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.