'Mommy Wars' reignited in debate over VP choice

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The "Mommy Wars" -- the seemingly endless debate over whether mothers should work or stay home with their kids -- erupted into a new arena yesterday: the Xcel Center in Minneapolis, where Republicans were preparing to nominate Sen. John McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Suddenly, on political blogs, "mommy" blogs and on cable television, male commentators and mothers alike were asking whether Ms. Palin -- the mother of five, including a pregnant 17-year-old and a 4-month-old child with Down syndrome -- should be even running for vice president at all.

"I would DEFINITELY NOT run for VP of the United States if I had a very young special needs infant and a pregnant minor," was a fairly typical entry from a blogger identifying herself as "Suzeet" on PittsburghMom.com.

"There is a time and place for everything, and now is not the time for Palin to put her career before her family," said "Suzeet," who described herself as "an over-achiever working mom with three kids and three stepkids."

Mr. McCain's campaign denounced as "chauvinists" those who questioned Ms. Palin's ability to be a mother and a candidate at the same time.

Nancy Pfotenhauer, a senior policy adviser with the McCain campaign -- and a mother of five herself -- bemoaned the "double standard" being applied, not just by bloggers, but by "Democratic activists trying to pull down the McCain-Palin ticket."

"Let's not go after someone's family," she said in a phone interview from McCain headquarters.

Ms. Palin's dilemma, in some ways, is one that many women can relate to: According to the most recent government statistics available, nearly two-thirds of American mothers with preschool-age children were in the labor force in 2003.

Ms. Palin also isn't the first female politician to be criticized for seeking electoral office instead of staying at home with her children. When Jane Swift ran, unsuccessfully for governor of Massachusetts and gave birth to twins, she was criticized for conducting state business from the maternity ward.

And for Pennsylvania Superior Court Judge Joan Orie Melvin, hearing CNN commentator John King wonder this weekend whether Ms. Palin could handle five children and the vice presidency was "deja vu all over again."

When she first ran for Superior Court, Judge Melvin -- who, she laughs, has "only six" children -- was asked in an appearance before a Pennsylvania Bar Association panel that would grade her qualifications for the post, " 'Who's going to take care of all your children?' "

"It took my breath away," said Judge Melvin, who won her judicial race with the help of her husband, Greg Melvin, an investment banker who worked from home and handled child care duties while she traveled.

Judge Melvin is a Republican, but even some Obama supporters -- and strong feminists -- were annoyed yesterday by this new line of questioning about Ms. Palin's career-vs.-motherhood choices. Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, called the questions "ludicrous."

"It's absolutely sexist," added Kate Michelman, former president of the National Abortion Rights Action League. "It's these old, deeply held attitudes surfacing again about prescribed roles for women. I have questions about her candidacy for reasons that have nothing to do with her role as a mother. I so deeply respect her strength, though, at knowing what she wants to be doing, what is hard to do, and balancing her professional life with her family life."

Not all feminists agreed, however. At MojoMom --which "explores the intersection between feminism and reality" -- one poster, Karen Maezen Miller, argued that the debate over Ms. Palin's caregiver arrangements "is not really about women, or motherhood or families or choice, or the freedom but the disingenuous way in which her party co-opts and corrupts the truth of the matter for mere political gamesmanship."

Nonetheless, Kim Gandy of NOW wondered, "Would they be asking this question of a similarly situated male candidate?"

"Joe Biden, as I recall, almost didn't serve when he was first elected senator and his wife and daughter were killed, but his Senate colleagues talked him into it. Would they have done that if it had been a woman elected to that seat?" she said.

Men, she added, "always get extra points for being a caregiver."

Indeed, "there is a huge implied insult to Mr. Palin," added Ms. Pfotenhauer, of the McCain campaign. "There seems to be this presumption out there that Mr. Palin can't parent, which is offensive."

Then, too, some mothers of children with special needs also found themselves disturbed by the implication that all parents of special needs must drop everything for their children.

"People are stereotyping both the parents and children themselves, in effect saying that's all you can be, the parent of a child with special needs? You have to stop living and working and chasing dreams and goals like everyone else? Every parent in that situation continues on with their lives," said Dori Ortman, of Hampton, a 40-year old mother of a second-grader, Emily, with Down syndrome.

Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.


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