Time to Rethink Motherhood Politics?

Motherhood politics has featured prominently at both party conventions. But is it actually doing more harm than good for women, and for feminism?

By Rebecca Heilweil

Tagged Hillary ClintonMichelle ObamaMotherhoodRepublican ConventionRepublicansSarah Palin

Sarah Palin made the hockey mom famous. Eight years later, we must ask again whether motherhood politics is something intrinsically worth celebrating.

Last week, the Republican National Convention featured Pat Smith, whose son Sean was killed in the Benghazi attack, as a prime-time speaker. In her speech, she was eager to blame Hillary Clinton “personally” for the murder her son, question the Libyan consulate’s security, and critique State Department policy.

“For all of this loss, for all of this grief, for all of the cynicism the tragedy in Benghazi has wrought upon America, I blame Hillary Clinton. I blame Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son.” She added, “when I saw Hillary Clinton at Sean’s coffin ceremony, just days later, she looked me squarely in the eye and told me a video was responsible. Since then, I have repeatedly asked Hillary Clinton to explain to me the real reason why my son is dead. I’m still waiting.” (Meanwhile, Ambassador J. Christopher Steven’s mother Mary F. Commanday wrote to The New York Times opinion pages politely asking that Republicans and Donald Trump stop using her son’s memory to advance their political agenda.)

The emphasis placed on Clinton and Smith’s motherhood exemplifies the two-fold challenge of motherhood politics, which, for women, can serve as a vital form of political capital, as well as an unavoidable vulnerability.

Smith highlighted this paradox perfectly when she said, “Hillary Clinton is a woman, a mother, and a grandmother of two. I am a woman, a mother, and a grandmother of two. How could she do this to me? How could she do this to any American family?”

Across the aisle at the Democratic National Convention, Bill Clinton worked hard to emphasize the maternal successes of his wife, defending his “absolute conviction my daughter had the best mother in the whole world,” and claiming that, often, Hillary was “first and foremost a mother.” He also complimented Michelle Obama’s speech, which made strong references to her own experiences as a mother.

An entire day of the DNC was devoted to children and families, and featured representatives from the “Mothers of the Movement”—the parents of the African-American men and women killed by police officers. Contrary to Smith, they lavished praise on the Democratic nominee. Geneva Reed-Veal, in her powerful address, stated: “I am here with Hillary Clinton because she is a leader and a mother who will say our children’s names.” Christine Leinonen, mother of Orlando victim Christopher Leinonen, also spoke about supporting common sense gun policy.

And Ivanka Trump has made similar appeals to motherhood politics, although she drew a more direct link to policy, rather than partisanship. In her RNC speech, she argued that motherhood and financially inaccessible child care constitute the biggest barriers to equal pay for equal work (something clearly missing from the Republican Party platform).

There are important reasons why motherhood constitutes such an effective political tactic. For many women, motherhood politics is simply a product of their actual experience and political inspiration. And once you’ve entered the fray of maternal politicking (usually by having children), you’re in for life. Motherhood is also non-partisan, and less threatening to traditional social norms than is feminism. It’s harder to criticize moms, especially when so much of their rhetoric stems from pure love and care for their children. (For those socially to the right, motherhood provides a way of uniting women as a political force, while skirting the rhetoric of reproductive and abortion rights, or feminism more generally.)

However, in today’s world, we ought to lend a more critical eye to the politics of motherhood as well. For issues that directly affect mothers, such as parental leave policies and child care, maternal perspectives are important and useful. But, at the very least, in a country where we have begun demanding that fathers contribute just as much as their female spouses to child care and household duties, it’s worth asking whether it’s wise to celebrate motherhood politics as political capital. When political officials broadcast being a mother as a form of political identity or political expertise, they send a strong signal about how women ought to enter and engage in politics.

This is not to say we should simply dismiss out of hand the long history, and necessity, of motherhood politics and activism. For women trying to break into politics, motherhood was a key tool for breaking glass ceilings. Motherhood served also as a fundamental means of normalizing women in political environments, and of transforming harmful, domestic stereotypes into useful social policy campaigns and proposals. For women who could not yet reap the benefits of political feminism, maternalism was a compelling mechanism to fight for everything from environmental protection to children’s health care.

