Last night during the GOP convention, Rudy Giuliani suggested that the media interest in Sarah Palin’s family soap opera was the product of blatant sexism. It’s a compelling argument because women in politics are indeed subject to the old double-standards. But in this case, I think Palin’s family dynamics are a legitimate issue. Her parenthood reflects on what Republicans kept harping on last night: character. How Palin has conducted herself as a parent speaks volumes about what kind of a human being she is. It’s also a fair line of inquiry for someone thin on experience who wants to be a heartbeat away from the presidency–and one not reserved for women.
Earlier in the campaign, pundits questioned John Edwards’ decision to run for president when his wife was suffering from cancer. Lots of voters found it disturbing, and the issue only died after Elizabeth Edwards herself insisted forcefully that it had been her choice to continue the campaign. Likewise, it’s not sexist to wonder why Palin couldn’t be bothered to take even a few days off work to get to know the new, premature special needs baby that she didn’t abort. Even most men these days take a little time off to meet their newborns. It’s not like she was going to get fired.
More telling about Palin, though, is how she has handled her 17-year-old daughter’s pregnancy. Palin has said that her family is simply dealing with the types of challenges faced by millions of other families. But in times of crisis, most families tend to close ranks, to create a protective bubble around their vulnerable children. What to make the “hockey mom” who instead turned her daughter’s troubles into tabloid fare? Unlike Elizabeth Edwards, Bristol Palin is not old enough for informed consent; her mother hasn’t said whether she had a say in all this. But I suspect that if a man had chosen to jump into the national spotlight at the expense of his child like this, the family-values crowd might have eaten him alive. Instead, conservatives are swooning, and those of us who aren’t are just sexist.