In her widely-admired endorsement of Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama spoke at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia about Clinton as a mother. “See, I trust Hillary to lead this country because I’ve seen her lifelong devotion to our nation’s children—not just her own daughter, who she has raised to perfection, but every child who needs a champion,” she said. In that one sentence she portrayed Clinton as trustworthy, consistent, devoted, and caring—all of the qualities of a great mom, but also of a great president.
With her low likability and trustworthiness scores in polling, this is exactly what Clinton needs: for voters to see her as someone they can relate to and admire. While it’s a smart strategy, it’s also a gamble. First, motherhood and femininity are still seen as weaknesses in many realms, especially the business world. And, overselling Clinton as a “relatable grandmother” could make her seem insincere. After all, we know that she’s a hard-nosed negotiator and worldly secretary of state. We don’t know whether this strategy will ultimately work, but it’s significant for another reason. In addition to doubling down on the “Hillary-as-mom” image, the Democratic party is flipping the narrative on motherhood; a traditional “weakness” is now an asset. Motherhood has been brought out of the domestic sphere and has been transformed into an image of power.
Gary S. Selby, Carl P. Miller Chair of Communication at Pepperdine University said that in addition to Clinton’s reputation for being aloof, her being the first woman candidate creates a unique challenge for the campaign. “In our culture, we expect our president to possess traditionally masculine qualities—we want someone tough, decisive, logical. But those qualities push against our culture’s construction of femininity, which is oriented toward being emotional and nurturing. It’s hard to do both at the same time, and that’s partly why Hillary is viewed negatively,” Selby said. “In response, the campaign must convey a persona for the candidate that is strong and decisive, but also tender and caring.”
This actually aligns with how the Clinton campaign has portrayed her from the very beginning. Hillary, as her Twitter description describes her, is first a wife, mother and grandmother, and then former first lady and secretary of state. In speeches, she talks about being a grandmother to Chelsea’s two children, again and again. Her work for the Children’s Defense Fund—when she was a “mother” before being a mother—is highlighted constantly. This time around, Clinton has embraced the idea of campaigning on the “woman card,” in contrast to her 2008 presidential bid, when she struggled with talking about her gender.
And at the DNC, she is being re-introduced to the nation by the biggest names in politics, first and foremost, as a mom. Barack Obama put it this way: “And there is only one candidate in this race who believes in that future, and has devoted her life to it; a mother and grandmother who’d do anything to help our children thrive.”
Bill Clinton, who has thus far been the bearer of the task to humanize Hillary at the convention, said that when their daughter Chelsea was born he had “the absolute conviction that my daughter had the best mother in the whole world.” Chelsea, rather than the other political superstars at the DNC, will introduce Clinton tonight for her speech.
Michelle Obama demonstrated the full political import of motherhood when she portrayed herself and her husband as parents of the nation, and symbolically transferred that role to Clinton. “This election, and every election, is about who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives,” she said, following with “there is only one person who I trust with that responsibility.” Motherhood is the ultimate responsibility—and so is the presidency. Obama echoed this: “I can say with confidence there has never been a man or a woman–not me, not Bill, nobody–more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president of the United States of America.”
Just a week earlier in Cleveland at the Republican National Convention, America had a very different portrayal of president as parent. All four of Donald Trump’s adult children took prime time speaking slots. They too were tasked with showing their dad’s “human” side through colorful family anecdotes. But as Gwynn Guilford writes for Quartz, the Trump kids’ outsized role at the convention underlined an “unquestioning deference to paterfamilias,” which “happens to be a defining quality of Trump supporters.” As for Trump himself, his stern warning the nation about the disastrous consequences of electing Clinton could be compared to that of a finger-wagging father scolding his misguided children. Trump is the patriarch who will lead the nation on the right path, just like he did with his own successful children.
Trump is the stern patriarch; Clinton is the powerful mother.
But Clinton is not the only strong mother being represented in Philadelphia. Elevating moms and motherhood has been a running theme of the convention. Sharon Belkhofer, a mom, grandmother and great-grandmother introduced president Obama. Christine Leinonen, the mother of a victim of the Orlando attack, brought the audience to tears while calling for gun control. “Mothers of the Movement,” the group of mothers whose children have fallen victim to police violence, were given a prime-time speaking slot on Tuesday, July 26. They appeared together on stage, representing a unified front of strong women using the power of their words to fight for change.
It’s not just up on stage, mothers are seen walking the halls of the Wells Fargo center, more visible to me than at the RNC. They are delegates, they are guests: pregnant women, women with babies strapped to their torsos, women with elementary-school age children and teenagers.
Wendy Greuel, a delegate from California and the former Los Angeles City Controller, believes becoming a mom made politics real for her. She thinks emphasizing Clinton’s motherhood was a great choice for the campaign. “I believe a mom can almost do everything, anything,” she said. It’s the second convention that her 13-year-old son has attended.
One particular spot where a dedication to mothers is particularly visible at the convention is the Maternity Care Coalition (MCC) breastfeeding and breast-pumping area. Divided from the public by a system of curtains, there’s a designated area for moms to pump, feed, and take naps. There’s a refrigerator where they can store their milk. People point out the area with awe as they pass, taking pictures.
Sara Jann, who runs the station, said she has received incredible feedback every day. She said the Democratic National Committee, in an effort to make the convention inclusive, reached out to MCC to ask about how could they make the event easier for mothers.
“It’s high time that we realize that these issues are not just in our home, they are out in the world and they are political,” Jann said.
Nobar Golhar, a mother of a 5-and-a-half-month-old baby came to the event for one day. She was dismayed that sometimes mothers in the US have to go to the bathroom to breastfeed. “It’s so sad that you have to hide something that other countries view as sacred, the greatest gift.”
Golhar thinks that Clinton’s presidency would change things for women and for mothers. “Because she’s a mom she’ll understand what mothers have gone through, she’ll know the importance of pushing some policy issues.”
The DNC is not just offering a re-branding of Hillary Clinton but also a total re-branding motherhood. Motherhood is front and center—not relegated to the nursery or in the kitchen—in the traditionally male sphere of politics. It’s in the most public and important building in the nation: the White House. After all, Michelle Obama said in her speech that when her husband was elected to office, she worried first and foremost about how they would remain good parents. What she discovered, she said, was that by being good role models to their daughters, they would be good role models for the country.
Gwynn Guilford contributed reporting to this story.