And even today, motherhood politics continues to inspire political organizing, social justice campaigns, and political protest—often for noble and necessary causes. But there’s a difference between using motherhood as a way to rally around a campaign and using it as a form of political authority. And while it’s easy to intuit why motherhood politics are “good” or “helpful” for uniting women, it also reinforces norms that exclude, limit and overburden women. (Even among Democrats, Chelsea and Hillary Clinton’s perfectly manicured Twitter profiles emphasize their role as mothers, while neither Bill Clinton’s nor Tim Kaine’s account mentions being a father.) And, though motherhood politics can be used to champion “liberal” and “progressive” causes, they’ve also been used to justify hate, bigotry, and regressive policies in the name of “protecting the children” and mother-knows-best logic.

Kara Jesella summarized this history well in The American Prospect in 2008, explaining, “In the Progressive Era, women actively entered politics as they sought to clean up streets or get health care for children. During World War II and the Vietnam War they organized for peace. During the civil-rights movement, right-wing mothers took part in anti-integration pro-segregation protests, claiming that they had a particular interest in the issue because they wanted their children to be in the best schools.”

Motherhood politics has forced female politicians to address questions their male partners would never be asked. “How do you achieve a work-home balance?” “How do you raise your children?” “Do you stop by their soccer games?” “Who makes dinner?” Women are held to the impossible standard of being “perfect moms,” while men are almost never expected to talk about their families in this way. And when women must do everything they can to emphasize their qualifications in all realms of life, they become vulnerable to more criticism than their male counterparts. Though men usually escape public scrutiny, women’s parenting decisions are constantly called into question. Sarah Palin, for instance, was often chastised during her campaign for continuing to engage in politics after the birth of her son Trig, who was diagnosed with Down syndrome, in addition to caring for her four other children.

It should also be noted that, while perhaps an unpopular opinion to articulate, being a mother does not, in and of itself, qualify you as any sort of political or policy expert. While motherhood can provide women with common experiences and perspectives, in many cases, it’s also irrelevant. Pat Smith was selected by the Republican National Committee because her position as a mother was politically expedient, and not because she was an expert on the Benghazi attacks, the military or American foreign policy. So while “I’m a Mom—I know” retort from politician-mothers can often sound good, especially when championing popular campaigns and political agendas, it also allows politicians to eschew real expertise in favor of cheap emotional appeals.

Motherhood politics also confines women to “social issues,” reinforcing typical stereotypes. While it’s easy to imagine a politician using her role as a mom to campaign for children’s health care, the link has been used less often to discuss national security or economic policy. The political-women-as-mom phenomena risks contributing still further to the stigma facing women who are trying to break into these sectors.

But a more compelling argument, particularly with regard to sensitive questions of social justice, is that the politics of motherhood almost inherently excludes. Most obviously, it excludes fathers, a growing number of whom are becoming stay-at-home dads, as well as gay, transgender or genderqueer parents, who may already be struggling from isolation and discrimination. When the only parental image widely promoted is that of a mother, as the caring, empathetic parent, we risk erasing the growing number of so-called “non-traditional” parents.

Most significant, however, may be the exclusion of single and childless women. After all, women without children are portrayed as antithetical to the American political system (the female leads of TV’s most prominent political dramas, such as Scandal, House of Cards, and The Family, reflect this reality). Women without children are perceived as egotistical, unemotional and cold, too “out-of-touch” to represent real American families.

This is what makes motherhood politics so potentially harmful. In a world where women must couch their political ambitions in the rhetoric of “I’m doing it for my children,” young, talented women are told that an interest in politics and policy, in and of itself, is not a sufficient motivation for entering politics. On the campaign trail, Carly Fiorina frequently discussed the experience of losing her stepdaughter to addiction, which, according to POLITICO, allowed her to “soften” her “ultra-ambitious businesswoman” image.

Ultimately, it is not individual women who should be blamed for using motherhood politics to their advantage. In a political system that has consistently disenfranchised, oppressed, and stigmatized women, they ought to use all tools at their disposal to fight for what they believe in. However, as we continue to struggle for gender equality, we must be hyper-aware of how we use motherhood as a political tool, and ask ourselves whether it is in fact doing a disservice to the long-term goals of feminism and women’s causes.

Read more about Hillary ClintonMichelle ObamaMotherhoodRepublican ConventionRepublicansSarah Palin

Rebecca Heilweil is a student researcher and writer at the University of Pennsylvania, and intern at Democracy Journal.

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