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Politics' double standard still firmly in place

Karen Heller
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Let us take a moment to appreciate that, finally, we live in a country where a female senator has a serious chance at becoming a major-party candidate for president, as does a senator whose late father was Kenyan, and a governor whose mother is Mexican.

So there's progress, true progress.

And then again, not.

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's senatorial and presidential exploratory Web sites abound with images of her with children, a section on the latter devoted to her roles as "mother and advocate." Nowhere, blessedly, does it mention - yet - her roles as "laundress, party planner and cookie baker."

Clinton has spent years under ferocious scrutiny. Her commitment to children's issues and bond with her daughter are obvious, yet the senator still needs to showcase her womanly side to the general populace.

This stands in marked contrast to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's site, which contains no images or text highlighting his efforts for young Americans. There's been no suggestion that his not having children is a political liability.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's Web site features a photograph of him playing with his young daughters, as much an effort to showcase his youth - at 45, he's 14 years junior to Clinton and Richardson - as his paternal proclivities. There's no need for a section celebrating his daddyness and love of children.

Don't we all love children? Honestly, in 2007, does a politician, one who long worked for the Children's Defense Fund and is an expert in health care, have to prove her love of children?

Apparently, yes.

Since her historic ascendance as House speaker, Nancy Pelosi's mantra has become "as the mother of five, and the grandmother of six." Certainly raising five children is an achievement, worthy of a prize or something. As the mother of two, I think it's a miracle I get dressed every morning. But aren't Pelosi's more important professional accomplishments her 20 years in Congress, her political savvy, her work on health care and AIDs and foreign aid, and her long service on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence?

Apparently, no.

In the few weeks since Pelosi became speaker, libraries have been published about her fashion sense (yes, excellent), a volume alone devoted to the State of the Union sea-foam boucle jacket. At last check, there were 40,000 Google results about her possible use of Botox.

When female politicians aspire to higher office, it is like laundry. It's all about a soft, clean, smooth, spring-fresh, uplifting experience.

Dick and Lynne Cheney were incensed when John Kerry brought up their lesbian daughter during the 2004 election, though their party has no problem making gay marriage a wedge issue in November. Mary Cheney is now pregnant. She and her partner of 15 years expect a baby in the spring. The vice president's official spokesman, rather than the proud grandfather-to-be himself, announced Cheney's "eager anticipation."

Cheney, proving his abundant maleness, is more likely to be photographed hunting quail. The same goes for his boss, though the president's preferred butch activities are off-trail bike riding and brush-clearing.

Indeed, the number of images of George and Laura Bush with their adult twin daughters is minimal, generally restricted to Republican conventions. The Bush twins are like baby Suri before the Vanity Fair cover, the Garbos of political children. Indeed, the entire W family dynamic remains a mystery, seven years into his presidency. The truth is, it doesn't matter if the Decider is a good parent.

For female politicians, though, it still matters tremendously. They're oxymorons - traditional trailblazers, Mommy pols with good hair and pastel suits, the softeners in the fabric of our great nation.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Karen Heller is a columnist for Philadelphia Inquirer.

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