Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Parenthood and the Political Candidate

So. Let's try and move past the VP insanity that was the internet this weekend. Instead, I thought we could take the opportunity to restart the female political candidate discussion now that there's a woman back in the race. I've done a lot of reading in the last few days, did some thinking, and then went on a search through many of the major presidential campaign speeches from the last decade or two and I've got one thing in particular I want to talk about: how female candidates present themselves compared to male candidates.

There is a pretty set pattern for the major candidate's speech. Introduce yourself, say hi and thank you to the wife and kids, give us some real meat about where you come from and who your parents are, then hit the policy issues sprinkling in anything that may be relevant to your own family's history. It introduces the candidate as just another person, and also plays that "identity politics" that we're so fond of lately so we can see their candidacy as its own kind of fairy tale. In all my searching I found only one male candidate who referred to himself using the word "father" or "dad": George W. in 2000 who asked his daughters to "e-mail your old dad once in a while."

This was a pattern that Sarah Palin broke from last week in her speech announcing herself as McCain's VP candidate. Her speech can be divided into four basic pieces. First, she gives a rather detailed history of her husband and her children, presenting herself front and center as a wife and mother. Second, she talks about her political work in Alaska. Third, she talks about John McCain and the national campaign. And finally, she closes by discussing her role as a female candidate. The final part is more of a sound bite than a real discussion and is less than half the length of any of the other pieces. In fact, the first part of her speech where she discusses her family is longer than any other part of the speech. Palin spent longer talking about her children than about her political work. She refers to herself with the word "mother" or "mom" three times.

Palin's speech does not fit the normal pattern. But it does fit in relatively nicely with another pattern: the candidate's wife's speech. Look at Michelle Obama last week or Hillary Clinton in 1996 (in her It Takes a Village speech). They both use female family words: daughter, sister, wife, mother. The wife's job is to do the humanizing work, to introduce her family and her husband to a curious nation, to show how they are just like other families in the country with the same problems and struggles, and to introduce some of the softer policy issues. Look at this quote from Hillary's 1996 speech for the basics: "I wish we could be sitting around a kitchen table, just us, talking about our hopes and fears, about our children's futures. For Bill and me, family has been the center of our lives. - But we also know that our family, like your family, is part of a larger community that can help or hurt our best efforts to raise our child."

I in no way mean to criticize Palin. Her speech is relatively similar to most of the speeches we've heard from women in these political races. (I also couldn't find the text to any of Hillary's major campaign speeches to compare her to.) But compare it to the speech Geraldine Ferraro gave in 1984. Ferraro follows the normal candidate script to a T. She talks about her parents and her humble beginnings, of the work she's done and the progress she's made in her life, she hits some big policy issues, being sure to hit inspirational notes along the way. She briefly mentions and thanks her husband and three children at the end of her speech, just as the rest of them do. In its formula, it's nearly identical to the speech Biden gave when he was announced as Obama's VP. Just change Scranton, PA to New York City.

What I want to talk about is what this dichotomy means. Do we want female candidates to follow the same playbook as the men? Do we want them to emphasize the fact that they're women by referencing motherhood and family so strongly or do we want them to focus more heavily on policy issues? Is it right for women to ignore motherhood in their speeches the way men do in theirs? The floodgates are open, there will hopefully be a steady stream of female presidential and vice presidential candidates from here on out. What is it that we want to hear from them? Will the way they frame their own lives affect the way they're spoken of by others? I know I'll be curious about how other Republicans at the Convention refer to Palin and how she refers to herself. And I'll be just about bowled over if we hear any substantive fatherhood talk. It's just not in the script, no matter which party you're in.


frau sally benz said...

First off, GRRRREAT post!

Palin's speech does not fit the normal pattern. But it does fit in relatively nicely with another pattern: the candidate's wife's speech.
This is brilliant! It's very interesting that our other examples of women candidates (Pres. or VP) have not been Republican. I think this is probably the biggest reason for pushing the "I'm a mom, aren't I great?"

The problem, of course, is that then questions like "can she be VP and take care of her baby?" become a bigger deal.

Habladora said...

