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The Performance of Feminism: Maternal Leaders

*Apologies: This is a day late due to the mess of things which occurred in my life yesterday.*

In keeping with my previous discussions, I return again to Laura Roslin or rather to Mary McDonnell to begin. When asked whether the gender neutrality of her character’s (Laura Roslin) portrayal was due to her cancer, McDonnell responded, “no, it was myself and the other characters adjusting to her leadership.” She needed to take on masculine characteristics as McDonnell puts it to gain authority in order to be allowed to display any femininity. McDonnell noted had the character come to the position of leadership desiring the position she would have fought harder to change her portrayal. Suffice to say, this annoyed me. First of all, that these characteristics have to remain gendered annoys me; secondly, that the former is understood to be the necessary and perhaps natural reaction in such a situation annoys me further.

Why does political leadership have to exist in such a uni-dimensional form in the western imaginary? I cite the current federal ad campaigns in Canada which are founded on the effectiveness of bar room brawls to establish authority. There are different and better ways to lead. Leading from a place of parity, for example, premised upon the idea that we are all in this for the long run, should be less divisive. And yet, Battlestar’s fiercely machiavellian political contests would seem to indicate otherwise. Granted, McDonnell’s character was faced with a crisis and forced to compete with the hyper-masculine environment of the military and thus perhaps a hard-edge was the only note to take. But I want to emphasize that it was her very maternal instincts which saved the human race from annihilation. So, I wonder, then, if perhaps we could re-signify the maternal as a gender-neutral expression of leadership?

What might such a maternal model look like? Well, for one thing, motherhood expresses itself in many different ways, and I don’t want to enforce a particular model here: but I do want to place emphasis on the value of ‘care.’ I don’t know that history could give us any adequate precedents (feel free to add some, my sense of history is sadly inadequate), but my first instinct would be that it would necessarily be a mix of top-down and bottom-up collaboration between leaders and their parties. I think where this model might usefully be expressed would be in democratic institutions themselves. If, for example, North-American democracy were to ever adopt a proportional representation system, what could happen would include the formation of cross-party committees working to legislate on an issue-by-issue basis. This would allow different party members to come to the fore at different points depending on the interests of their constituents and their expertise. Where the leader of the party might fit in such a situation would be to delegate tasks and provide resources and support from the governing party. Of course, this is all purely hypothetical and extremely idealistic. But I like to think that re-signifying the maternal as a valid means of participating in a democracy rather than a time for leave or absence characterized by unchecked passion is possible. I do not mean to return woman or move men into the position of caretaker regardless of their particular talents, I simply think that infusing models of leadership with the sense of fostering growth which we might attribute to mothering might not be such a bad idea.

A teacher of mine said to her students the other day that if something were to happen to them during the year to let her know, “because, you know I get kind of attached as the year goes on.” Her concern as a human for the well-being of her students regardless of her authority in the classroom is I think something we can all learn from. At the risk of sounding like the environmentalist that I am, respecting life before politics, as Roslin does in a crisis, should be a move toward consensus building. I think perhaps feminist practice and feminisms could take a cue here. One of the t-shirts we sell on our website says “feminist” on the one side and “humanist” on the other. While, I don’t want to move feminism into the space of humanism here, I do want to emphasize that feminisms are no longer about “women.” They are about the critique of gendered practices, discrimination, and the valuation of life. Feminism is about protecting the lives of humans as equals. Any good parent knows that favoritism breeds discontent and jealousy. Any good feminist worth his or her salt knows that working toward equality discriminates against no one.