Pew researchers find that over 10 years of polling, Americans disapprove of working mothers by a margin of 2 to 1.
Pollsters, of course, ask only general questions about attitudes, and Americans are now asked to judge one specific working mother as Mrs. Palin shakes up the findings in a very different way. As the Republican candidate for vice president of the United States, she identifies several new subsets of voters who are likely to vote for her:
n Mothers (and fathers) accused of bad parenting because a teenage daughter gets pregnant or a teenage son gets a girl pregnant.(It still takes two.) The parents of these children may have given personal, sensitive, correct messages about birth control or abstinence, their children may have had the best sex education courses that public and private schools offer, but “life happens,” and not always for the best in a pop culture saturated with sex.
n Mothers who joined the PTA to support their children’s education and learned that as important as it was to work on the local level there were many unexpected reasons why their children didn’t do well in school. They may have had poor teachers; pushed forward through union seniority rather than merit, and they may have had no alternative to bad schools, such as vouchers and charter schools.
n Educated women, scorned for retreating from an “elite” education and careers only to become hockey and soccer moms, adopting, like Mrs. Palin, different timetables for different times in their lives.
n Feminists for Life, whose choices on behalf of the sanctity of life are scorned as “anti-woman” because these feminists believe it morally wrong to choose abortion. Like Mrs. Palin, these women understand that hard choices require taking painful ethical responsibilities.
n “Oprah viewers” who thought America’s most popular women’s talk-show host meant it when she said she would interview women of accomplishment, but who now says she will entertain Mrs. Palin only after the election. (She might find it more difficult to get an interview with a vice president.)
n Working men and women who feel put down by Barack Obama’s claim that they are embittered and cling to guns and religion, and who agree with the governor that “we tend to prefer candidates who don’t talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco.”
n Men and women who admire Mr. McCain, “the maverick,” and who prior to the conventions thought him too conventional to be an authentic maverick. His unconventional choice for running mate restores the image of independence.
Voters are continuing to measure the two men at the top of the tickets, and their judgment in choosing running mates. The Democrats continue to push the notion that Mr. McCain and George W. Bush are attached at the hip, but Mrs. Palin has squeezed the president out of the frame. She’s showing America that sometimes the best man for the job is a woman.
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.