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January 19, 2007

Nancy Pelosi and motherhood identity politics

Dana Goldstein has an interesting article in the American Prospect about female politicians who front their motherhood as a political credential.

In 1996 Hillary Clinton reminded us that "it takes a village" to raise a child. In 2007, Nancy Pelosi keeps reminding Americans that she's a grandmother from San Francisco.

Dana wonders whether all this maternal symbolism is good for women:

It was a new articulation of the mommy mantra -- the idea that what qualifies women for politics isn't their intelligence, their experience, their policy proposals, or even their character, but rather their inherent identities as feminine caretakers.

On a gut level, I'm not crazy about the mommy schtick. Yet, as a feminist and a partisan Democrat, I'm not going to complain. As Amanda argued several week ago, Nancy Pelosi's in-your-face parenthood seems to be reaching a lot of women who might otherwise feel alienated by Democrats.

Electoral politics is about symbolism, not syllogism. It's like the Village People. Everyone needs a character.

Veterans don't necessarily make better legislators. Nobody said that John Kerry should have been president because he was a decorated Vietnam vet. On the other hand, his service was a powerful symbol of his patriotism and evidence of his leadership abilities. That's why Karl Rove hit so hard with the Swiftboat Liars.

Motherhood is a powerful political metaphor, too. Good mothers are absolutely committed, loyal, caring, and not afraid to get tough when necessary. Even conservatives pay lip service to the romantic idea that women are morally superior to men and that mothers are the guardians of moral values.

Nobody would say that Nancy Pelosi deserves to be Speaker of the House because she's a mom. On the other hand, if she can use her life experiences to sell her very real talents and accomplishments, I don't have a problem with it.

Life experiences can also tell you something about a person's character, even if they aren't directly relevant to the job they're seeking. Candidates who have significant accomplishments outside of politics deserve some credit. Maybe decorated-war-hero skills aren't directly transferrable to balancing the budget, but it still says good things about the person.

Successful child-rearing is an achievement. If you've raised kids, that's an important part of your life's work. A sexist society devalues important jobs just because women do them.

If it's acceptable to run as a cowboy, or an entrepreneur, or soldier, why not as a Mom?


Electoral politics is about symbolism, not syllogism. It's like the Village People. Everyone needs a character.

Lovely. Just lovely.

Hey, do you realize NAncy Pelosi was at a gay pride parade where NAMBLA was sponsered? Take that, Nancy Pelosi, you wonderful mother.

What I would like to see is an effort to demonstrate how motherhood or fatherhood is indeed a preparation for many jobs in life - broadly, not just in politics.

What does parenthood teach you: patience, coping with nasty surprises, budgeting, compromising, management of immaturity, generating team spirit, leaning on people to get them to do what you want, when they don't like it.

In other words, the primary skills for managing a party caucus or being Speaker of the House. Once you've overcome projectile puke and diarrhea, or learned sign language so your autistic son will pay attention to you, whipping some damn Congressman from Wisconsin into a team-spirit procedural vote is not that big a deal.

quick point: men have been running political campaigns behind their self-imposed "family man" images for as long as i can remember (and probably a lot longer than that). remember rudy giuliani's son on the stage at his first inauguration? santorum spent years going on and on about his goddamn family. bill loved to talk about chelsea until she got too old and he got too blown. maybe this doesn't really have to do with women or motherhood, per se. maybe this is just standard political posturing. and if that is the case, why make an issue of women striking the same "family oriented" pose?

>Electoral politics is about symbolism, not syllogism. It's like the Village People. Everyone needs a character.

Yes. My immediate reaction, unchanged after thought, was that that sentence is the one sentence that I hope you're best remembered for, throughout your blogging career. I love that.

A few elections ago, we had ads in California pitting Jesse 'The Body' Ventura, sometime governor of Minnesota and pro wrestler, denouncing Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California and sometime bodybuilding champion. I thought, "we're electing cartoon characters; how long until we have Cage Matches between them?"

So my first thought when seeing that sentence was, "it's here; after so many years of MTV's 'The Real World,' or 'Survivor,' pitting phony people against one another, and framing it so that they seemed like categories instead of people. 'The Gay Guy! and The Very Religious and White Girl! and The Black Man with the Big Fro who has an Issue with Both of Them! See them spar, not at all conscious of the camera, nor hamming it up for same!', we're finally reaching the point where such Archetypal and Symbolic caricatures of our public figures can really transform our officials into perfect cartoons."

But then, it's true, as you say, symbolism is always such a huge part of politics. "Political theatre," as they always say.

The shame of it is when our politicians concentrate so much on the theatricals that they forget to include any other substance behind it. I'm always caught up short when the Europeans say, "you know, we have _ugly_ politicians." Good-looking doesn't equal vapid, but the unfortunate thing is that when our pols _are_ vapid, no-one notices or calls it out. And I'm uncomfortable if this focus on the symbolic takes such a simple-minded turn, rather than addressing the substantive issues.

It also argues for us to make better cartoons.

I think it's about time to run as a "Mom." Daddy politics being what it is.

Re .."If it's acceptable to run as a cowboy, or an entrepreneur, or soldier.."-
Hey, what about Sports Hero?.. the coaches, the wide receivers, etc?
Re "..Daddy politics being what it is.."-
Gosh, mudkitty... you make it sound like such a... pejorative. i mean, my heart belongs to Daddy politics...

Taking the position that "it takes a village to raise a child" seems to challenge the notion that females have an exclusive inherent identity as caretakers and that 'mothers are the guardians of moral values." Unless the only people in the village are women and children.

I've said a few things here about the implications of Daddy politics; but the real divide I think is between adult politics, and kiddie politics. And I know I've had more than enough of the latter.

What am I missing that Nancy's embrace of Motherhood is any thing other than political posturing in response to the right's portrait of her as representing gay San Francisco mutant colonies.
I'm a Grandmother, "Hear me roar!"
How do you like that for "moral values?"
Says she, and well said too, if ya ask me.

Is Jesse a regular troll or something? I'm quite curious to know who "sponsered" NAMBLA at any event. Coors?

Pelosi's driving the paleocons nuts, so playing the mommy care here is OK with me.

"If it's acceptable to run as a cowboy, or an entrepreneur, or soldier, why not as a Mom? "

Nothing, per se; however, I think it often gets twisted from the fact that raising children well is a difficult and noble thing to do, into the suggestion that motherhood is more desirable and more deserving of praise from society as a whole than is non-motherhood.

Parenthood is not just an accomplishment, it's a lifestyle choice, and one heavily promoted by the culture. People who don't get married and have children are looked down upon, and seen as "less than"-- as vividly illustrated by recent remarks suggesting that Condoleeza Rice could not understand the stakes in Iraq because she is not a mother.

I think that would be why it ought to be at least a sensitive issue to feminists: because no matter what you do -- whether you're a concert pianist, a tenured professor or fifth in line for the Presidency of the United States-- you're still considered inferior and somehow aberrant if you haven't gotten married and had babies.

If, as Anthony seems to suggest, there is something like a zero-sum game between celebrating motherhood and celebrating celibacy, then I choose to promote motherhood.

But I truly don't think that Pelosi presenting herself as a matronly figure is in any way a threat to my lifestyle. What needs promoting is both motherhood and celibacy under the banner of pluralism.

Since when is celibacy the only alternative to motherhood?

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