The XX Factor

Sarah Palin, From the Nursery to the White House

Emily , I think Palin means this as one of her folksy nuggets of wisdom, and you are supposed to chuckle as you imagine her mediating toddler disputes over frozen moose pops. And of course it’s not that. But you have to admit that this is a thoroughly radical and maybe even weirdly feminist notion, particularly coming from a conservative woman.

Palin is part of a movement of Christian-mom types who emerged during the Gingrich years. The Republicans were on a mission to feminize then and recruited women who had been stay-at-home moms or involved in schools. Andrea Seastrand was an elementary-school teacher elected to Congress in California in those years. Linda Smith, of Washington state, kept a blown-up picture of her granddaughters in her congressional office.

They were the party’s much-needed symbols of traditional values. Only no one much thought about what life as a symbol would actually do to their personal lives. I interviewed Smith back then while her husband, Vern, sat in a hard chair in a corner: “One of the reasons we got into politics, we wanted to preserve some of the traditional lifestyle we’d grown up with,” Vern told me. “It’s funny, with Linda away, we end up sacrificing some of that traditional family life to pass some of that heritage to our children.”

Here’s how I explained it in Slate when Palin was chosen:

If a conservative Christian mother chose to pursue a full-time career in, say, landscape gardening or the law, she was abandoning her family. But if she chose public service, she was furthering the godly cause. No one discussed the sticky domestic details: Did she have a (gasp!) nanny? Did her husband really rule the roost anymore? Who said prayers with the kids every night? As long as she was seen now and again with her children, she could get away with any amount of power.

We all remember Palin’s quote about how only a Neanderthal thinks a woman “can’t think and work and carry a baby at the same time.” But in every way she’s behaved as if she is more conflicted. She hid her pregnancy with Trig until the very end, continued a press conference after her water was leaking, and took three days of maternity leave. All that suggests a woman who is defensive about appearing as if motherhood is stealing time from her work. It’s hard to imagine she’s spent her life in evangelical churches without internalizing some guilt about being a working mother.

There’s one other possible interpretation of her quote. Palin could be expressing the feeling that motherhood is difficult, unnatural, and full of unpleasant surprises. One day you’re the vice presidential candidate and the next day you’re at the center of political scandal. One day you’re a proud matriarch and the next day you’re sheltering your pregnant teenage daughter and wondering why her ex-boyfriend is posing for Playgirl .

This notion is a great departure from the usual Christian conservative line that motherhood is a woman’s natural duty and the hallowed opposite of the man’s tainted world of politics. If that’s what she meant, then it’s equally radical. But it is at least approaching honest.