A lot has been made about the Democratic convention falling on the 88th anniversary of women getting the vote, the point supposedly being how far we've come. But throughout the Democratic convention and now in the discussion of Sarah Palin as VP candidate, everything else about these accomplished women takes a back (child) seat to their Motherhood, much as it would have in 1920.
First came Michelle Obama's convention speech, which basically went: "I'm a mommy, I love my kids, did I mention I'm a mommy, my kids are the center of my life, oh yeah, there were a few jobs, but mostly I really, really love my kids." It was a sad reminder of the career she gave up last year to audition for the role of First Lady. For her speech, Michelle Obama seemed to have been coached, Don't be too smart, don't be too successful, don't be an equal partner to your husband. This widely praised speech - culminating in the trotting-out of the physical proof, the daughters - seemed an announcement to the world of her own self-shrinking.
Was Michelle Obama responding to the invective heaped upon Hillary Rodham 16 years ago for her not-matching last name, her careless hair-do, her sarcastic remark about baking cookies? Hillary Rodham-now-Clinton also introduced herself at the convention, the very first thing, "as a mother," thereby minimizing the gains she's made as activist, author, Senator, candidate. Her public life has been a fascinating study in female palatability, and one of the things I like about her is that she's never gotten it right. Her ambition, her contentiousness, her tenacity all peek through her more popular guises of long-suffering wife and protective mother. I had thought she'd moved the creaky old construct of "First Lady" forward, that we as a country were starting to realize how ridiculous it is to parade these women before the nation to be judged on their beauty and grooming and deference - i.e., their performance as wife and mother. I had hoped my generation of politicos - the Obamas are around my age - would embody at least some of feminism's progress.
And then along comes another age peer - Sarah Palin, this terribly confusing mix of fierce warrior and meek helpmate. She runs a rugged frontier state, she stands up to porky politicians and oilmen (sort of), she eats the moose she kills with the guns she champions. But she's anti-choice and she too, puts her motherhood front and center in her identity. How could she not, she's got five kids, ranging from pregnant teen to special-needs infant. Her nomination has understandably stoked the Mommy Wars, with many who know how hard it is sensibly asking, "How is she going to be the Mom she says she is and be Vice President?"
And here's what strikes me in the swirl of conversation and commentary about their family (which is none of our business, but it's not like that's stopping us from opining). Why isn't anyone asking about the parenting of Todd Palin? He fishes sometimes and works on the pipeline sometimes, but how much does he parent? Couldn't he put the kids to bed and help them with their homework? I've seen women point out that nobody would ever ask a man if he could raise five children and be Vice President, but more to the point -- why can't Todd be Second Husband? His wife's career is obviously the more lucrative and challenging one in the family, so why aren't the collective busybody We even considering Todd as primary caregiver the solution to their parenting challenges? That this is not even on the radar seems astonishing in 2008. If good parenting is considered a crucial qualification for other political spouses, important enough for a hospital executive to give up her career, can't we ask it of a part-time fisherman?