The Mommy Mantra

In preparation for her all-but-announced 2008 White House run, Hillary Clinton has re-released It Takes a Village, her 1996 tome on child-friendly public policies. The new cover depicts the senator from New York dressed in hot pink, bathed in sunlight, and surrounded by six smiling, multiracial children. Talking about the book last month on the gabfest "The View," Clinton responded to a question on whether a woman would be better suited to the presidency than a man with the affirmative, "Well, we've never had a mother who ever ran for or held that position."

It was a new articulation of the mommy mantra -- the idea that what qualifies women for politics isn't their intelligence, their experience, their policy proposals, or even their character, but rather their inherent identities as feminine caretakers.

"The View's" mid-morning studio audience and female hosts lapped up Hillary's mommy shtick, including her memories of Christmas crafting sessions and Chelsea's childhood handprint. Sure, Clinton was playing to a specific demographic. But when Nancy Pelosi took her oath as Speaker of the House just a few weeks later and chose to imbue the event with maternal symbolism, audiences were more divided. Here was the highest-ranked woman ever to achieve elected office in the United States, proudly speaking about breaking the "marble ceiling" of the U.S. Capitol, but flooding the dais with children and bragging about her journey from "kitchen to Congress," smiling beatifically as she cradled her newborn grandson.

Watching the historic ceremony unfold, many veteran feminists were uncomfortable with Pelosi's messaging. "I wonder why Pelosi, a woman I admire, seemed so keen to use her first day as Speaker to portray herself as a traditional, family-first kind of woman?" Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote. My own mom, a dedicated second-waver, shot off a concerned email: "I still feel that the men in this world -- who are about 50 percent of voters and humans in general -- do NOT respond to the mommy image. In fact, they reject it, because it reminds them of their own smothering mothers. Just ask Daddy about this."

As many commentators have noted, Pelosi's messaging seemed to reinforce negative stereotypes of Democrats as the "mommy party," even as voters sent Democratic "alpha males" like Heath Shuler, Jim Webb, and Jon Tester to Congress. Never mind that politicians like Pelosi, Webb, Shuler, and Tester -- as well as more traditional big-city Democrats like Charlie Rangel and Chuck Schumer -- agree on so many of the fundamentals: ending the Iraq debacle, fixing a broken health care system that leaves 50 million Americans uninsured, and increasing access to quality education. Pundits are fixated on the party's gender trouble as a question of style, not substance, and the politicians are giving them plenty to work with.

Pelosi and Clinton's pandering to outmoded gender stereotypes doesn't assuage doubts about women ascending to the highest reaches of power. It reinforces them. When Clinton and Pelosi claim political capital due to their experience as mothers and homemakers, they are selling their ambitious selves -- and, indeed, all women -- far short. Women don't deserve to be in politics because we're more compassionate or nurturing than men. We deserve to be there because we are human beings, and especially because we are human beings who, regardless of our choices about if and how to become mothers, continue to live under a social and political system that denies us many of the same options men have enjoyed for generations.

If women want to get out of the nursery and into public office, we ought not to have our leading female politicians sending the message that scrubbing dishes and changing diapers are prerequisites for politicking. This applies doubly when those women are Nancy Pelosi, a millionaire fundraiser and daughter of a big city mayor, and Hillary Clinton, a former high-paid attorney who raised her daughter with ample help from the doting staff in the Arkansas governor's mansion and later the White House. Today, 87 years after women won the right to vote, women account for just 16.3 percent of Congress, 24.1 percent of governors, and 23.5 percent of state legislators. Obviously, traditional gender roles need to be further upended if we hope to move toward parity in politics and every other profession. And nobody knows that better than Clinton and Pelosi, who have spent lifetimes playing hardball with the boys on an uneven field.

That's why the "I am mother, hear me roar" strategy seems not just inauthentic, but also uninspired. History shows that women gain influence when they separate themselves from constricting domestic ideology -- not when they internalize it. The suffragist movement was born from Northern women's grassroots leadership in opposing slavery, but didn't come to fruition until after World War I. Activists like Alice Paul, who led daily protests in front of the White House, were able to point to President Wilson's priority of supporting self-governance abroad and ask why American women were excluded from such privileges at home. Such appeals to human rights -- as opposed to a reliance on feminine mystique -- are at the core of the American feminist movement.

Conventional wisdom in the Clinton and Pelosi camps seems to be that these two ladies, who have been smeared by the right for their supposedly radical positions on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, should adopt softer, more approachable personas. Many women told pollsters they voted for George W. Bush in 2004 because of an intangible connection they felt to the candidate; a feeling that he "cared about people like them," or was "moral," or a "strong leader." It's clear that Clinton believes that, at least for some voters, the mommy mantra could be a key element to upping her likeability. That might be true. But will the mythology be enough to inspire confidence across the electorate?

At this juncture, we can only guess at exactly how gender will play into voters' assessments of presidential candidates in 2008. According to a December Newsweek poll, 86 percent of Americans say they would vote for a female presidential candidate, but only 55 percent believe the nation as a whole is "ready" for a woman president, suggesting some ambivalence. But with the 65 percent of the electorate united in opposition to the war, grassroots Democrats firmly against the President's troop escalation, and voters in the 2006 Congressional elections naming terrorism, the economy, and Iraq as their primary concerns, any national politician who wants her leadership to be taken seriously must show some spine on these issues and set character concerns aside.

Strong, articulate leadership from Pelosi on this front could serve as a model for Clinton as she prepares her presidential bid, hopefully proving that it's possible to simultaneously be female, a politician, opposed to this war, and taken seriously. Sadly, Clinton has always been a follower, not a leader, on Iraq. While John Edwards embraces labor and Barack Obama floats on the almost ridiculous ecstasy surrounding his "unifying" persona, Clinton seems to still be searching for an overriding message to lift her beyond platitudes and stereotypes.

Perhaps it's unfair to ask our female politicians to transcend gender when we still live in a world so unfairly structured by it. But the fact is, Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi will be the victims of misogynistic attacks questioning their seriousness, qualifications, fashion choices, and family lives -- not to mention their politics -- no matter what they do. The question is, will they rise above the fray, or let it limit them?

Dana Goldstein is associate editor of Campus Progress at the Center for American Progress.

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