Back in 1994, the Gingrich revolution ushered in a wave of fresh female insurgents. This was only a few years after Chris Matthews memorably called the Republicans the “Daddy party,” because of their focus on defense and business, so the women stood out. Back then, I interviewed Linda Smith, a new congresswoman from Washington known for her conservative views—she was a pro-life mother of two and talked about homosexuality as a “morally unfit inclination.” As I interviewed her, her husband Vern, who was a train engineer, sat not far from us, awkwardly facing the wall. I asked Vern if there was a contradiction between his wife’s soaring ambitions and their traditional family values. He admitted wistfully that, yes, they were “sacrificing some of that traditional family life” for the greater conservative good.
Twenty years later, any sense of wistfulness is gone. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who is scheduled to give the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union on Tuesday night, recently posted a picture of herself on Instagram with her infant daughter on her lap and a draft of the speech in her hand. “I’ve got my #SOTU remarks in one hand and 2-month old Brynn in another. It really doesn’t get much better than this!” she wrote. McMorris Rodgers, who like Linda Smith is a Republican representative from Washington state, was not married when she came to Congress in 2005. Now, though, she has the distinction of being the only congresswoman to give birth to three children—including her 6-year-old son Cole, who has Down syndrome—while in office. Her Instagram account alternates between candid shots of her children getting off the school bus and shots of her on the set of a TV show or at a desk piled high with papers.
For most American women, this is the era of coming to grips with not having it all. For Republican politicians, however, it’s the 1980s of the Enjoli, bring-home-the-bacon, 24-hour woman. I first saw McMorris Rodgers speak a few years ago at the Smart Girl Summit, a gathering of Tea Party women, where the goddess hierarchy was determined by who was the most extreme Supermom. Sarah Palin had started the trend by dragging her kids to the governor’s office every day, but at that particular gathering the winner was Michele Bachmann, who raised 23 foster kids in the span of eight years. And while Palin perfected the archetype of the rugged pioneer woman, even that necessity has faded away. Now, it’s Cathy McMorris Rodgers whom the party wants to highlight: ambitious, urbane, pen in one hand, baby in the other, having it all, all by herself.
When women in Silicon Valley use the word “merge”—meaning that life and work all blend together in a constant 24-hour cycle—babysitting is implied. But for Republican women the assumption is extreme self-reliance. In profiles, McMorris Rodgers is spooning eggs into baby Grace’s mouth while teaching Cole lowercase letters and taking calls from the majority leader. Her life is a “well-conducted orchestra” where “everything happens on cue in precisely the right note.”
That the GOP is trading on McMorris Rodgers’ maternal authority is obvious, although she’s a much more controlled and subtle model than Sarah Palin. “What better type of person than a mom, and the parent of a disabled child, to talk about what we as Americans want and need right now,” Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, who co-founded the Congressional Down Syndrome Caucus with McMorris Rodgers, told the New Republic. “Whether it be the Affordable Care Act, or our ability to create jobs for our children, all these things are immediately on parents’, and especially moms’ wish lists. She’s personally impacted by the decisions that are made in Washington, D.C.”
In Tucker Carlson’s classic essay about the routine abortion of Down syndrome babies, he implies the practice is a kind of sanctioned genocide. Rick Santorum, a former Republican senator who has a child with Trisomy 18, has attacked the Affordable Care Act for offering free prenatal testing, because he wants to discourage the practice. McMorris Rodgers’ situation is not the classic one. She found out her child had a high chance of having Down syndrome, then went into labor the next day. She never got to make the decision, although by that point she was already publicly anti-abortion, so it’s hard to imagine she would have done differently. Instead, her son, and her tender, hopeful writing about him, gives her an extra kind of moral authority and helps you forget that she is in fact, day to day, the kind of woman who not all that long ago would have made Republicans distinctly uncomfortable. That is she’s a woman who works nonstop and has limitless ambitions, all while tending to three children under the age of 7.
Many Democratic groups claim that McMorris Rodgers, while being a woman, does nothing to support actual women, which isn’t true in one sense at least. In 2010, she launched a nationwide campaign to help the GOP find female candidates to run for office. Under her leadership, the party ultimately recruited 112 new candidates; 30 won their primaries and 10 were elected. Most were 50 or younger and had children at home. One of McMorris Rodgers’ main roles was to convince the candidates that they could handle the campaign and the job even if they had young children at home. There are “different models” for how to run a household, she once told me. In her case, her husband, a retired Navy man, “carries the load at home” and is known in the extended family as “Mr. Mom.”
The social values and the workaholic lifestyle sometimes make for a confusing message. McMorris Rodgers says she supports the “traditional family,” but in front of women’s groups she sometimes sounds like an overeager feminist, quoting Alexis de Tocqueville on the American woman’s “confidence” and “independence,” citing statistics that women manage 83 percent of the nation’s household income. She also invokes Margaret Thatcher: “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.”
But in public policy terms, the swaggering-woman rhetoric translates into “don’t ask for handouts.” McMorris Rodgers has voted like a standard conservative, for cuts to nearly every social service. She voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and in favor of cutting funding for birth control. Last year, she supported a version of the Violence Against Women Act that excluded gay, immigrant, and Native American women, calling them a “side issue.” And her constituents once delivered empty milk bottles to her office to protest her support for cuts in the “WIC” nutritional program. The war on women, Matt Yglesias points out, is not about symbols. It’s about public policy. So if you want something like that done, ask another woman.