“Cult of Mom” Politics


Michelle Obama, Elizabeth Warren, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz each have two things in common. They were featured speakers at the Democratic National Convention and they’re moms. I’m not bringing up their motherhood status because I think it’s important.

They did.

I’m the first person to applaud women who are mothers who openly embrace their political mojo. But when you’re a mother who already has a high political profile, does there come a point when your own personal parenting experience isn’t relevant to the jobs we’ve elected you (or your spouse) to do? And does proclaiming the hierarchy of a motherhood experience in that way set all women back in the political arena?

I wasn’t surprised by the non-stop mom-fest at the Republican Convention. The GOP has worked tirelessly to make hay out of the whole “Ann Romney never worked a day in her life” brouhaha that got so much traction, and unnecessary sympathy, for Mitt’s wife earlier this year. For a short period of time, Republicans were successful in shaping that episode into a political base-inspiring theme of “Democrats disrespect mothers.” Strategists on the right were successful back in April with that talking point, so it was no surprise that the mom meme was headed straight for the convention stage in Tampa.

I didn’t expect to see that mom theme so much on display in Charlotte. Of course we knew that Michelle Obama would mention her daughters as she spoke to convince voters they should re-elect her husband. But when Michelle, in her pink dress and heels, referred to herself, yet again, as just the mom-in-chief, I heard a resounding groan – not just in the room where I was watching her speech with a handful of other women; I heard it across America, as well. I cringed because it was somehow out of context with the rest of her remarks, dropped in by some speechwriter who decided there was a political necessity in not being out-mommed by Ann Romney.

But it wasn’t just the First Lady. I found it even more disturbing that some of the elected women, and those running for office, who spoke at the Democratic Convention who were moms did the same thing as the GOP. The first words from Debbie Wasserman Schultz – a Florida Congresswoman, the chair of the convention and the head of the Democratic National Committee, the powerful fundraising arm of her party, were, “I’m so proud to represent the people of South Florida. I was so honored when President Obama asked me to serve as chair of the Democratic Party. But there’s one job I’m even more proud of, and that’s being a mom to my three kids, Rebecca, Jake and Shelby.”

That’s when it occurred to me – as we ramp up our celebration of all things mom on the political stage, are women inadvertently ceding the political status, power and gravitas they’ve worked so hard for? If so, does that set us back even further on the road to eventually seeing a woman president? I’m afraid the answer to that question is “yes” in light of the questioning another elected woman got at the Democratic Convention.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who is expected to run for governor sooner rather than later, is the most recent woman to come under attack for having the audacity to have two young children and dare to dream of moving from the AG’s office to the governor’s mansion. Just a few days ago, reporters asked her how she, as a mom of a four-year-old and a seven-year-old, could be governor and raise her children at the same time, just as Sarah Palin was asked when she ran for vice president in 2008. But if you’re a father of small children, you get a pass. GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan is the father of three children under the age of 10. No one has even thought to raise the issue of whether he can meet the demands of being a dad, represent his congressional district and be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office.

Paul Ryan didn’t start his speech proclaiming that his children were the most important job to him. Neither did Mitt Romney or Barack Obama or Joe Biden. And, I suspect, neither would Hillary Clinton. And while Sarah Palin draped herself in the visual of mama grizzlies in 2010 and regaled us in 2008 with stories of how she campaigned for local office with her children in tow, Sarah Palin hasn’t put motherhood before politics either.

In her 2012 CPAC speech, Palin referenced her family and introduced two of her daughters with her, but her remarks were part of her speech in which she extolled the virtues of Rolling Thunder parades and military veterans. There was no suggestion that homework or soccer practice were her priority over her love of the Second Amendment or the National Rifle Association.

This new political cult of mom is really just a flip side of the “who’s taking care of the kids?” trope. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s meant to make us think about this question — who do we think ought to be taking care of the kids? When full-time political women put their motherhood status front and center in an attempt to prove that they can “do it all,” despite what Anne-Marie Slaughter said in her article in The Atlantic, they’re inadvertently playing into the theme of those who don’t want them in those positions – because if your motherhood is really the most important role, then shouldn’t you be at home with the kids, packing their lunches and getting them to soccer practice on time?

