The XX Factor

Moms in Politics

Liesl Schillinger makes an interesting connection in this New York Times piece: Sarah Palin and Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann , the Romy and Michelle of conservative politics, have-to their great horror-something in common with Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. They are all ubermoms, with precisely five children. “Could it be that the skills of managing sprawling households translate well into holding office?” asks Schillinger. “Or that such a remarkable glut of mom cred makes a woman’s bid for external power more palatable to voters?”

The mom trope for aspiring pols is a tried-and-true one, used by women the world over. The relevant question is: In what circumstances does it resonate? No one really thinks of Nancy Pelosi as a mother, while everyone thinks of Sarah Palin as one. With Hillary Clinton, mother is often the last role that comes to mind. In 1992 Senator Patty Murray called herself a “mom in tennis shoes,” but for the progressive, urban women who voted for her, that slogan would feel embarrassing now.

In fact, the mom stance does not project softness these days, but a high degree of competence, a mom-will-fix-it ethos. Worldwide, it has been used by women presidential candidates as a part of a rescue-the-nation campaign. In war-torn Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf portrayed the country as a “sick child in need of her loving care,” writes Alice Eagly in Through the Labyrinth , her excellent study of women and leadership. Michelle Bachelet in Chile purposely “radiated empathy,” while Violet Chamorro in Nicaragua conveyed the “valiant, self sacrificing and suffering mother … the maternal savior of the Nicaraguan people.” In 1968 the great hoaxer Alan Abel poked fun as what he saw as a kind of ubermom fascism, the female equivalent of Stalin as national father, by running a presidential campaign for Yetta Bronstein , a fake Bronx housewife. “Why should you vote for me?” her campaign literature asked. “Think of all the things your mother did for you-the feeding, changing, washing, ironing, lying for you, crying for you. Now you can pay her back by putting me in office. I will represent all your mothers and act in their behalf for you.”

It seems as if liberal women should be able to more easily access the working mother trope, but, outside of first ladies, they can’t. Instead, like Elena Kagan, they get stuck with the image of suspicious bachelorette , possibly gay .