Excuse me, Mary Fallin, did I just hear you say, “Woman up”?

I believe I did.

The next governor of Oklahoma will, for the first time, be a woman. Fallin, a Republican business executive, former lieutenant governor and currently member of Congress, is one possibility. The other is her Democratic opponent, Jari Askins, corporate lawyer, state agency head, judge, state legislator and now lieutenant governor.

Feminist-wise, that’s the good news. The bad news came during a debate when Fallin was asked what defines her as a candidate and distinguishes her from her opponent.

“I think my experience is one of the things that sets me apart as a candidate for governor,” she answered. Fair enough. Then she added, “First of all, being a mother, having children, raising a family.”

Guess who’s not married and doesn’t have children? You don’t need female intuition to know it’s Fallin’s opponent.

I wouldn’t put it first on the list of qualifications, but I can imagine times when the experience of motherhood, of juggling family and career, of real-life encounters with overcrowded classrooms or the impact of modern technology on children, could come in handy to a politician. Certainly, practice settling disputes among quarreling children could be usefully transplanted to a governor handling an unruly state legislature.

When Washington Sen. Patty Murray first billed herself as a “mom in tennis shoes” — and this was, remember, back in 1992, the post-Anita Hill “Year of the Woman” — the slogan captured her effort to relate to the concerns of everyday voters.

But especially when two women are on the ballot, a few things ought to be off-limits. One is hairstyle — and, yes, I’m talking to you, Carly Fiorina.

Another, and this is more serious, is marital and family status. The unstated premise of Fallin’s comment is: “I’m a mom and she’s not.” And the unstated but barely disguised conclusion is: “And that makes me better and leaves her lacking in a material way.”

This put-down packs a far more powerful punch in a woman-on-woman race. If Fallin were running against an unmarried man, the I’m-a-parent-and-you’re-not card wouldn’t be quite so loaded: A “childless” female candidate tends to be perceived as lacking in an essential way that a man without children is not. And if Askins’ opponent were a married father, he would probably be smarter than to bring up her marital and maternal status for fear of the ensuing backlash.

House Speaker-for-the-time-being Nancy Pelosi likes to talk about quieting a room with her mother-of-five voice. I’m going to use my mother-of-two tone: Mary Fallin, you put down that “mommy card” right now.

Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is marcusr(at symbol)washpost.com.

© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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