Good questions posed here. The details of a candidate's life are generally provided just to help with the 'likability factor.' I think a difference between how Palin presents herself and how HRC and Ferraro did when running for office might have to do with how the differnt political parties script women. Liberals like to talk about equality and opportunities for women - we like Rosie Riveter images, and conservatives like to talk about 'traditional families' - and like images of pretty young wives pulling pies out of ovens (well, who doesn't like pie?) So, she might be on-script, but just a differnt script. It would be interesting to look at how other Republican women have campaigned for office.

Again, really interesting post.

Maggie said...

Now there's this:

McCain's campaign manager said they already had a 'generic, "masculine" speech' prepared before the VP pick was made. Nice, huh?

Casmall said...

I wonder, is Palin's speech just tailored to what Repblicans expect hear from a female candidate? Will she talk about issues with a wider audience?

Habladora said...

Ugh, I read the article you linked to, Maggie - McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, seems like a real turd. Gotta love the othering there, though - 'she'll have to tailor the speech to fit her femininity.' Classic.

Renee said...

Very interesting post. I don't think that we can look forward to seeing men overly identifying as fathers as it is not seen as an essential characteristic for men, whereas for women motherhood is deemed definitive. A woman that does not speak openly and continually about her family is suspect. This I believe is largely based in our desire to continually enforce gender performativity. Men and women are never understood outside of their biological functions and the social constructions that are associated with each sex.

Maggie said...

I think sally and casmall hit the same point. Is it simply because she's a Republican that she speaks this way? My gut says no. Laura Bush was one of the few women I found who didn't give the typical "wife" speech at all. And Barbara Bush was, in my dim recollection, something of an issues-driven first lady.

I think it's more likely that it's because of the ages of her children. Ferraro's youngest was 18 when she was nominated. That's the same age as Palin's oldest. Most female candidates no longer have young children, so it's possible that Palin just figured she'd hit the issue head-on.

Elena said...

Interesting note on this, apparently her speech tonight was written by the McCain camp and originally written for a man, so it will be interesting to see how they change it, or how it plays out.

Maggie said...

The stats from last night's speech, if you're interested. Palin used "mother" once and "mom" 3 times. Of those 4 total references, three were to herself. Of course, you also had the family references that went on significantly longer than most speeches. But I did feel at least that she did better at moving out of stereotypical "female" speechgiving at some point.

I'm curious to see what McCain will do tomorrow. Did you know he has 7 kids?? (4 are 25 or younger, the first three are over 40.) I was thinking maybe Palin is different because of the sheer number of her children, but when was the last time you saw any of McCain's kids besides Meghan? I'm wondering if they'll be there tonight.

Maggie said...


Take a look at that link for what focus groups of female Clinton supporters thought of Palin's speech. I admit I agree with those who thought she was overly sarcastic. But I'm betting anyone saying she was overly aggressive will likely be charged with some kind of sexism by the McCain campaign. I don't think she was overly aggressive, but I would like a little more policy and a lot less punchlines in my political rhetoric.

Sungold said...

I loved this post, too! Wonderful work, Maggie.

It seems like the Republicans have made Palin's family a central - perhaps *the* central - qualification for the job. On the one hand, I'd like to see our society give more respect to the skill set that people (not just mothers!) develop through hands-on parenting. I know that I for one am better at dealing with irrational people now that I've mothered two kids through the preschool years - that's an all-too-useful transferable skill! On the other hand, it's a dangerous move to suggest that motherhood would be someone's *main* qualification for a highly responsible job.

Foregrounding Palin's motherhood, her pregnancy decisions, and her family was a strategic choice made by McCain's staff, possibly by Karl Rove himself. It's a gamble, I think. So far, their approach seems to be that it's OK for the Republicans to advance her family as reasons to vote for her - but when the media and we bloggers examine Palin the mother, we're instantly accused of a coordinated sexist campaign to destroy her.

frau sally benz said...

But I'm betting anyone saying she was overly aggressive will likely be charged with some kind of sexism by the McCain campaign.

That's the problem I have with people overusing the sexist attack line. Calling out real sexism and having a discussion about it is one thing. Using it as a defense for everything and as your way of avoiding the real issues, not so cool.

Amelia said...

This was a very insightful post. I'm glad I found it, if a bit late.

I think Habladora makes an excellent point about how different political parties "script" women. Personally, I prefer the egalitarian way.