The Brisbane Times has a really interesting article called Behind Every Women Leader There’s a Struggle. It analyzes the ways in which female politicians (particularly Hillary Clinton and Segolene Royal) are embracing their ‘femininity’ and touting their roles as ‘mothers’ as relevant to their roles in public life. U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi also sparked talk of this when she was sworn in surrounded by her grandchildren.
Breaking away from a Thatcher model (adopted by Merkel) of never explicitly drawing attention to the fact of one’s sex, Royal and Clinton have put the fact that they are women and mothers at the centres of their campaigns. It is a fascinating experiment.
“Because I am a woman, things will be different,” Royal declared. “The fact that I’m a woman and a mum is part of what I am,” Clinton announced
I think it is wonderful that these women are able to not only embrace their roles as mothers, which have been important experiences in their lives, but to do it in a way that suggests that the experiences that defined and drove their motherhood are valuable resources for their political careers. Far from emphasizing that these women are ‘only’ mothers, what this does is not only place distinct value on female experiences of motherhood (which are so often denigrated in our society and not seen as important qualifications for politics or anything) but it also suggests that women can be strong and ambitious and also ‘motherly’.
Motherhood is now offered by both candidates as a political asset – a form of authority and leadership.
In a politics driven by personality, motherhood offers some shortcuts. It helps humanise the politician, it can be used to project an emotional warmth and empathy in an age when the primary requirement of a political leader is that they “understand” the voter. Voters show in polling that they think motherhood makes women less driven by self-interest and more by the welfare of others. At a time when politicians are held in such low regard and there is pervasive political cynicism, the “mother nation” figure has some real emotional resonance in both electorates.
Accusations of being “calculating”, “ambitious”, “cold” have dogged them from the starts of their campaigns. Such terms when applied to a male candidate would hardly be seen as a drawback – what president hasn’t been ambitious? – but it makes these mother politicians appear less motherly.
Its also important I think that these female candidates seem capable of being themselves. They are not being pushed into being ‘masculine’ in order to fit into the Old Boys Club of politics, and yet, I don’t believe they are embracing traditional conceptions of femininity either. Instead, they are redefining what being a ‘woman’ means, by negotiating their own balance between masculine and feminine gender traits, while still acknowledging that their embodied positionality within female identified and identifying bodies has contributed to their identities.
This strategy does, of course, have risks.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. If their candidacies contribute to the election of loathed right-wing alternatives – in particular if Royal doesn’t get the socialists through to the second round – their failures will haunt, and be used to intimidate, women politicians for a generation.
Here’s the problem then. Women, especially when they present themselves as women are seen as WOMAN… and emcompass all women. I look forward to both Clinton’s and Royal’s campaigns… and I hope that if they lose, all the gians they have made for women just by running and believing themselves worthy to do so, are not erased.