Let's imagine that this year's Democratic nominee for Vice President is not Joe Biden, but a mother of five with a four-month-old baby. Let's say she is the governor of a sparsely populated state, and is virtually unknown on the national stage. She is also a liberal feminist. Now imagine how Republican operatives would frame her so that its conservative base will revile her and the rest of the country won't like her either.
How would they do it?
The answer is simple. They'd portray her as a Bad Mother. You know the type: the ambitious, selfish female who neglects her children to work long hours and travels on behalf of her career. Sometimes she's not home when her kids are sick. Sometimes she misses soccer games and school plays As a result, say conservatives, her children are deprived of the steady attentiveness they need from the most important person in their lives.
In truth, the "power-hungry career woman" has always been more caricature than reality, but that hasn't stopped critics from slapping the label on feminists and then blaming them for destroying family values, wrecking traditional marriage, and lowering moral standards.
And that's not that all feminists have allegedly done. According to some conservative leaders, they have enraged God himself, causing him to send terrorist attacks to the U.S. on 9-11 as punishment for their wicked ways. Who knew female ambition could be so deadly?
Now let's get back to the real world. It's actually the Republicans who have chosen a mother of five as their VP candidate. Sarah Palin--governor of Alaska, who gave birth in April--is embarking on a national nonstop political campaign.
How have conservatives reacted to this? What do folks who revere "family values" have to say about a mom who's plunging into a frenzied travel schedule that will take her away from home for months? It wouldn't be surprising to expect a barrage of criticism, given admonitions from conservatives like Danielle Crittenden, who warns that women should marry before 30, stay home with the kids, and "take full charge of traditional chores like cooking or the laundry." You'd definitely expect criticism from conservative Phyllis Schlafly--a longtime anti-feminist who approves of mothers dropping out of the workforce to stay home with their kids and claims that housework reduces the risk of ovarian cancer.
And listen to what James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, has to say about women. "Because it is a privilege and blessing of women to bear children, they are inclined toward predictability, stability, caution and steadiness. Most of them value friendships and family above accomplishments or opportunities. That is why they often dislike change and resist moving from one city to another. The female temperament lends itself to nurturance, caring, sensitivity, tenderness and compassion. Those are the precise characteristics needed by their children during their developmental years."
But that was before Friday. It turns out that Dobson and his fellow conservatives have had an instant, mass conversion. Forget the rewards of fulltime motherhood. Never mind the benefits of housework or the needs of young children. Conservatives are thrilled with Palin's nomination. They don't seem at all worried that her hard-driving, high-pressure lifestyle will set a bad example and threaten traditional marriage or ruin her own children. In fact, I haven't heard a peep of concern that she'll be whizzing around the country 24-7 while her children are......actually, where will the children be? Going to school in Alaska? Traveling with mom and a tutor? Has someone been hired to feed the baby?
Details, details. The conservative base is delirious with delight. I have to say, their effusive praise for Palin is a little hard to take, given past criticisms of mothers with demanding careers. But it doesn't make sense to get bogged down in a liberal-conservative mommy war. Far better to examine Palin's views on health care reform, family medical leave, equal pay, child care, retirement security, and other policy issues crucial to the health and well-being of American women and their families.
After all, millions of women in this country struggle every day to be good mothers and workers, stretching their paychecks and the hours in their day to care for kids and aging parents, working hard at their jobs and contributing to their communities.
It isn't easy. And given the Bush administration's opposition to policies such as SCHIP expansion, paid maternity leave, equal pay, an increase in the minimum wage, and more, it's no wonder that millions of women and their families are less secure than they were eight years ago.
I, for one, will be listening carefully in the coming weeks to Sarah Palin and her running mate, John McCain. Like many others, I'm curious to know how she'll juggle work and family--but more than that, I want to know what she and McCain will do to improve the lives of women and the security of their families. Here's what I know: The McCain-Palin agenda wants to privatize Social Security, end the tax break for health benefits that workers get, teach abstinence-only in schools, and criminalize abortion--none of which sounds female-friendly to me.
No matter how Republican operatives frame Palin, certain things are true and others are spin. That's why it will be very hard for her to argue convincingly that she's fighting on behalf of women, if the policies she's promoting are a rehashed version of the flawed, failed policies of the Republican Party and its leader, George W. Bush.
Sally Steenland is Senior Policy Advisor for Faith and Progressive Policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. The views expressed here are her own.