Insiders see ‘new feminism’

Times Staff Writer

The topic was Sen. John McCain’s vice presidential pick, and talk show host Laura Ingraham was on a roll. Accepting an award from the Republican National Coalition for Life on behalf of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who was under wraps working on her convention speech, Ingraham chastised anyone who would suggest that Palin is not up to the job.

As a pro-life working mother of five, including a special needs infant and a pregnant 17-year-old, Ingraham said, “Sarah Palin represents a new feminism. . . . And there is no bigger threat to the elites in this country than a woman who lives her conservative convictions.”

That was the prevailing mood in the Twin Cities this week, as convention-going Republicans expressed delight that Palin, a newcomer to the national stage, would shore up McCain’s conservative flank.

But her selection, and her unusual family situation, launched a thousand other conversations outside the partisan bubble.

Chatter ranged from what it must do to a 17-year-old to have her unplanned pregnancy announced to the world to whether discussion of Palin’s decision to run, given her weighty family obligations, is fair or whether it plays into outdated stereotypes about the perils of working motherhood.


“The mom part of me says how did this woman expect to run for vice president with a 4-month-old baby with a disability and a 17-year-old about to have a baby of her own?” said Debra Haffner, a Unitarian minister and sex educator from Westport, Conn., who has educated parents on teenage sexuality for nearly three decades. “It’s not a feminist perspective . . . but there are times when you put your professional aspirations on hold, and this seems like it might be one of them.”

She said she thinks Palin has brought such scrutiny on herself. “I think when you keep proudly saying ‘I’m a hockey mom of five’ . . . you open your own parenting practice up for consideration.”

Palin has raised the issue herself. In 2004, she told the Anchorage Daily News that she decided not to run for the U.S. Senate because her teenage son opposed it.

“How could I be the team mom if I was a U.S. senator?” she asked.

Talking with reporters Monday, McCain campaign strategist Steve Schmidt took offense at the idea that Palin might have trouble juggling the vice presidency and her family obligations.

“Frankly,” he said, “I can’t imagine that question being asked of a man. I think it’s offensive, and I think a lot of women will find it offensive.”

In an interview Wednesday with Katie Couric, prospective first lady Cindy McCain defended Palin and echoed Schmidt: “She will be a marvelous vice president, and she is already a marvelous mother. . . . I think most of the people asking the questions wouldn’t be asking this if it were a man.”

Later, Cindy McCain nodded strenuously when the Wednesday keynote speaker, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, reacted with outrage to the question of Palin’s balancing act.

“When do they ever ask a man that question?” he asked.

In fact, the question was asked of a man in March 2007, when John Edwards, the father of two school-aged children and an adult daughter, announced that his wife, Elizabeth, had terminal cancer. He continued to pursue the Democratic presidential nomination, which sparked a national conversation about whether a man confronting the death of a spouse and single fatherhood would be able to meet the demands of the presidency.

At the time, one Republican strategist said that Elizabeth Edwards’ illness would put a strain on her husband’s ability to wage a campaign.

“The political marketplace may conclude that he may not be viable because of the distraction,” he said.

Others look no further than the Democratic ticket for evidence that family strains -- even grievous ones -- can coexist with federal office.

“Look at Joe Biden,” said Deborah Roffman, a Baltimore human sexuality educator. “His life story involved child care too.” Biden’s wife and young daughter were killed in a car crash in 1972, just after he was elected, at age 29, to the Senate. His two sons were severely injured in the accident. Biden was sworn into office at their bedside, and his schedule accommodated their recovery needs. Eventually, he ended up commuting daily between Wilmington, Del., and Washington.

Debbie Walsh, director for the Rutgers Center for the American Woman and Politics, said Palin had already been caught in a bind between her political obligations and her family. That happened when she and her husband, Todd, issued a news release announcing that their daughter Bristol was pregnant.

“It’s terrible, like a Sophie’s choice situation, where you are in this horrible position as a mother,” said Walsh, “to feel that you have to reveal this piece of information about your daughter and not just to a few people in your family but to the national press corps?”

Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington sociologist, agreed that the parenting questions came up more readily for Palin because she is a woman.

“I’m all for being a working mom,” Schwartz said. “But I do have a sense from having two children how totally unsuited and uncapable I would be with five.”

But Phyllis Schlafly, the 84-year-old archetypal anti-feminist, thinks people fretting about whether Palin can do it all should just pipe down.

“People who don’t have children, or who only have one or two, don’t comprehend what it’s like to have five,” said Schlafly, who was on the convention floor this week.

“I had six children,” Schlafly said. “I ran for Congress. An organized mother puts it all together. The time management mother uses the older ones to help with the younger ones. You should read that old book ‘Cheaper by the Dozen.’ ”