Debbie Wasserman Schultz: To the New York Times, a Mom Before All Else

As the author of Mothers of Intention: How Women and Social Media are Revolutionizing Politics in America, I know there’s a powerful connection between one’s motherhood experiences and political inspiration.  Having said that, there’s a big difference between parenting experiences as a political motivator and being a woman politician who is defined by the media in a traditional mother-as-caretaker role.

I thought with 18 million cracks in the proverbial glass ceiling we were moving away from that tired ‘but who’s taking care of the kids’ meme.  Apparently the New York Times (again) didn’t get that memo.

In writing about Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and her selection to head the Democratic National Committee, the first paragraph of the article entitled,  In a Life Filled with Firsts, One More,” states:

Open lunchboxes are sprawled on the kitchen counter. Four dogs dart in and out. And three children rummage through backpacks. With the predawn bedlam at its height, the harried mother asks: Do you have your baseball glove? What do you want for a snack? How about the form I have to sign?

“Harried mother.” Hardly what I’d guess would be in the first paragraph in an A Section article about the one Democrat who is now responsible for making sure that her party wins and wins big in 2012.

A few paragraphs into that article, Wasserman Schultz is further described in this order — “mother, wife, Girl Scout leader, legislator, fund-raiser and House vote counter” and, then, finally, as the first woman elected to lead the Democratic National Committee  (though she is not the first to hold that post).

If this was a fluffy profile piece for the Style section or one of the traditional women’s magazines, I’d be less annoyed.  There are many women in general, and mothers in particular, for whom Wasserman Shultz’s story will resonate.  But here’s the rub — being the head of the DNC  is one of the most powerful positions any Democrat can hold — the primary duty of the DNC Chair is to support all Democratic candidates and their campaigns around the country.  Heading up the DNC isn’t about signing permission slips or weighing in on whether your tween daughter can wear faux leopard flats to school; it’s about wielding real power with big time donors and supporters, getting the grassroots inspired and staying in close contact with other Democratic leaders.

Publishing an article in ostensibly the biggest newspaper in the country that begins with a description of stereotypical mom duties and that places Wasserman Schultz’s professional responsibilities at the end of a list that starts with typical mommy chores does exactly what you would assume — it insinuates that it’s OK for women to move up the ladder of political power, as long as they packed the lunch boxes and washed the gym uniforms first.

Two years ago, when Tim Kaine was named the head of the DNC, the New York Times made no mention of what his daily duties were when it came to his three children.  It didn’t describe him as a father or a husband.  It didn’t feature a photo of him in the kitchen with his kids while wearing pink sweats– in his picture, he wore the typical Washington, D.C. power suit while sitting at the side of the president.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to read between those work/life balance lines.

I can only conclude that it just doesn’t even occur to those writing or assigning and editing stories about political men to ask about or highlight their care-giving roles.  Yet, when profiling a woman, no matter how powerful or high-profile, those with children get defined by the mommy card.  It happened to Hillary Clinton and to Sarah Palin.  And tt was a topic that almost defined the last Oklahoma governor’s race. Now it’s happening to Debbie.

I get tired thinking about this topic and whether there will ever come a day when the media stop seeing women, no matter how accomplished or educated, primarily in that early morning rush of getting kids out the door with their homework, lunches and backpacks.   Maybe I should just be happy that women like Wasserman Schultz are finally getting the plum political assignments and any attention from  the Gray Lady.  As I was reminded by a friend, maybe should we lighten up and celebrate the fact that a down to earth Jewish mom with fabulous curly hair is going to be in charge of a LOT of those guys.

Image via Debbie Wasserman Schultz for Congress website.

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8 Responses to “Debbie Wasserman Schultz: To the New York Times, a Mom Before All Else”

  1. Shannon Drury Says:

    Another great piece, Joanne! I’m reposting.

