11/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Having it All

Bella Abzug - the shrewd, hard-hitting, passionate and idealistic legislative genius who led the women's movement and represented New York in Congress - once remarked that we would only have true gender equality when an incompetent woman could go as far as an incompetent man. That milestone appears to have been achieved with the nomination of Sarah Palin for Vice President. Which is not to say that Palin couldn't become competent, but Bella, who understood and believed in government so profoundly, would be horrified at how little expertise Palin brings to the table right now. Even behind the reportedly clear glasses she wears to play down her beauty-queen credential and enhance her gravitas and even if she has been able to cram enough facts into her head to not embarrass herself during the debate, she can't disguise her inexperience. This is not an anti-woman statement; it is a pro-national leadership statement. Running the country is not a learn-as-you-go job.

It has been argued by her defenders that Palin - the Hockey Mom - can do it all and that any suggestions that she can't are sexist. Parenting is very demanding - just ask Joe Biden, who was mightily torn by the needs of his newly motherless children and his career. (In fact, Gwen Ifill might get some revealing responses to a version of that question.) We, who know what sexism is because we helped define it before we began working to defeat it, can tell you that Having It All has been one of the crucibles of the struggle for equality. When the term began to circulate in the 1970s many women felt oppressed by the supposed message that in order to be "new women" they had to have high power careers, raise multiple children - and, as Jane O'Reilly once wrote, be "multi-orgasmic til dawn." As the conversation went on, women modified that message and began to reassure each other that "you can have it all - just not all at once." Until we have reliable and universal child care and special needs options and until we offer all teenagers advice besides the "abstinence only" approach Palin subscribes to, a mother in her circumstances would have a hard enough time getting to work every day, let alone being a heartbeat away from leading a family of nations she has never even traveled through.

Speaking of the free world - and that red phone that can ring at three in the morning: If the argument is that should she have to answer, she will have serious advisers to turn to, that seems to me a highly sexist assumption: she won't bother her pretty little head about world crises and will do as she is told. It might be worse, though, if she didn't defer to cooler heads. "The difference between a pit bull and a mom," she has said, "is lipstick." Does being pugnacious and defensive - and an enthusiastic hunter by helicopter - prepare one for the judgment calls and diplomatic subtleties required of the defender of the free world?

McCain knows enough about government to know that it takes more than adrenaline - or testosterone for that matter - to respond to threats of war. He obviously chose Palin primarily because she is a woman. Again, this is not an anti-Palin observation; it is an anti-sexist point. It is cynical to nominate someone just because she is a woman on the assumption that because she is a woman other women will vote for her. Even women who do not share any of her beliefs. That is just an updated version of the argument against women's suffrage that there was no point in granting women the vote because they would just cast their ballot the way their husbands told them to.

How, I wonder, can women executives like Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman, who put in the time, who worked through countless professional and personal challenges, who learned how the world works and succeeded because they were considered really good at what they did - how can women who know what building a career in a still-sexist world is like - say she is ready? Only if they have so internalized the sexism they claim has been defeated that they think little of their own accomplishments and even less of the kind of leadership women have to offer.