The XX Factor

The New Gender Essentialism

Judith Warner has an astute article up at the New York Times about the “new momism,” in which female candidates and campaigners tap into the image of “Mom” as a common-sense woman of the people to gain voter enthusiasm. It’s a tactic that’s mostly positive, but it can get ugly fast, as it did when Republican Mary Fallin shamed her Democratic opponent for Oklahoma governor Jari Askins for not being a mother. But I’d like to take Warner’s theory a step further and say that the “new momism” is an outgrowth of what has been an election that’s been all about gender, and gender essentialism.

Elections are often about talking about why you have qualities that make you a good candidate and your opponent has qualities that make them a bad candidate, but this election, those qualities have been overtly tied to gender and sexuality in ways I haven’t seen before. Emasculating your (male) opponent is a favorite tactic, especially of Republicans, but it’s usually been done through implication or whisper campaigns, by insinuating John Kerry is “French,” for instance, or hinting that Obama reads a little too much to be a real man. But this election, many candidates, particularly women, have eagerly made emasculation an explicit theme , telling opponents to “man up” or saying they need to “put their man pants on.”

The flip side of this has been to make gender a front-and-center issue for women, as well. The “new momism” is about turning an electoral campaign into a battle of good girls vs. bad girls. Good girls stay relatively chaste and feminine, and part of being feminine is embracing motherhood. Bad girls are masculine, sexually aggressive, and not maternal. This election season, putting female candidates in the “bad girl” category has been a No. 1 tactic. Nikki Haley should have waltzed into the South Carolina governor’s office but now is looking somewhat iffy because of an early smear campaign that claimed she was unfaithful to her husband. Christine O’Donnell famously was viciously attacked for getting drunk and making out with a guy a few years ago. Krystal Ball faced a mindless smear involving some silly pictures of her with her then-husband making a few sexy jokes for the camera at a Christmas party. And, of course, you have Mary Fallin trying to make Jari Askins look like unfeminine because she’s not a mother.

“New momism” is about saying, “I’m a nonthreatening good girl” as much as it’s about saying you have common sense and a populist touch. To be a “mama grizzly” is to say, “My aggression is acceptable, because it’s channeled in an acceptably feminine way.” It works, too. Sharron Angle is just as nutty as Christine O’Donnell, if not worse, but her status as a married mother makes her seem less volatile in the eyes of the public. The one major bit of progress is that using motherhood as a protective blanket works. In the past, using motherhood to shore up your nonthreatening femininity could backfire if someone used the “bad mommy” card against you. So far, that hasn’t really touched any candidates that I can think of.

Photograph of Mary Fallin by Scott Olson for Getty Images.