Palin Sparks New 'Mommy Wars'
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few Mocha Moms. We visit with members of this mother's support group each week for their comments and some savvy parenting advice.
Today, Sarah Palin. She's all over the airwaves, on the covers of magazines. She's a wife, mother of five, including a new serviceman on his way to Iraq, a special needs infant, and a pregnant teenage daughter. She's a wife, a governor, and now, vice presidential candidate.
The above ground conversation has centered on her political credentials. But we all know there's another conversation going on, too, which is, can women have it all and should they even try? To talk about this, we're going to check in with our regular Mocha Moms, Jolene Ivey, Asra Nomani and Leslie Morgan Steiner, along with our special guest dad, Bomani Armah. Welcome, everybody.
Ms. LESLIE MORGAN STEINER (Member, Mocha Moms): Hey, Michele.
Ms. JOLENE IVEY (Co-founder, Mocha Moms): Good to be here.
Mr. BOMANI ARMAH (Poet, Emcee): Hello.
MARTIN: Leslie, you wrote a book called "Mommy Wars." Has this Sarah Palin story sort of reignited the Mommy Wars, so that it agrees that there is one?
Ms. STEINER: I think it has tremendously. I think it's been another chapter in the Mommy Wars and also another chapter in completely fascinating political drama. And it's so surprising to me that it's coming from the Republican Party because the party has put forth this icon of motherhood that you're not supposed to work if you want to be a good mom. And they have done almost nothing to support legislation that supports the vast majority of mothers who have to work. You know, I'm talking about subsided daycare, FMLA, that kind of thing.
MARTIN: And how is it reigniting the Mommy Wars? What are you hearing?
Ms. STEINER: The main issues are, how can you do it all at that level with five kids? Is she a responsible mother? There's a lot of chatter focused on putting her 17-year-old pregnant daughter in the spotlight. And is that fair or not fair? And is it something that you or I would do if we were in her shoes?
MARTIN: And what do you make of all that? Now, I'm turn to the other guest. What do you make of all that?
Ms. ASRA NOMANI (Member, Mocha Mom): You know, I have been really surprised because some of the most ambitious, hard working, working moms I know, women who are never home to take care of their children in the evening, who've never picked up their kids from school, are the ones who are most critical of her. And I find this baffling and fascinating. And I think it's because women, you know, hear this a hundred times a day. We over personalize other moms decisions about juggling work and family. And we take it too personally that Sarah Palin is doing this.
MARTIN: Jolene, what's your take on this here? You are also a mom of five and also an elected official.
Ms. IVEY: And also breathtakingly unqualified to be vice president or president of the United States. I mean, I hate to say it.
MARTIN: Just to mention it.
Ms. IVEY: Come on, be real.
MARTIN: Do you think that this has ignited? And the reason we're asking you is - you're the co-founder of the Mocha Moms, which is a support for...
Ms. IVEY: At home mothers.
Ms. STEINER: Of at home mothers.
MARTIN: Of color, even though you all stretched the definition of at home in ways that I think are quite fascinating. But what is your take on this? Do you feel that this stimulated a conversation about what women should be doing? Or is it politics?
Ms. IVEY: You know, it's interesting to me because I do talk to people all the time. And people kind of very quietly have been saying, well, I don't have any problem with anyone doing whatever they want to do with their lives. But what is she doing? I mean, she's got a special needs baby. She's got this job already that should be, at least, very demanding. If she's going to be vice president and potentially president, what does that mean for her family?
And it's more of a question than a judgment. People just so curious, how in the heck she's going to manage it, but, you know, it's not something that I could manage. I'm very aware of that. I didn't run for office until my baby was in school all day. So, you know, we're in a different position in that way. I know I can't do it all.
MARTIN: Jolene, I remember, though, when you first were running for the state house, you were a Democrat. You were state delegate...
Ms. IVEY: Oh, and people gave me a hard time.
MARTIN: And people gave you a hard time.
Ms. IVEY: Absolutely. It really annoyed me because no one said anything to my husband when he was running for office. And yet, when I started running, the first thing they said, what about your kids? Who's going to take your kids?
