There's been a lot of talk about lipstick and pigs lately, after Senator Obama made what was – at least – a poorly considered remark at a campaign event in Lebanon, Virginia. In the comments about it here, Shaker votermom mentioned a line that struck me, and a few other people, as far more troubling than the "lipstick" remark. Here's what he had to say about Sarah Palin:
Look, she's new, she hasn't been on the scene, she's got five kids. And my hat goes off to anybody who's looking after five. I've got two and they tire Michelle and me out.Really.
If, say, Palin's husband Todd were the GOP's VP nominee, does anyone imagine that the first sentence Obama said about him would be, "Look, he's new, he hasn't been on the scene, he's got five kids?"
The sentence sounds ridiculous with male pronouns, because without the sexism of the last phrase, the dismissiveness of the rest of the line doesn't really make sense. If we substitute Todd Palin for Sarah, it's easy to see that the candidate's children are utterly irrelevant to the questions that matter, like whether the candidate is prepared for the job, whether the candidate has the appropriate qualifications, or whether the candidate's policies would be an utter disaster for the country.
This has been a prominent, and troubling, feature of the discourse ever since McCain announced Palin as his VP pick: When people speak about Palin's political biography, they talk mostly – or at least first – about her kids. Some argue that such is the case because Palin herself has made them an important part of her political biography. That is, I think, only half-correct, because it's ignorant of the bigger picture: Sarah Palin defines herself to the public as a mother because she has to.
It isn't really about ingratiating herself with the right-wing base, though that's part of it; Palin wouldn't be able to escape defining herself in large part as a mother even if she were the most progressive politician in the country.
That's because we still define women by their childbearing status, and we look at children as a reflection on their mothers. It doesn't occur to us to define men by the number of children they have, or how their children behave, or how close the parental relationship is. When we speak of male politicians, we talk primarily about their political careers, not their kids or their relationships with them. (Did we see much talk about Rudy Giuliani's relationship with his kids, or discussion of its reflection on his character?) We still believe, as a society, that raising children is not men's work, that it isn't the father's job to take care of his children the way it's Sarah Palin's job to "look after five."
When my sister and I were growing up, our parents attended everything. One or the other of them drove us to music lessons, dance rehearsals, auditions, exams, classes. They went to recitals and performances and competitions, accompanied my class on field trips, volunteered to run concession stands, and showed up to cheer us on at everything we did. They were and are wonderful, engaged, attentive parents. But no one ever said that I had great parents. They said I had a great dad.
They were right – I do have a great dad – but I also have a great mom, who was utterly ignored. My mother's involvement in my life was taken for granted. My father's was considered special and deserving of applause because he was doing what society believed to be my mom's job.
We expect mothers to be responsible for their kids, to shortchange their careers for them, to struggle over that elusive "work-life balance" and never quite stop feeling guilty about it or satisfied by the effort. We expect women to define themselves as mothers and to bear the brunt of child-raising, to take care of the kids when their fathers are out on the campaign trail, to keep them out of trouble; when children are somehow deemed lacking, we blame their mother, not their father.
After the pregnancy of seventeen-year-old Bristol, the Palin's eldest daughter, was announced, the Internet and the airwaves – and the frustrating arguments I had with liberals in the meat world – were awash in talk that was, among many things, almost obsessed with finding ways to blame Sarah Palin. Bristol's pregnancy was a reflection of her failed policies, or it meant that she wasn't spending enough time with her kids, or it showed that she wasn't a good mother, or it displayed her "hypocrisy" in not controlling her daughter. In the entire sorry mess, I never saw a single word about Todd Palin, and how his daughter's pregnancy must be a testament to his terrible parenting skills, his unseemly career ambitions, or his vile beliefs. Sarah Palin is the mother: She's the one who is responsible. She's the one who is to blame.
Obama's statement simultaneously erased Sarah Palin's political biography and career accomplishments (she may not have been "on the scene," but having held office since 1992, she's certainly not "new"), defined her solely as a mother, and implied that it's her job – and hers alone – to be "looking after five" children, two of whom are, for most intents and purposes, grown up. Furthermore, it suggested that it's not merely her job to be doing so, but her place. That sentiment has been everywhere lately – she should be taking care of those kids, not running for Vice President! – and whether or not Obama meant to tap into our collective lizard brain that thinks women ought to be at home lovingly raising perfect children who will grow up to reflect well on their fathers, instead of pursuing career opportunities that matter to them, that is what he did.
Demeaning women by diminishing their professional accomplishments, defining them by their reproductive lives, and relegating them to their homes is not change we can believe in. It's not any kind of change at all, in fact. Senator Obama ought to know better, but at the very least, he ought to knock it off.