There's been lots of political yammer (yammer because it's definitely not dignified enough to merit being called "discussion" but it's not yet loud enough to be called "yelling") in recent days and weeks about women who have political ambition. People are concerned, really. Concerned that maybe the women who have political ambition wouldn't be good at politics because at one time or another they maybe weren't Good Moms or Good Wives. Yeah, we're still talking about this. No, you didn't wake up this morning in the pre-Friedan dystopia.
In an excellent-but-frustrating rundown at The New Republic, Rebecca Traister lays out the sad reality that, in 2014, we're still way too obsessed with assuring first that women are good at Wifing and Moming before we trust them with things like Leading. We've seen it in the recent right wing hysteria over Wendy Davis and whether or not she spent enough time with her husband and child when she was attending Harvard Law School. We saw it this past summer, when Anthony Weiner's compulsive sexting led to some in the media questioning his wife, high-powered Clinton advisor Huma Abedin's wife-dom. We've seen it in the 90's when Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky turned the spotlight to Hillary's decision to stay with her husband. Every woman who runs for any office has to assure a panicked public, a panicked media that despite the fact that she wants to do man-things like leave the house, she's still doing woman-things like Being A Wife And Mom. Everything about their lives is up for scrutiny. The personal is political is public. Writes Traister,
Of course everything is on the table. For women, everything is always on the table, including the table itself, and whatever food the woman in question failed to put on it last night….or some night several decades ago.
Women's worth has never been assessed based on easily calculable, publicly available statistics, like innings pitched or bills passed. There is no accounting of female professional achievement that does not also add up the raw data on personal, familial effort; there is no admiration that is not instantly accompanied by interrogation: How does she do it? No. Really. How does she do it? How many nights does she spend with her kids? How many hours does she work and is that why she is single? How many affairs has she had, or has she forgiven, or, most insidiously, has she inspired through her inattention to wifely duty?
Does anyone care that Franklin Roosevelt's mistress, not his wife, was at his death bed? Nope! Would we extend similar ability to differentiate personal and professional if the same had been the case with Geraldine Ferraro?
The women Traister mentions happen to be liberal, but this kind of shit happens to conservative women, too. Recall the kind of ridiculous conspiracy theories around the birth of Sarah Palin's son Trig (POSSIBLE BAD MOM ALERT!), like that had anything to do with her ability to monumentally suck as a Vice Presidential candidate (it didn't). Conservative South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has been subject to multiple rounds of idiotic and unfounded allegations that she's engaged in extramarital affairs (POSSIBLE BAD WIFE ALERT!), even though what she does within her marriage has no bearing on her ability to be bad at governing South Carolina.
And, to build on Traister's point — any woman who dares step out in public is disproportionately subject to this kind of scrutiny. A discussion of How One Mothers is par for the course in magazine profiles of female movie stars; fatherhood is discussed much less frequently with male stars. We know all about JK Rowling's status as a mother, but I had to consult The Google to determine whether author Dan Brown has kids (apparently no. He does, however, have a brown blazer and a music career -?!?). In profiles of female business leaders, we learn how they prepare their kids' lunches before school before heading off to work, or how they rush to soccer practice, or how they returned to work with their baby in a sling just weeks after giving birth. The same curiosity isn't typically extended toward male business leaders; ostensibly we collectively assume their wife — or some other someone else— takes care of that stuff.
Even women who don't have children are grilled; Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has been given grief over her decision not to have children. Justice Elena Kagan, who has never married and has no children, was subjected to a metric slew of crap regarding her sexuality after she was nominated for the Court, as thought that's anyone's business. Justice Antonin Scalia, on the other hand, was basically high fived for having nine children during his confirmation hearing. His wife brought all of them with her, and the Senators fucking loved it. One Senator even offered to let Scalia's kids take naps in his office, if they got bored by the hearing.
When it comes to women in public life, Traister is absolutely right that it's all on the table. And that it's piping hot bullshit.
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