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Palin Resignation: A Family Choice?

5 minute read
Nancy Gibbs

Sarah Palin, the technicolor rorschach test, has a way of talking that leaves people unclear about what she said but certain about what she meant. Her Declaration of Independence included so many clauses–it’s for the good of her family, her state, “it’s about country”–that she invited people to hear what they wanted to hear. But there’s a downside to projecting our instincts onto her actions, especially for women who, regardless of their politics, recognized Palin as a pioneer, leading the way into unfamiliar and potentially hostile terrain.

From the moment Palin appeared onstage last summer, one central narrative was whether she could possibly juggle her complex personal and public lives. By now we’re used to seeing stories about professional women who conclude that “having it all” is a myth and leave the arena in search of their inner Donna Reed. This “trend” is used to explain the paradox that women now make up a majority of college grads and have roughly matched men in law and business and medical schools but are still paid less and remain dramatically underrepresented in executive suites, not to mention statehouses and the White House.

So before Palin becomes the latest convenient case study, we should note that the opting-out revolution is largely a myth. A study in the American Sociological Review in June 2008 found that fewer than 8% of professional women born since 1956 have left the workforce for a year or more during their prime childbearing age. Most working mothers, the Census Bureau reports, are back in the workforce within a year of having a child; better-educated women and those who can afford to drop out are actually less likely to. Rather than the pull of the playground, 86% of women in one survey cited the push of a hostile or inflexible workplace as their reason for leaving their jobs.

But the idea that ambitious women reach a certain point in their professional lives only to be hauled homeward by some innate maternal imperative has a cultural life all its own. The opt-out myth is especially damaging right now, when job competition is fierce. When a very prominent woman takes on a commitment–say, as governor of a state, whose voters are supposed to be the ones who decide if she’s no longer able to be effective–and then walks away, a shudder goes through every venue where women fight to assert their rights and affirm their commitment. How much easier does this make it for prospective employers, even unconsciously, to pause before hiring or promoting a woman with young children?

Thus, it’s important to note that Palin never said she was leaving office to spend more time with her children. You could say she falls more into the “pushed out” category than into the “opt out” one, given the hostility of the legislature, the media and the ethics hounds. But there’s another relevant model as well: lots of women who make a detour aren’t looking to have more time for Gymboree; they’re doing it because they want to start their own business, make their own rules, be their own boss–and this seems more Sarah’s tune. Palin’s brand is maverick, and her mode is moxie. “I’m not a quitter,” she said. “I’m a fighter.”

To her critics, she is also delusional to believe that being governor right now was getting in the way of being President one day in the future. But her champions note that she is now in a position to earn as much money in two weeks of speechmaking as she would have earned in the rest of her term. She has a following as ardent as that of any modern leader–whom she will now be more conveniently positioned to lead. In this view, she didn’t leave the governor’s office because it was too demanding but because it was too small.

This ambiguity, of course, leaves Palin in a paradoxical political position. If she stepped down because of the values she affirmed–because her kids need her, the good of her state must come first–then her fans will love her even more. But if she maintains a schedule that takes her further away from her children, plays the victim of a carnivorous press as part of a strategy to place herself squarely in its spotlight, finds running a cult of personality more congenial than running a state and running for President more appealing still, then those same fans may conclude that she has violated some core values: family values, yes, but also loyalty, perseverance, truth-telling and fortitude under fire. So maybe it’s in all our interests to take her at her word and see whose interests she fights for in the days ahead. “If I have learned one thing,” she said, “life is about choices.” That’s something for which women have been fighting for a very long time.

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