Louis C.K. captured the problem this week in his well-intentioned but deeply problematic Clinton endorsement:
“To me, it’s really exciting to have the first mother in the White House. That’s what I think this is, it’s not about the first woman, it’s about the first mom… because a mother, she’s just got it, she just does it; she feeds you and teaches you, she protects you, she takes care of shi*t.”
Firstly, no Louis. You’re not just about to elect your first mother. You’re about to elect your first woman, full stop. This is about the first woman.
But secondly, how would Louis C.K. feel about supporting a woman who he didn’t think would feed him and protect him? A childless woman? Dare I say it, a deliberately barren woman?
If Hillary Clinton wasn’t holding the Mother Card, we might be about to get the Trump Card.
The Mother Card is a risky card to play to begin with. It’s not like the Father Card, which makes a candidate seem strong and protective, stable and committed, or even the humbling, patriarchal Grandfather Card that Mitt Romney brandished in 2012 (“Look! I’m just a regular old pa, not a heartless millionaire! Behold my disturbingly well-coordinated spawn.”).
Being a mother is not so simple. Clinton was regularly criticized for being a proud working mother, who refused to stay home and bake cookies (a 1992 comment which Beyoncé yesterday celebrated). She was characterized as the uncaring, absent mother.
But while it’s a complex card, motherhood is undoubtedly an amulet. For while her motherhood has been both helpful and harmful, try to imagine, instead, Clinton clutching the Childless Card, the Barren Card. Imagine a world in which Clinton is vilified for her, ahem, unconventional lifestyle, where her suitability for leadership is questioned due to her lack of offspring… Having flashbacks?
This is what Julia Gillard, our first female Prime Minister, faced in her tumultuous term (or two half-terms) in office. Throughout her time as the leader, Gillard was plagued by the type of generalized misogyny I’m sure Clinton can look forward to as well. But the sexism Gillard encountered included an extra theme, arguably the most vicious: the attacks she received for being childless- “deliberately barren”- and for her supposed choice to choose a career over parenthood (a decision ambitious women are forced to confront in a way ambitious men are not).
For Gillard, you see, did not conform to the traditional idea of what a woman is supposed to be: a mother, a carer, a baby-machine. Sure, ladies, have your career! But don’t forget to come back and fulfill your childbearing duty!
Gillard’s childlessness became one of her biggest political targets. Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan, coiner of the classy “deliberately barren” line, argued it made her unfit to lead, for how could she possibly understand the community?
Mark Latham, that garbage disposal unit of a human being, felt that without children Gillard couldn’t conceivably know love or empathy (when surely thinking that people different to you can’t feel empathy is the very definition of ironic).
One-dimensional. Unfit. Inexperienced. Childless, atheist ex-communist.
Won’t somebody please think of the (lack of) children?
But Clinton- Clinton was a good girl! She found time to reproduce, and her child turned out well- failure to take daughter to preschool aside. Yet Clinton too was condemned, she for her lax mothering. She did not conform to the traditional ideal of what a mother is supposed to be: devoted, homely, singularly-focused.
What a double-bind women find themselves in, and none more so than an aspiring woman leader. Working mother! Absent! Not a mother! Cold!
Either you’re a terrible mother to the children you have or you’re a terrible human for not having any.
Maybe you should just stay home and baked cookies after all.
The UK is just as bad. Helen Lewis explores how childless women in UK politics are vilified yet are statistically more likely to make it to the top, in what she calls the Motherhood Trap. For Prime Minister Theresa May, the fact that she is childless is just one of the signs that she is unnaturally obsessed with politics. God forbid a woman should be passionate about her career.
But while UK evidence show being childless makes it logistically easier and statistically more likely for women to succeed in politics, I envisage Hillary would have had a harder if not impossible run for the White House if she was, like Gillard, like May, childless.
For one, I highly doubt that a childless woman could have survived in the US presidential race. US presidential elections are so centered around character and values, especially those of the family variety. Primaries can be won and lost on how well a candidate builds the right persona and the right family is an asset, to the extent that very few US presidents have been childless.
While a man might just be able to buck this trend, it would be too much for a woman to overcome, not right now, while also trying to tear down the gender barriers. The “unnaturalness” of choosing not to have children would be untenable in a presidential candidate already so far from the norm. Without motherhood, President Hillary would not have been palatable to the American public.
Americans love their good ol’ fashioned family values and, as Louis C.K.’s comments show us, they especially love their “moms”. There is a special place for the moms of their presidents’ children: the First Lady is supposed to be the ideal mother figure, which is why homemakers like Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush were so revered at the time. I daresay a woman presidential hopeful who had chosen to reject this most honorable role for a woman would be met with critique.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is a good litmus test of the way the childless bogeywoman might be treated in a US presidential election; that is, sadly, not so differently to Australia. In 1994, her ability to empathize with loss in the war in Iraq appeared to be thrown into question. Female senator, Barbara Boxer said to her in a debate: “You’re not going to pay a particular price, as I understand it, with an immediate family. So who pays the price? The American military and their families“. And like Jennifer Anniston today, Rice was regularly asked to comment on her state as a childless woman- as if it were relevant to being Secretary of State.
Hillary Clinton’s Mother Card might not always have been a simple bonus.
But for all the scrutiny her parenting has attracted, for all the judgement she faced for not being a “traditional” mother, Clinton has been shielded from the “barren” attacks that Gillard endured.
Regularly depicted as unlikable and unrelatable, her motherhood has been one of her most sympathetic features. Who knows what we’d be hearing about a Childless Hillary? Knowing Trump, who likes to speak bluntly about what other conservatives might put more politically correctly, I am convinced it would be vile.
Without her Mother Card, I’m not sure Clinton would be on the cusp of victory today. But this shouldn’t be the case- she shouldn’t need the Mother Card to protect her. The denigration of barren Julia Gillard and politics-obsessed Theresa May and even unrepresentative Angela Merkel point to the regressiveness of putting motherhood on a pedestal: it abnormalizes women who aren’t.
Look, it’s great that Louis C.K is calling mothers competent- we’ve come a long way since the 1800s when it was believing that childbearing was incompatible with rational thought.
But let’s not make this about mothers please. This is about women. And we need to normalize the idea of more women running, whether they have children or not- odds are, a higher proportion of women than men who reach the top are going to be childless.
We like to think we are past the age of the idea that women could not have careers, into the age where women can have it all, career, husband, children, White House.
We can have it all.
But just because we can, doesn’t mean we should have to.