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Sarah Palin and the Double Standard

Should a mother with five children, one of them a pregnant teen and another an infant with special needs, be running for vice president?

The question is being much debated, in newspaper stories and columns, on blogs and Web sites, and, yes, around kitchen tables across the country.

No would be asking these questions if she were a man.

No one asked whether Arnold Schwarzenegger should run for governor because he has four children. They looked at Maria, his wonderful wife, and said, what a beautiful family.

A mother doesn’t get the same treatment. This is how the double standard works.

A father is not a mother,” my wise, 80-something-year-old friend Rose used to say to me, in trying to help me make peace with all the things I didn’t feel right doing when my kids were younger. I gave up tenure at Harvard, stopped almost all of my traveling, gave up the chance of co-hosting a nightly television show and said no to an offer of a daily radio show.

How could I not put them to bed every night? How could I never be there to take them to school in the morning? I couldn’t. I used to get a stomach ache every time I left for the airport and they cried, even though I knew that they stopped crying five minutes after I left.

I did what I did. I don’t know if it was “right” or “wrong,” whether they are better for it or not, whether, as they grow up and go off to college, I will regret the decisions I made and come to grieve for what I don’t have, or be glad that I put them first.

I know many mothers who gave up far more than I did, and their kids are not grateful and not in good shape, and I know many mothers who gave up less and their kids are successful and devoted to them.

Who can say? I only know this: These decisions were mine to make, no one else’s, and no one else’s to second-guess.

When a father climbs a dangerous mountain and dies, we mourn. When a mother does, we question her judgment. How could she?

Why is that our business? Why is it our business whether Sarah Palin returned to her job as governor three days after her son was born, or three months? Is there a right answer? Maybe for the individual, depending on her responsibilities, whether she has a supportive spouse, family at hand, flexibility to go to work, but also to pump her breasts when she needs to, and get home when she has to. But how she answers it is private, not a basis for judging her qualifications for high office.

The personal is political, but only to a point. If the child were abused, that would be our business. If the child stood up and attacked his parent (as Rudy Giuliani’s did), that might warrant our attention. But the Palin family has not asked us to intercede on their behalf. I don’t know why Sarah Palin’s daughter is pregnant at 17, but I certainly don’t know enough to “blame” her mother for that. The daughter has not complained that her mother had no business putting her in the national spotlight. Why should we, on her behalf?

I have no doubt that Barack Obama can count on his fingers the number of times he has been home in the last 19 months to put his two beautiful daughters to bed. In interviews, he says as much, expressing his gratitude to his mother-in-law, who has taken over many parenting responsibilities during the campaign, given that his wife has been away a great deal of the time as well, making appearances and raising money. Does this make him a “bad father"? Should it undercut his claim to the presidency? Of course not.

Why should Sarah Palin be different?

I remember a few years ago, a woman candidate used “mother” in her ballot line description, as one of her qualifications, even as the press was reporting that her own children were so upset at her decision to seek office that they had moved in with their father (and away from the cameras who were covering her 24/7 for a documentary) on the day she announced.

I pointed out the contrast, some would say the hypocrisy, although I did not use that word myself, between running as a “mother” and seeming to put your children second, particularly in a race she had absolutely no chance of winning.

I lost friends over it. Many women attacked me, with some reason, for turning a private decision into a public one. I thought that holding yourself out as “qualified” by the fact of being a mother was putting those judgments into play, but maybe not.

What is clear is that Sarah Palin has not done that. Neither she nor John McCain has suggested that her ballot line be "mother of five." She is the governor of Alaska. She may be qualified, or she may not be. Being a mother certainly teaches you things -- I think it has taught me a great deal, frankly -- but it is not why anyone should vote for her.

If she thinks she can do it, if her husband and children support the decision, as they seem to, who are we to say otherwise? She deserves what every father running for office automatically gets: a chance to be judged fairly, based on experience and ideology, qualifications and competence, not our second-hand judgments of her most private decisions.


Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first female president of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "The Case for Hillary Clinton," "How to Get Into Law School," "Sex & Power," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women."

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the "Blue Streak" column for FOXNews.com.

Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission. A woman of firsts, she was the first woman president of the Harvard Law Review and the first woman to head a national presidential campaign (Dukakis). Estrich is committed to paving the way for women to assume positions of leadership. Books by Estrich include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders." Her book "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women," is a departure from her other works, encouraging women to take care of themselves by engaging the mind to fight for a healthy body. Her latest book, The Los Angeles Times bestseller, "Sex & Power," takes an impassioned look at the division of power between men and women in the American workforce, proving that the idea of gender equality is still just an idea.