Dreaming of Post-Ovary Politics

Motherhood, it turns out, isn’t a motherhood issue in the 2008 election.

When liberals question the VP candidate’s parenting and social conservatives support her career ambitions, you know something bizarre is going on. Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is already derailing McCain’s presidential campaign. But Palin’s candidacy is also revealing some ugly realities about women in American politics. Motherhood, it turns out, isn’t a motherhood issue in the 2008 election.

Critics wonder how Palin’s “family values” produced this family circus; question her ability to balance her chaotic home life with her heartbeat-away day job; and fault her for either not realizing her candidacy would put her pregnant teen in the media spotlight, or realizing it and not caring.

Supporters argue that nobody would be raising these questions of a man, and that everybody should be supporting Palin’s choices as a woman in this best of times/ worst of times moment.

This is progress?

Geraldine Ferraro ran as the first major party VP candidate 24 years ago, back when there were two Germanys and no al Qaeda, when cell phones were rare and the internet was not yet born.

Oh, Ferraro had her troubles, particularly with her husband’s finances. But her biggest one was called Ronald Reagan.

Mondale was trailing Reagan badly before he chose Ferraro as a long-shot runningmate, and he never was able to catch the Gipper.

Ferraro has 3 kids. But if memory serves, she didn’t run for vice president as a hockey mom, soccer mom, or any other kind of sports mom. She ran as a member of Congress. Three years earlier, Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed the first female Supreme Court justice. She has 3 children also, but she wasn’t nominated as Ranch Mom. O’Connor graduated at the top of her Stanford law School Class, along with future Chief Justice William Rehnquist. She served in both the Arizona legislature and the Arizona Court of Appeals. O’Connor’s qualifications for the highest court in the land were her brains, not her ovaries.

It wasn’t long ago that Senator Barbara Boxer accused Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice of not understanding the real price of the Iraq War because she had no children — an argument that was as offensive as it was stupid. Generations of high officials may have snagged deferrals and special favors to keep their own children out of war zones. Condi’s offense was bigger: having no children at all.

We may be arriving at a post-racial politics moment with Barack Obama’s historic candidacy. But there are no post-feminist moments in the offing with Palin. Or Hillary Clinton, no matter how loudly those three or four “It’s Hillary-or-McCain” ladies scream about needing to heal. When her husband was running for president, Mrs. Clinton criticized cookie baking then engaged in it, proving to worried voters that this First-Lady-To-Be could stand by her man. When Senator Clinton was running for president, she increasingly asked her man to stand aside (lest he cause more trouble with his angry finger wagging) and stumped with her daughter, Chelsea. She may not have said it, but it was there: See what a good job I did raising my daughter? I will answer that 3am phone. I will be a good president just like I was a good mother.

When exactly did parenting become a qualification for women but not men seeking high office? When did women get thrown back to add-on titles: Governor-AND-mother- of-five? When did all the promise of women’s choices — to stay at home, work full time, find something in between, have children or not — mutate into unceasing judgment and political pandering?

We may have 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, but women still have a long way to go, baby.

Author: Amy Zegart

Amy Zegart is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. She is also a faculty affiliate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and a professor of political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (by courtesy). Her research examines national security agencies, American foreign policy, and anything scary. Academic publications include two award-winning books: Spying Blind, which examines intelligence adaptation failures before 9/11, and Flawed by Design, which chronicles the evolution of America’s national security architecture. She is currently working on a book about intelligence in the post-9/11 world. Zegart writes an intelligence column at foreignpolicy.com, and her pieces have also appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times. Previously, she taught at UCLA and worked at McKinsey & Company. A former Fulbright Scholar, she received an A.B. in East Asian Studies from Harvard and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford. A native Kentuckian, she loves to watch good college football and bad reality TV.