On Tuesday night, July 26, Hillary Clinton made history. Yet her status as the first woman to receive a major political party’s nomination for US president has been greeted with less fanfare than one might expect. The general insanity of this election cycle has somewhat overshadowed this remarkable feat. And, given our nation’s penchant for sexism, it also seems possible that the Democratic party is trying not to call too much attention to the fact that their candidate is an undeniable power lady.
At the same time, the Democratic National Convention hasn’t shied away from making a different point about gender: that women’s roles as wives and mothers are indisputably powerful and important. In fact, it seems that the Democrats are trying to make the idea of a woman as commander-in-chief more palatable by tapping into traditional American narratives of female power.
Historically, this country has allowed women to be powerful and commanding in only one place: the home. Think of all the idioms and phrases we regularly employ. “If momma’s not happy, nobody’s happy.” “Mother knows best.” “A woman’s place is in the home.” As Americans, we inherently understand the command that a woman holds over her family; we’ve been socialized to embrace it.
For this reason, multiple DNC speeches have highlighted motherhood as a part of Clinton’s résumé, as if she will be drawing on her skills as a mother in order to serve as a parent to the country. ”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,” Michelle Obama said on Monday (July 25). It would be unusual to hear claims that a man would be a better leader because he’s shown leadership skills as a father within his own family. Yet that’s what the DNC is now doing for Clinton.
Meanwhile, male politicians who took the stage to promote Clinton made sure to emphasize the superiority of their wives. Speaking on Wednesday (July 27), vice president Joe Biden noted, “Barack and I married up. Way up.”
Later that night, when president Barack Obama took the stage, he wasted no time in crediting his wife for helping him to become the man he is today. “You fell for my brilliant wife and partner, Michelle, who has made me a better father and a better man; who’s gone on to inspire our nation as First Lady, and who somehow hasn’t aged a day,” he said. Michelle is doubtless an incredible woman. But it’s important to note that the compliment here relegates her role to that of a behind-the-scenes wife who exerts her power and influence within the family structure.
There’s no doubt that we need to recognize the importance of the contributions women make to their families. But it’s also an easily digestible kind of feminism. Such language seeks to avoid any mention of glass ceilings and women’s rights. Nobody gets riled up when men admire their wives, or when conversations turn to a woman’s excellence as a mother.
The Democrats knows they are up against ingrained bigotry, fighting for a candidate who’s been deemed unlikable ever since she dissed housewives’ cookies back in 1992. It may be a smart strategy to play up the roles of wives and mothers. But it’s exciting to look forward to a future in which a woman’s candidacy needs no such justification.