MARTIN: Does that give you some sympathy for Sarah Palin?
Ms. IVEY: Oh, it does. It does. It annoyed me. And I felt like, you know what? My kids are fine. I'm taking good care of my children. And my children are doing really well, thank you very much.
But, you know, I have to wonder about how responsible she is as a mother. There's a small article that - I believe that was in the Washington Post, but it mentioned that she had been on a prison visit with her baby and didn't put the baby in a car seat. Now to me, that's irresponsible. And she hadn't that...
MARTIN: Just to tootle around the prison grounds?
Ms. IVEY: Whatever, I would do it.
MARTIN: Bomani, what's your take on this? We want to just refresh people's memories about who you are. You've got some notoriety earlier in the year because of, you know, your performance (unintelligible). You also work with kids. You're a teacher.
You've got a lot of notoriety earlier in the year because you wrote the lyrics to a rap video called "Read a Book," which was a rather irreverent take on trying to impart some of the family values that a lot of people agree with, such as read, observe good hygiene, and so forth.
We're not going to read this (unintelligible) here, but the reason we invited you is that you're interested in this whole question of what message Sarah Palin is sending by the fact that she has brought her pregnant 17-year-old daughter to public scrutiny. And a lot of people saying, hands off, not fair to talk about it. You say, we have to talk about it. Why?
Mr. ARMAH: Yeah, we definitely have to talk about it. I definitely agree with the idea that her daughter shouldn't even have to be mentioned by name, but the topic is relevant to policy that she's back. The Republican Party has backed abstinence-only programming as far as sex education in schools, something that I've been a part of myself because I love having that conversation with young people.
One of the biggest pitfalls that young more people have in their lives is understanding their sexuality and how it fits into everything else that they're doing. But abstinence-only programming has been shown statistically in the last two years to be ineffective.
And for me, doing it myself, I can see the biggest reason that it isn't effective is because there's a credibility gap. If you tell a young person that you shouldn't have sex, and that's about it, you don't tell him any information about oral sex or homosexuality or contraceptives or condoms, even if you're not endorsing them, even if you're just bringing up the topic, if they hear about these things from someone else, almost certainly, they're like, OK, this person who's teaching me didn't tell me the whole truth. So what else did they lie to me about? I need to just go out here and figure it out myself, which is the exact opposite of what she spent all that time and money and energy doing.
MARTIN: Let's bring Asra into the conversation. Asra, as a single mom yourself, how does this whole conversation around Sarah Palin and her choices and her daughter's choices and so forth, how is this striking you?
Ms. NOMANI: I feel really conflicted, Michel. It's painful, actually, because, you know, I'm sitting here in England right now, and I'm having to do a lot of explaining about a concept that we know there in America, but folks here are wondering what white trash means. And I hate to say those words, and it's, you know, in its own way racist. But, unfortunately, that's the kind of politically incorrect conversation and internal dialog I'm having.
MARTIN: Why are you having this?
Ms. NOMANI: Well, at the end of the day, you know, I feel like her daughter, even her son, the decision for him to go into the military instead of college, her decision to have her own baby, it's all made for some political mileage, and these are all really tough choices. But I don't know that even I, as a mother, consider these decisions ones that I would wish to see in a political leader.
And that's really, really hard for me as a single mom because there's a lot of people in my Muslim community who have said that I would've done the world better service if I had had an abortion. I mean, I was 30-something when I became pregnant without a wedding ring on because I didn't use protection. And yet, I also know that this issue of responsibility and choice are wrapped up in a lot of political messages, especially in the Palin family and the Palin campaign, and what it speaks to me about is a lot of problems that I have with issues of responsibility.
MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. If you're just joining us, I'm having a regular visit with the Mocha Moms and a special guest dad about Sarah Palin, the vice presidential nominee, and the conversations that she's sparking about the Mommy Wars and what it means to be a working mom, particularly a high-profile working mom with all the complications of her life.