  2. Corina Says:

    These things always puzzle me. Truly puzzle me. It is damaging, to be sure. Harried mother? Come on. Why do they have to say that she is harried? It undermines her, makes her seem like she is not able to juggle, to run with the big boys, that this new assignment is above her head if she is just treading water to make the lunches in the morning (which any woman knows is just pure drivel. Never underestimate a woman with a goal.) It is subversive and demeaning. It, as you state, erodes the mountain of achievement that she built for herself.

    On the other hand, I wonder. I wonder how much of this is a poorly executed attempt at playing the “oh look, she is just like us” or the “she gets it card”. It goes on across genders and political parties, the “son of a goat herder, son of a mill worker, drinking buddies with joe the plumber, hunt moose to feed my children” is meant to play to our sense of connectedness. Journalists who haven’t got a clue use the “juggling working mom” card because, hell, so many can relate to that. What they forget is that it doesn’t define the whole of our achievement. What they forget is that women still have to appear stronger, more put together, smarter, fierce to be taken as seriously as a man. The harried mother comment, no matter how many brilliant power broker women (or men, for that matter) have been in that same exact spot, dimminishes her achievements, and, quite frankly, diminishes the view of motherhood.

    It is tiring, subversive, and, to put it gently, a boring view of her life. Tell me something I don’t know about her, something inspiring, something that my daughter can look up to, and then we will talk.

  3. Daisy Says:

    Harried? She sounds like she has her act together. That’s not harried. The NYTimes ought to be embarrassed by the tone of this article.

  4. Christine Says:

    Yep. That really sucks. It would be nice to let powerful women own their power, wouldn’t it?

  5. Heather Says:

    Great points in this post and I agree with Corina. I think this may be an effort at making Congresswoman Schultz more relateable to women and moms who do not follow politics.

    That said, I think that we have to present tasks that women do every day as a major part of the hum of life — and part of our collective power and influence. I think that women do each other a disservice in the political areas to marginalize the day-to-day activities instead of connecting them to greater mechanisms of society. The trick is drawing the parellels and telling society about them over and over again. This would establish an empowered political climate for women with children — to great effect.

    You made a great point about the difference between how they presented Tim Kaine vs. Debbie Schultz. I would just propose that they erred in presenting Tim Kaine as only a political power-broker. They should have presented him more as a father, man, husband.

  6. DemMom Says:

    I agree, with the points that this is unfair and that it means nothing to me. I know what it means to be a parent, I want to know the more interesting stuff about her! Also interesting comparison with Kaine, because he actually does all that household/kid stuff. His kids are teenagers/college students so it might be less labor intensive day to day, but he’s been a public figure since they were in elementary school. And he’s always been there (I worked for him and scheduled fundraisers around kids’ sporting events, vacations, etc.).

  7. Rachael Says:

    You know, I’ve been thinking and thinking and thinking about what you’re saying in this post — that, “when writing about a woman, no matter how powerful or high-profile, those with children get defined by the mommy card” — alongside the ideas in your earlier article about the reaction to Natalie Portman’s statement at the Academy awards, in which you wrote, “The larger issue when it comes to those who want to smack down Portman for her reference to the impending birth of her first child is the serious lack of appreciation in our society for what being a mother means and assuming that once you give birth or adopt a child, you somehow lose the brains and the drive that helped you achieve those earlier accomplishments in the first place.” On the surface, the posts seemed contradictory — thus the thinking thinking thinking. But it now seems to me that it’s exactly what you pointed out in the article about Portman — that society does not truly appreciate what being a mother means — that makes the focus on the motherhood of powerful women such as Wasserman Schultz problematic.

    There’s more to it than that. But I’m still thinking.

  8. PunditMom Says:

    Rachael, I hear where you’re coming from. The thing for me is this — whenever the media talk about roles as parents in high profile people, be they actors or politicians, there’s still a focus on the traditional — they look at it with women, but not men. I think it is OK for women to decide for themselves if “parenting” is their greatest role, but if they say that, there is criticism. And if women take a power, leaderships role, there’s always a question about whether her mothering duties might somehow interfere. Parenting can be our greatest role, but it’s not a necessarily a defining role. Does that make sense? Maybe it would make more sense if men were talked about in their parenting roles in the same way

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