The Mommy Path to Power: PTA

By Lenore Skenazy

September 3, 2008 5 min read

Men prepare for the world of politics on the ball field, in the boardroom or on a bloodstained battleground far from home, horrors seared on their hearts, souls and sometimes their skin. Women prepare someplace far tougher.

The PTA.

Sarah Palin, the GOP's pick for vice president, is hardly the first mother to join the PTA and suddenly discover the politics in her blood. And sometimes the blood in her politics.

"I was just your average hockey mom and signed up for the PTA because I wanted to make my kids' public education better," Palin told the Republican National Convention to wild cheers. They heard what she really was saying: I shut up that mom who wanted to spend the whole meeting talking about her son's test phobia! I got the pizza guy to give us those pies for free! I chose "School of Rock" for movie night and crushed those Commies who wanted the modern dance documentary!

Think that's easy? You haven't been to a PTA meeting.

"Even after years of surviving boys' club-type newsrooms, cut-throat business school classmates and starting my own business," my friend Wendi e-mailed when I asked, "I still was not in any way, prepared for my stint as vice president of the Parents Association at my daughter's pre-school. You know — the place your kid is only going to be for two years?"

I called for the juicy details.

In addition to tooth-and- (manicured) nail fights about the auction invitation, Wendi said: "I was supposed to oversee the invitation committee, and the next thing I know, it was, 'Wait. We didn't approve this design.' I'm like, 'Who's we ? I thought I was the vice president of this committee.'" Yes, in addition to those invite fights, "You would not believe the fighting we had over what kind of vodka to serve at the school auction. One of my friends wanted to donate the vodka, and they said, 'No, because then she'll be in control of what kind we serve.' I'm like, 'What is wrong with you people? It's a fundraiser!' What was really going on is these women sat there at school all day planning the overthrow of the world."

See? Perfect place to start in politics. "After my stint on the parents association," said Wendi, "I could eat Joe Biden alive."

"You learn all these organizational skills," the author of "The ParentPreneur Edge: What Parenting Teaches About Building a Successful Business," Julie Lenzer Kirk, said. "You've got to do planning and budgeting and present your budget and defend it against the special interests."

Special interests?

"The people who want to get rid of the wrapping paper fundraiser," Kirk said, by way of example. "And they're so emotional because you're dealing with their kids." Defuse a mom who thinks candy sale quotas are crippling her cutie, and Putin is a cakewalk.

"It is not unusual to find on a powerful woman's résumé that she started on a PTA," Democratic political consultant Cathy Allen said. These women join to fight for more classrooms or a safer playground. "Then they see what a little bit of strength can do, particularly when it comes to choosing principals," Allen said. That's how they learn the first perk of politics: patronage.

Pretty soon, they learn about political perk No. 2: pork.

"Teachers will help you out if you try to get them supplies," Kirk said sagely. "Like, 'I can get a couple of new mats for your classroom. Can you support this after-school activity?'"

And that's all on top of the most basic political skill: schmoozing. When my friend Eileen became head of her sons' PTA, she was invited to a confab of private-school PTA presidents.

"Oh, my God," she said. "The energy in that room! These are, like, the ultimate volunteer women. They're all really smart and so committed and so friendly — they'll walk into a room and say, 'Hi! My name's so and so. Who are you?' And everybody's complimentary and great on e-mail."

Ultimately, this does not really mean that the president of the PTA is ready to be president (or vice) of the United States.

Only that it's not surprising she'd want to be.

Lenore Skenazy is a columnist at The New York Sun and Advertising Age. To find out more about Lenore Skenazy ([email protected]) and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at

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