Bomani, are the kids talking about Sarah Palin's daughter? And I mention this because I remember the time that former President Bill Clinton's involvement with Monica Lewinsky became public, there was some very graphic details about the kind of intimacy he was having with her, and a lot of parents were saying, thanks a lot, president. I wasn't planning to have this conversation with my kid, and now, I'm having it before I wanted to. Is this coming up with you?
Mr. ARMAH: Well, personally, I haven't been able to tell because I'm actually literally inbetween summer and fall, as far as working with the young people, but it's also definitely not getting the same amount of attention. Like, you don't hear jokes about her pregnancy in places that young people would be privy to it immediately. I do think a lot of young people have asked the question, you know, what does this mean, but not nearly to the same extent.
MARTIN: Leslie and Jolene, are your kids talking about this?
Ms. STEINER: Yeah, my kids are definitely talking about it. I have a six-year-old, a nine-year-old and an 11-year-old, and I don't know how kids can escape the fact that Sarah Palin has a pregnant 17-year-old daughter. There was a music video awards over the weekend, where one of the comedy skits was about forcing the boyfriend to appear at the Republican National Convention was the best, you know, abstinence-only message you could possibly inflict.
So kids are definitely talking about it, and my kids are - the message is pretty straightforward. What they're reflecting back to me is that you shouldn't be having sex without protection, that having a baby when you're a teenager is a really, really hard thing. Not that it's a shameful thing, I think, I hope we have moved way beyond that. But there's no way around it. It's a huge burden for a teenager to have to get pregnant.
MARTIN: Jolene, what are your kids saying?
Ms. IVEY: Oh, my kids want to know if there's going to be a rose garden shotgun wedding that is nationally, internationally televised that holds them up as some example of what America is. That's what they're concerned...
MARTIN: But from one values perspective, that is the right thing, to hold up in the sense of saying, if you get pregnant, you get married.
Ms. IVEY: Look, according to these values, you weren't supposed to be having sex. I mean, that's really what it comes down to. And I certainly teach my boys, you know, you're not - you shouldn't do this outside of marriage. But I do also recognize that they're human, and, you know, as you get older, and your hormones take over, that certain things might happen. I'll also tell them, wrap it up, baby, so this girl did not do those things, and her boyfriend did not do these things. And therefore, they are not the example that I want my kids to follow.
MARTIN: But is part of the issue here - and forgive me for just being so blunt about it - all of you are Democrats, and as a consequence, I mean, the polls show that the way this is being viewed really varies tremendously based on what your political orientation is, that, if you happen to be a conservative Republican, you're probably not thrilled about the fact that a 17-year-old is going to, as her parents pointed out, grow up a lot faster than she was going to have to otherwise, and that's not great. But from a certain values perspective, you've done the right thing, so you should take some appreciation in that. And that - whereas Democrats who tend to think, you know, she's not qualified. She's doesn't belong there. This is a cynical political gesture on the part of John McCain to win the election. So is part of this political, Bomani?
Mr. ARMAH: It's definitely political. A lot of my issues with Palin are all set up about how the Republican Party and John McCain's campaign have set up this campaign, about what they've said is valuable, about what they've said we should be looking for in a president, and then the selection of her completely counteracts all that stuff, like, you know, listen to the religious right.
If you're going to listen to just mainstream Republicans, what they're going through now as one of the family issues is falling off where they should be. And to put someone like that in the forefront of your party just seems to be conflicting themselves. Not me, I would - on a personal level, I would have no problem. You know, I would - the greatest amount of sympathy for the family. But the high horse that they've set up for themselves, they've fallen off. And us pointing it out is not hypocritical.
MARTIN: I guess the question, Leslie, is, is there really any objective truth here? Is where you stand on this where you said, it's like if you have...
Ms. MORGAN STEINER: You know what? I have to just - to clarify, although I've been very supportive of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, I have not made up my mind about who I'm going to vote for. And I think there's at least the possibility I might vote for McCain-Palin. And I think that her speech was the most brilliant political speech I've seen in my life. It was amazing.
