Get a grip, ladies! Don’t allow Sarah Palin’s candidacy to reheat the “mommy wars,” to pit working moms against those who stay at home. Here’s what we find distressing: One set of women telling reporters they passionately agree with Palin’s decision that she can raise children and serve as vice president; another, equally passionate set of women decreeing that she’s bound to give short shrift to her family or her job, or both. It’s time to put this fight to rest.
“Is it sexist for people to ask how can somebody manage a family of seven and the vice presidency?” Cokie’s colleague at ABC News, Charlie Gibson, carefully asked the Alaska governor. Her response: “That question is kind of irrelevant because it’s accepted of course (that) you can be the vice president and you can raise a family.” As long as you’re a man.
When his question was posted on the ABC Web site, Gibson revealed, it drew 15,000 responses: “Every woman with young children struggles with this question, Should I, how can I, will I be able to?” Palin said she understands that. She also said she stayed home with her first child: “I had that choice then, and I’ve had choices, of course, along the way.”
But, the candidate elaborated, not all women have those choices, and she’s certainly right about that. Let us be clear on this: The question of whether a mother should work outside the home or not is one that can only be asked by upper-income women. Most women work for the same reason most men do – because they have to; they have no other option.
A mother who once might have collected welfare now must go to work. The welfare reform touted by the Clinton administration required mothers to get jobs, not only to relieve society from the burden of supporting them but also because mothers bringing in paychecks were deemed beneficial for the children. You don’t hear the battlers in the mommy wars talking about how terrible it is for those women to go to work and leave their children.
If this country wants to have a serious conversation about who’s taking care of the children, let’s do it. Let’s talk about the children who go to bed hungry every night in the richest nation on earth. Let’s talk about the children who are denied a decent education because of rotten public schools. Let’s talk about the children who are shoved from foster home to foster home. Let’s talk about the children who are incarcerated. Let’s talk about the children who are used as pawns in divorce.
Those children need our attention and the attention of public policymakers – not the children of upper-income women who are making the decision about whether to spend a few years of their lives in the paid workforce. But you’d never know that listening to the argument swirling around Sarah Palin.
It’s an argument any mother who has ever run for office is familiar with. Palin’s answer when challenged about having a baby while serving as governor: “I’ll do it the same way the other governors have done it when they’ve either had a baby in office or raised a family. Granted, they’re men, but (I’ll) do it the same way that they do it.”
But it’s different for a woman, shout back the warriors; women are the ones who take care of the children. True enough. Polls show that upward of 90 percent of working women claim primary responsibility for child care. Women also do more than their share in caring for the elderly. Do we want to start asking female candidates if they can do the job and take care of their mothers?
We don’t mean to belittle some women’s genuine struggles, as Gibson put it, with the question of whether and how much to work; we’re just trying to put them in perspective. And to remind those women who have choices that there’s no right answer here. There’s only the answer that works for you, right now. It might not work next year or even next week, and it certainly might not work for your sisters.
And that’s the point. Every woman who has the opportunity gets to make this choice for herself – whether she’s running for vice president of the PTA or vice president of the United States. And every other woman should respect that choice, even if it’s not the one she would make. It’s time for a permanent truce in the mommy wars..
Cokie Roberts’ latest book is “Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation” (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2008, Steven and Cokie Roberts. Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Assn.