The Palin conundrum

As an Orthodox Jewish woman - married with children and also the family's breadwinner - it suddenly feels less lonely when another breadwinning mother is visible at the top.

January 17, 2010 19:34
3 minute read.
The Palin conundrum

Sarah Palin 224.88. (photo credit: AP)


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Sarah Palin, former US vice presidential candidate, has just completed a whirlwind book tour and unburdened herself of 1 million of her books. The talk of the town once again, she outrages serious politicos, who wonder whether America would ever elect someone so incompetent into power. As she raises everyone's ire, I am reminded of when Sen. John McCain, then Republican presidential candidate, announced Palin as his running mate.

The weekend before the announcement, some haredi friends came to visit. Discussion turned to the election, and after we lambasted each of the candidates with gusto, my husband turned to the youngest visitor, a 10-year-old girl, and said, "Maybe one day you can be president. I think you'd be much better than these choices!"

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"Oh no," she answered back, not hesitating for a second, "I couldn't be president - I'm a girl."

Our jaws dropped. She did not mean that a child couldn't be president; she meant that a female couldn't do the job. It was a shocking response, because both in her home and in ours, the mother is the powerhouse. Breadwinners, decision-makers, unrelenting child-bearers, women are the presidents in both our families. Despite all this, the little girl had ingested   well the view that a woman cannot lead a nation.

I HAD heard that same message growing up. As a teenager in Australia, my mother took me on walks around Sydney Harbor and gave me advice on life: "Sweetheart, you should be a secretary. If you are good, you will be a secretary to someone important. You will be secure and can become powerful."

Even at the time, the advice seemed anachronistic. Why were my parents pushing me so hard academically if they thought I should be a secretary? Why shouldn't I be that "someone important"?

Around the time we were taking those walks, president Ronald Reagan appointed Sandra Day O'Connor a justice of the US Supreme Court. Even 10,000 miles away, that move sent shock waves through the legal profession, through the social system and through the minds of young girls like me. If I aspired to power (and security), not only did I not have to become a secretary, I could in fact become a justice of the Supreme Court in the US    or the High Court of Australia.


As it happened, I both followed my mother's advice and deviated from it. Seeking security, I studied law and have risen in my profession, knowing there is no corner of it from which I am barred.

When Sen. McCain announced that governor Sarah Palin would be his running mate, I gasped the same way I had almost 30 years earlier when I heard about Reagan's appointment of O'Connor to the Supreme Court. Palin's appointment was more monumental - and radical - than the appointment of, say, Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett Packard, would have been. Unlike Fiorina, Palin did not choose career over family, and because she arose out of a traditional society where women are not expected to take public roles, her sudden potential advancement to a position of great power was far more symbolic.

MY OVERWHELMINGLY liberal social set is outraged by my infatuation with the idea of Palin. But as an Orthodox Jewish woman - married with children and also the family's breadwinner - it suddenly feels less lonely when another breadwinning mother is visible at the top. Her appointment means that no little girl can say to herself that a female cannot be president.

O'Connor was no blazing feminist, but she changed our world. And even if she's a Jezebel, Sarah Palin as candidate for vice president expanded the range of possible dreams in the lives of all types of little girls - and a few big ones, too. I am pleased she has stayed in the public eye despite the Republican loss in the presidential elections. She should be for a reminder between your eyes.

The writer is a tax partner in the Washington and New York offices of the law firm Crowell & Moring. Prior to her current position, she was associate tax legislative council in the Office of Tax Policy at the US Department of Treasury.

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