What else? You know, I may disagree with her about - she's a brilliant communicator. And I'm not ready to say I have respect for the Republican Party that they put her forward, but I have respect for John McCain that he's put his full weight behind somebody who clearly represents realistic motherhood, what working motherhood and the state of motherhood are actually like, that it's messy and chaotic, and that you don't control your children, and you don't necessarily control when they're born, and you just very much do the best that you can.
MARTIN: So as a cultural statement, you feel this has a lot of value...
Ms. MORGAN STEINER: I do, actually.
MARTIN: This is real life, folks.
Ms. MORGAN STEINER: And it's also getting people talking about what real motherhood is like.
Ms. IVEY: If we were going to look at Sarah Palin as being something else in the world, I might be able to be with you, Leslie. But come on, president of the United States, considering that John McCain is 72-years-old. I mean, really, I don't think it's a reasonable thing to put someone who, again, breathtakingly unqualified to be in that role. What does she know? She knows about Alaska. And I don't want that person to be the leader of the free world.
MARTIN: Asra, what about you?
Ms. NOMANI: Well, over here, I'm listening to imitations of Julia Roberts when people talk about Sarah Palin. And she's not working for the rest of the world, I don't think. And I think that's a really important element right now about how America's going to recover after these years of basically disintegrating any of the goodwill that came out of 9/11.
And that's, to me, actually one of the deeper issues. There's a lot of criticism on Barack Obama's church. I mean, she's got affiliated with a church that has a very puritanical interpretation of the end of the earth. And there are fundamental problems that I've got with the divide that that kind of theology and philosophy create.
MARTIN: Bomani, final thought from - I want to have a final thought from each of you. And you, first, do you feel that the whole conversation about sort of the - this occasion by President Clinton with the whole situation around Monica Lewinsky, it seemed to have its moment, but it didn't seem they really - I don't know if it had any lasting effect. Do you think this is different, just from where you sit now? Is this something that kind of changes the way we talk about family and policy and stuff?
Mr. ARMAH: It should be. I'm afraid that it's not. This should be discussed more than what happened with Bill Clinton. I'm definitely - I was impressed with Palin's speech, not because I agree with anything she said, but, I mean, I was impressed with her the way I'm impressed with the Bill Maher and Jon Stewart dialog, you know what I'm saying, a monologue. There was a lot of punch lines. I don't even remember any concrete stuff. She said some funny stuff using Barack's words against them. So I think she's impressive for that reason.
Unfortunately, she's going to use her son in the military and her special needs child to further the conversations about both of those. And her daughter is not going to be a part of furthering that conversation. And more than what happened between Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton, this needs to be discussed.
MARTIN: Leslie, do you think this is going to be a lasting dialog?
Ms. MORGAN STEINER: I think that it is. And the thing that I really like about seeing Sarah Palin up there is that she is a politician who clearly integrates her role as a mother and a politician. And I don't know if we've ever had that before. And I just love that she shows that you can't package or stereotype motherhood. And I think that that's good for us culturally as a country.
Ms. IVEY: I'm impressed that there's a woman finally on the ticket, but I'm not too impressed with who they picked.
MARTIN: And, Asra, final thought from you. Do you think that this selection will kind of affect our conversations as a culture?
Ms. NOMANI: I think it absolutely will. You can't put a family with this issue on the cover of People Magazine and not shift popular culture and conversation in the town square. It's inevitable, and since there's political mileage being capitalized from this moment, this family situation is definitely going to be conversation continuing.
MARTIN: The Mocha Moms and special Mocha Dad, Jolene Ivey, Leslie Morgan Steiner, and Bomani Armah joined us from our studios in Washington. Asra Nomani joined us from our bureau in London. Moms and Dad, thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. IVEY: Thanks, Michel.
Mr. ARMAH: Thank you.
Ms. NOMANI: Thank you.
Ms. MORGAN STEINER: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: And we're going to leave you today with a song that the McCain campaign tried to use as a theme song for Sarah Palin, Hearts' 1977 hit, "Barracuda." Barracuda was Palin's nickname on her high school basketball team.
(Soundbite of "Barracuda")
MARTIN: By the way, Hearts members Anne and Nancy Wilson have asked the campaign to stop using the song because they don't agree with Palin's politics. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.