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Women, Work, and Family in Politics

In Democrats, Election 2008, Family, Oregon, Oregon Politics, Politics, Sarah Palin, Women in Politics on September 8, 2008 at 2:36 pm

Think that Sarah Palin’s story of family and politics is a rare one? Meet Rep. Sara Gelser of Oregon. She has her own story which should be heard. And just because she is a woman with young children (including one with a disability) doesn’t mean that she will be supporting Palin in the voting booth this November:

“I won’t vote for Sarah Palin because I disagree with her on the issues, but I do not question her competence because she is a mother,” says Gelser.

Julie Sullivan of The Oregonian examines Gelser’s story and how voters still tend to view political mothers and fathers differently. From “For Women, work and family create a political minefield“:

In the topsy-turvy nature of this presidential campaign, liberals have been scandalized by Palin’s return to work three days after giving birth, and conservatives have been inspired by her typical family. Families of children with Down syndrome have been thrilled at the prospect of a larger, bipartisan conversation about their children’s potential.

But Sara Gelser could have told the other Sarah long ago that voters judge a mother with young children differently from the way they do a father.

One voter once told Gelser he couldn’t support a candidate “who couldn’t keep a commitment. You’ve got four children. Certainly when you had them, you intended to mother them.”

“I was like, ‘Wow,'” Gelser said. “I didn’t understand why it was anyone’s business but mine and my husband’s.”

Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster and national strategist said that voters worry about who will raise the children if a mother is elected. For men it’s like, “‘Great! He will care about the future.’

“It’s one of the clearest double standards still left in politics,” Lake said.

Much of the emotion around Palin arises from women’s own recent parenting experiences.

“I do think her family needs her more right now than the Republicans do,” said Judy Turner, a Northwest Portland mother of three small children who left a high-powered job for a more flexible arrangement as a consultant. “A special-needs child and a pregnant teen daughter need extensive support, love and attention from both parents. I believe she is making the wrong choice and setting a poor example for the country.”

But Rep. Linda Flores, a Republican mother of five grown children from Clackamas, cheers the complex Palin family portrait.

“This is a real person who has real life experiences,” Flores said. “And she is the best person to gauge whether her family can handle this.”

“Besides,” Flores said, “if she were a man, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.”

Political scientists say Flores is right. Motherhood is so complicating that most women wait until their children are older to pursue higher office — like Flores and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. — or they downplay the presence of youngsters altogether. U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., for instance, didn’t disclose her 2006 pregnancy — the first in Congress in a decade — until after she was re-elected.

“The picture of the candidate with the spouse, the kids and the golden retriever is priceless for a male, but sometimes the female candidate won’t even put the picture in the brochure,” said Debbie Walsh, director of Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Walsh said that as a result, fewer women than men in Congress and in state legislatures have children younger than 18. Women enter office later in life, have shorter political trajectories, and thus, are less likely to become leaders.

“It’s a double bind,” said Melody Rose, an associate professor and chairwoman of the political science division at Portland State University. “If a woman waits, she may postpone her chances to rise to leadership, and if she has young children, she comes under intense scrutiny for her mothering. It’s like the woman who wants to have children and a political career simply cannot win.”

…Women make up about 16 percent of both houses of Congress, 24 percent of state legislators and 16 percent of mayors of cities with populations over 30,000. Palin is one of just eight women governors.

Gelser said she and her husband, Peter, have balanced her legislative career by relying on his caregiving, extended family and constantly talking to their children about what is important to them. She’s sought advice from the grown children of other Oregon legislators and staged memorable family moments, such as a mock family debate on the deserted House floor or a night singalong in the Rotunda.

Sam Gelser, who has a rare developmental disability called FG syndrome, told his mother during opening day of the 2007 session how proud he was of her.

Still, when people contacted Gelser about running for retiring Rep. Darlene Hooley’s seat, Gelser declined, in part because she saw only about 10 women in Congress with children younger than 18.

“I do think if I had seen 20 or 30 women you could see how it would work and how you can still have kids who are happy and healthy,” she said.