The streets of my Washington, DC neighborhood were eerily silent Thursday night during the countdown to Governor Sarah Palin and Senator Joe Biden’s historic vice presidential debate. Like my neighbors, I was huddled excitedly in front of my television set. But as Palin took the stage in her businesslike black suit, trademark clear-rim glasses and mom-in-a-rush updo, for a minute I wanted to turn the tv off. Suddenly, the last think I could bear was witnessing the second female VP candidate in history humiliate herself, as she did during her fiasco with CBS news anchorwoman Katie Couric.
I disagree with many of Palin’s political positions. I’ve cringed at many of the things she’s done and said. I howled at Tina Fey’s imitations. Palin’s not getting my vote on November 4th. But, as a working mom with three kids, I’m doing a jig on behalf of women in leadership positions everywhere that Palin generally held her own under the spotlight of millions of viewers, against an experienced, intelligent male politician who’s been preparing for this job for 35 years longer than she has. I think women everywhere should feel empowered by the fact that a working mom has gotten hold of a microphone on the international political stage.
Five weeks ago no one had heard of Sarah Palin. On Thursday an estimated 50 million viewers from 240 countries around the world listened to what she had to say. Whether she won or lost the debate is up to you, but my take is that her achievements ain’t bad for a working mom of five who started her career on a small town PTA board, and whose accomplishments include field-dressing a moose and competing in teenage beauty contests. Hey, who needs reality TV?
Of course, the big criticism of Sarah Palin is her lack of experience. Trust me, sticking up for Palin among the Washington insiders has been as enjoyable as telling another mother my daughter has head lice. But I find it impossible to let bystanders – especially my fellow moms -- brazenly criticize Palin’s lack of qualifications.
Palin has no experience? Compared to whom? Like, um, Dan Quayle? Ronald Reagan? George W. Bush? Dick Cheney? Ross Perot? William Jefferson Clinton? All were roundly criticized, and often ridiculed, for their lack of presidential qualifications. On this regard, I’d repeat Jimmy Carter’s proclamation: nothing on earth can prepare someone to be president of the United States.
But here’s what compels me to stick my foot in my mouth again and again when the conversation turns to Palin’s “lack of experience” -- my suspicion that men and women are using “completely unqualified” as politically-correct code for “dumb.” As in dumb blonde, an insult so squarely and exclusively targeted at women that it needs no gender qualification. (Although let’s be clear here that Palin is a brunette sporting only blonde highlights.) I can’t let the unspoken gender insult pass. It is one of our culture’s most deep-seated, pernicious, passionately held unconscious prejudices against women: we aren’t smart enough to lead or govern at the highest executive levels.
Sarah Palin is many things. She’s attractive, feisty, fearless. She can shoot a gun and a basketball. She is an experienced politician and governor from a vanguard state. A former beauty queen. A vice presidential candidate. A working mother and a wife of 20 years. She has given birth five times, most recently a mere six months ago.
Sarah Palin has overcome biological and cultural obstacles that have derailed hundreds of the smartest, most ambitious working mothers I know. With every child she bore, she became more driven and politically ambitious, unlike nearly every woman I’ve come across. Her life experience contains hurdles and triumphs unlike all other vice presidential candidates in history. In fact, much of her experience has been so thoroughly dismissed by generations of men in government that there isn’t even a place for “mother of five” on her c.v. But in my playbook, in terms of experience, Palin’s got plenty. I’m thrilled, for myself, the 80 million other mothers in America, and my daughters’ generation, that Palin is up there, bravely taking everyone’s best shots with a smile on her face.
I’m not voting for her. I find abhorrent her positions on abortion, creationism, the role of government in our society, and America’s approach to foreign diplomacy. I can’t believe how often she overuses the word “maverick.” But I’ll defend Sarah Palin fiercely on this count: she is not unqualified, and she sure is not dumb.