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Politics or family? Women politicians’ dilemma

Maintaining the delicate balance between work and family is a struggle for all working moms, but for women politicians, private decisions about climbing the career ladder end up dissected on the evening news.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, a rising star in the Democratic Party, resisted interest reaching all the way to the White House for her to run for higher office next year. One of the reasons: A campaign for U.S. Senate or governor would have been a burden on her young family.

"We have two wonderful little daughters, and I want to be around to see them," the 42-year-old Madigan said last week during her surprise announcement that she would instead run again for her state job.

Maintaining the delicate balance between work and family is a struggle for all working moms, but for women politicians, private decisions about climbing the career ladder end up dissected on the evening news. Like Madigan, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and former acting Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift all have seen their choices open to public scrutiny.

"I think we pay too much attention to women's decisions because there are so many of us who are still conflicted about our roles as mothers and in the work force," Swift said after Madigan announced her decision.

Swift garnered national attention when she stayed in office in 2001 after giving birth to twins — the nation's first governor to give birth while in office — only to bow out of the governor's race the next year.

While some of the attention was on the role her family played in that decision, Swift said she dropped out because she couldn't win re-election; she'd been lieutenant governor and was promoted after the sitting governor left to take an ambassadorship. The married mother of three girls currently works as an education consultant. Her twins are now 8, and another daughter is almost 11.

"I still work too much, but the entire Commonwealth (of Massachusetts) doesn't know and make me feel guilty," she said.

Different for moms and dads
There's a double standard for moms and dads in politics, said Karen O'Connor, the founder and director of American University's Women & Politics Institute.

"From the minute Sarah Palin was named to be on the McCain ticket, the question was, 'Oh my God, she has five children, how is she going to combine running a campaign and having five kids?'" O'Connor said.

Palin was tapped as the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate just months after giving birth to a son with Down syndrome. She recently announced her resignation as governor, suggesting it was unfair to citizens for her to stick around as a lame duck and noting the cost to taxpayers of ethics investigations against her.

But she said she had other reasons for stepping down, including that she was tired of her family being the butt of jokes. She announced that her unwed teen daughter, Bristol, was pregnant shortly after Sen. John McCain named her as his running mate. The campaign propelled Palin and her family into the limelight and since then they've been tabloid fodder and the butt of jokes for late-night comedians, sparking one high-profile feud with CBS' David Letterman.

‘Is it worth it?’
Given how grueling politics has become — from personal attacks against the candidates themselves to putting even young children under the media microscope — it's not surprising that some mothers may opt out, O'Connor said.

"Many women — and maybe more than men — they sit there and say, 'Is this worth it?'" she said.

Madigan, whose daughters are 4 and 1, would have been a formidable candidate if she had run either for governor or for the Senate seat once held by President Barack Obama. She met with Obama and senior White House officials last month to discuss a possible Senate bid. They did not agree to clear the field for her, but did play up her attributes as a candidate.

Madigan has a solid reputation, loads of campaign cash and name recognition.

Besides family considerations, she said she wants a third term as state attorney general because she's still passionate about her job. Political observers note that her father, powerful Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, would have been an issue for opponents particularly if she ran for governor because of the tight hold he has on what goes on at the Capitol.

Tug of war
Other women politicians have put their careers on hold because of family considerations.

Arkansas' Lincoln did it when she had twins in 1996 and didn't run for re-election to a third term in the U.S. House. She was elected to the Senate two years later.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi waited until the youngest of her five children was in high school to run for Congress in 1987.

Chicagoan Michelle Papa knows the tug of war that politicians like Madigan and the others have gone through. The attorney navigates a full-time job along with being a wife and the mother of an 18-month-old son.

"As a working mom myself, I often struggle between the time commitment that work requires and balancing that with the commitment to be a parent, and a good parent," Papa said.