If Democrats continue to try to match the GOP’s mom card, the chances of a woman taking her seat in the Oval Office will disappear. Because would we really want to hear a woman accept the presidential nomination of their party by telling us, before anything else, that being a mother is job number one? Would we be comfortable with a Commander-in Chief proclaiming that her children are more important to her than the safety of our children?

As both parties continue to cultivate this theme of motherhood as every woman’s most important role, my daughters and granddaughter can kiss the dream of a woman President in their lives goodbye.

Image via iStockPhoto/Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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5 Responses to ““Cult of Mom” Politics”

  1. Diana Says:

    This is such a frustrating issue for women on both sides of the aisle and one I’m afraid we won’t see change anytime soon. Our society has accepted the underlying, unspoken rule that the only “good” moms are the ones who put their kids first without any competition whatsoever. Until women decide en masse to be unapologetic about the contrary we’ll continue to undermine their political career efforts with our family/parenting rhetoric. Given how most — even self-described “feminist” — average women talk about their kids and families however, I just don’t see that happening any time soon.

  2. Tracee Sioux Says:

    It’s a trap either way. People are going to carry their prejudices into the voting booth regardless of whether these women declare their momness or not. It’s really the politics of the irrelevant.

    For instance, my daughter watched Mitt’s speech at the GOP convention with her grandmother, a staunch pro-life republican (who actually is pretty prejudiced against Mormons). My daughter loved him. Because of his story about his parents’ romance and the roses. Well, what does that have to do with his qualifications to be President? I asked her. It’s not as if HE’s been doing this for Ann. Right? She got mad at me.

    The funny thing is that I come from Mormon stock. Mormons believe a mother should be at home with her kids, not working. (Of course as many Mormon women work as any other subgroup.) So I expected my Mormon family to be unsupportive of Sarah Palin. They were not. They voted for her. Whaaa? Hey, she’s a pro-life Republican and that trumps all. Conversely, I thought feminists would have been more supportive of Sarah. But she’s a pro-life Republican and that trumps all. I would have thought feminists would have been more supportive of Hillary. They were not. They went for the hot basketball player black man – just like in high school.

    People are paradoxes. Predictably unpredictable.

  3. MaryAnn Martin Says:

    I have to disagree a bit. Silence is not the answer. Why *shouldn’t* women announce their motherhood proudly in the public sphere? Why should it be seen as a detriment to a mother’s abilities or professional goals? I can tell you I’ve had a hard time getting a toe-hold in my chosen profession, in no small part because of the perception surrounding mothers. I think asking women to keep silent about their status as parents does nothing to advance women in the public or private sphere and if anything, replicates the a cultural silence that men don’t have these career/family conflicts while doing nothing, at home or at the public policy level, to increase a sense of parental responsibility- for lack of a better phrase- for men and women. It certainly won’t advance the cause of parental rights by acting like the public policy deficiencies don’t exist because we’re not supposed to talk about being parents or having kids.

    Silence surrounding motherhood, pregnancy, child-bearing, the whole lot were part and parcel of the cult of domesticity, the assumption being women should be mothers but the processes that made them such were shameful, dirty, and inferior to anything masculine. I think the reason anyone cringes when public figures foreground their status as mothers is a carry-over from this sense of inferiority attached to women as mothers. Because you’re right- no man is ever asked if he can handle being a public figure and a parent. But do we want that norm to stand and apply to women, as well, or do we want to dismantle it?

    If there is a problem with claiming our status as mothers, it’s because it may perpetuate a heteronormative order that overshadows and, in turn, silences alternative household arrangements (same-sex, adoptive, extended family, etc.). But having said that, I think silence indicates shame. It at least indicates a power differential that usually doesn’t work in favor of any family, regardless of their composition.

  4. Mary@Everyday Baby Steps Says:

    I am in agreement with Joanne. I absolutely don’t believe women should be silenced, but often times when someone brings something up like their motherhood status, income level, etc. in conversation or in a speech, it does seem that the reference is in apology or to play down a certain issue. I think that not bringing up our status as a mother, caretaker, etc. puts us on a level playing field. I have to agree that it seemed as if Michelle Obama were downplaying all she does as First Lady by labeling herself mom-in-chief.

  5. Lindsay Says:

    thanks for the gusty, refreshing, and well written blog. bravo.

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