Monday, January 29, 2007

The Season of Maternal Politics

Always good for a "trend story," the NYTimes tracks the new politically savvy move for women politicians: play up the maternal. The days of hiding one's softer side are gone. While I should be grateful that in 2007 a female leader doesn't have to work so hard to show her toughness that she has to play down the fact that she is a mother, something doesn't sit right with this new marketing trend. The impetus for it seems to come from the past 7 years of the dominance of Right Wing politics. The figure of motherhood has been mobilized again and again as a figure of protest, i.e. Cindy Sheehan or CODEPINK. Don't get my wrong, not all of this is inauthentic; surely mothers have from time immemorial protested wars and struggled for saner policies for their children. It's just that when you see a truly successful product of Second Wave Feminism, Hilary Clinton, playing up her role as mother and announcing her candidacy from her living room couch, you realize that the figure of the maternal is a highly stylized packaging, built to siphon off some of the "security mom" voters who put G.W. in power.

The Right Wing use of the maternal figure has been genius; Bush made stay-at-home mothers feel important, valued, and entrusted with important civic work. This was a salve to some women who have felt persecuted--whether this persecution is real or imagined--by "feminists" who devalue motherhood. And yet, the Right Wing doesn't really care about mommies. It likes to keep mommies at home; it likes to enshroud women in the 19th Century cult of the "eternal feminine," but its acutal policies hurt mothers and children. It has always been progressive women, whether they were mothers or not,(think Eleanor Roosevelt or Jane Addams and the Settlement Houses tradition) that have made real, concrete changes for women and children in American Civil society.

So, I wonder which tradition of invoking maternal virtues is being drawn upon when Clinton and Pelosi self-consciously drawn portrait of themselves as mothers? Are they invoking the "eternal feminine" or the progressive tradition? The question is even more complicated when you look back on to Dianne Feinstein and Condi Rice's exchange in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wherein Rice takes umbrage at Feinstein's "unfeminist" suggestion that a childless woman cannot be trusted to make important political decisions. One of the most powerful women on the right invokes the 2nd wave view that women are more than their ovaries (even though Feinstein was certainly not making the converse point).

So I ask, what mother is being pandered to voters? Linda Hirshman in the WaPo, furthermore, takes a real swipe at stay-at-home voting mommies (well, it's not clear if that is her target or all women?):

In every election, there's a chance that women will be the decisive force that will elect someone who embraces their views. Yet they seem never to have done so, and I've never seen a satisfactory answer as to why. My own theory is that women don't decide elections because they're not rational political actors -- they don't make firm policy commitments and back the candidates who will move society in the direction they want it to go. Instead, they vote on impulse, and on elusive factors such as personality.
With friends like that, who needs enemies? But, seriously, it seems that what makes the mobilization of the maternal so objectionable is that we have no real, 3-dimensional sense of what mothers are in U.S. society. At least, politically, motherhood is nothing but a metaphor, either for a brand of "family values," or as an indication that tough women leaders are not just ball breakers, but mothers. The lack of a real 3-dimensional represenation--if that is even possible--of motherhood is why Clinton scrambling to appropriate it, while Rice is disavowing it.

Mothers have few 3-D roles models in the popular media. In fact, what the popular media gives them is largely a figure that is impossible to emulate: the supermom who can handle wayward board members, and still make it home in time to cook a nutrious meal. With such an alienating image stirring up mommy guilt for both the stay-at-home moms and working moms (and everything in between), it is no wonder that one-dimensional feel good images of motherhood bring some comfort. Maybe its not so much that women aren't rational actors, as Hirshman argues, but that women are so overwhelmed with what their role really is that anyone who seems to do it proud plays well with them.