- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2008

In playground lines, book clubs and Web message boards, the nomination of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to the Republican presidential ticket has American women debating as never before the intersection of the personal and the political.

The most heated debate among area moms is over how Mrs. Palin can raise five children — one of them a newborn with special needs — and have the second-most important job in America.

The debate is especially pointed in the special-needs community. Gina Mitchell of Bethesda is the mother of three girls, including a 6-year-old who, like Mrs. Palin’s infant son, has Down syndrome . Mrs. Mitchell, who works as a recruiter, says the various special-needs listservs to which she subscribes have been flying in all directions.

“So many people say, ‘I bet you love this nomination,’” says Mrs. Mitchell. “But there are so many different sides to this. It is getting women talking about ‘What does this mean?’”

Many in the special-needs community have been critical of Mrs. Palin for choosing to run for such a demanding position so soon after Trig’s birth. Mrs. Mitchell says that decision does not bother her at all.

“None of us knows what we are getting into, even if we know about an issue through prediagnosis,” she said. “In some ways, that criticism is unfair. There are great support services out there. How does any one family know what another’s challenges are?”

Judy Sandler of Oak Hill, Va., is, like Mrs. Palin, a hockey mom as well as the parent of a special-needs child. She has had many conversations since Mrs. Palin’s nomination and remains an interested but undecided voter.

“Everyone’s got an opinion,” says Mrs. Sandler, who holds a master’s degree in business administration, but chose to stay home after her younger son, Evan, 11, was diagnosed with autism. “Her baby is four months old , though. I think she still hasn’t had to deal with any of the stuff that is coming. I like her personally — I’d like to have lunch with her — but don’t know if I necessarily agree with her politics.”

Barbara Curtis, a Loudoun County mother of 12 who has four children (one by birth and four adopted) with Down syndrome, says Mrs. Palin’s nomination “has been opening up discussions that have been buried.”

“So seldom do things happen on a political level where people can have the opportunity to shift their thinking,” says Mrs. Curtis. “For so long we have had the pro-life/pro-choice fight without any shift in what we are talking about. But when you see a family with a 44-year-old mom holding a Downs child and a 17-year-old daughter who is pregnant, this is the face of pro-life America. Sarah Palin is a real, live human being.”

Kathy Kavanaugh, 64, has four children, six grandchildren and a job with Catholic Charities of Albany, N.Y. She has been engaged in discussions over the last week with her daughters and co-workers about actual politics (health care policy is a top issue for her) and personal issues.

“I work, my daughters work, and everyone has scaled back for children,” says Mrs. Kavanaugh, who runs a program for grandparents raising grandchildren. “I am concerned [Mrs. Palin] will be compromising work or family. I love to think about politics and what she can do, but I see the value in being there for your family as well.”

On online message boards, the discussion is much less diplomatic. Take these posts from Urbanbaby.com, a popular and anonymous forum:

  • “As a working mom, I’m torn about this one aspect of her life. I could definitely see myself doing exactly as she did … being private about pregnancy and even not aborting a baby with special needs. However, it also strikes me as insensitive to the child and to her other children. He shouldn’t be on stage with her, and her older children ultimately will be responsible for their youngest brother.”
  • “I’m on the same page. For me, if you had asked me before kids if one could do it all (and I am an executive), I would say yes. But after having kids, I realize that she has a completely different value set than I do, and I do think that there are some jobs that you can’t do as a woman and a mother if you want to raise your children well.”
  • “I could not think of a worse representative for women. I turn off the TV when Palin’s on so my daughters don’t see.”
  • “I am pretty much a feminist and rabidly pro-choice, but I don’t think she is all that bad. I’d rather my daughters look up to her than Paris Hilton.”
  • No matter how one feels about Mrs. Palin, the fact that women are spending so much time engaged in political debate is in itself progress, says Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway.

    “What has changed is that many women had been involved in 60-second politics, meaning their contributions were to vote on Election Day,” says Mrs. Conway. “But now they are finding out information. It is so different than when Hillary Clinton was in the race, because she was expected to be there. In this case, there was no ‘get to know me’ time. The novelty here invokes a level of curiosity.”

    Despite the novelty of Mrs. Palin’s nomination, the criticism of a woman “having it all” is an old one, says Mrs. Conway.

    “It seems everyone has to justify their own lifestyle choices by criticizing her,” says Mrs. Conway, who is also the mother of three young children. “They may say, ‘I don’t have the time. How does she have the time?’ The way I see it is, Sarah Palin doesn’t play golf or have a boyfriend or spend a lot of time complaining about how she doesn’t have time. Right there, that frees her up for five or 10 hours that many don’t have.”

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