For Barack Obama, it has all come down to the mommies.
Hillary Clinton’s commanding lead among Democratic women--as high as 20 points in some nationwide polls--has long been cited as a strength Obama can’t overcome. A November Zogby poll found that nationwide, Clinton’s 11 percent advantage over Obama was due entirely to her 18 percent lead among women.
But in recent weeks, Obama brought female voters into his
column as he pulled even with
A few weeks before Oprah Tour ’07, the Obama campaign rolled
out a 19-minute web
documentary on "why women across the nation are supporting Barack
Obama for president." It features a bevy of babies gurgling happily to the
strains of folk rock. And with babies, of course, come mommies. Mommies
supervising in the park, cutting their children’s food up into tiny squares,
and generally worrying about stuff. “Ever since I gave birth to my son, which
was two and a half years ago, I have felt this, like, my heart ripped open to
the world,” says a choked-up Gabrielle Grossman, a stay-at-home mom and Obama
Lord help us if the right wing decides to use this video--it’s almost a parody of Democrats as the Mommy Party. We meet Obama campaign COO Betsy Myers as she prepares dinner for her little girl. After all, there’s lots of time for those home-cooked meals on the trail! “Women have a guilt gene that men don’t have,” Myers says. “We’re the ones who handle the school, and the days off, and the doctor’s appointments.”
Though Obama is so ready to talk about “responsible fatherhood” on the stump, the video doesn't contain a single word about breeding this “guilt gene” into the male of the species. Instead, the video serves up a primer on “difference feminism,” which holds that women deserve to be involved in politics less because they are inherently equal to men than because they’re different--more nurturing, less warlike, and more intuitive, in the ways mothers are supposed to be.
“Women will often prioritize
issues differently,” says Illinois Representative Jan Schakowsky in the video.
Schakowsky, who has endorsed Obama, represents
“Women are interested in not sending their children of to war,” Schakowsky continues in the video. “Not that men aren’t. But I think [women] are more likely to look at personal consequences of what war is all about.”
But the truth is that retailing in stereotypes of femininity has never been a very successful way for women to get their voices heard in politics. In the run-up to World War I, a delegation of roving (self-appointed) lady ambassadors traveled the Western nations to implore world leaders, for the sake of mothers, not to send the boys to war. We know how that turned out. The most modern of the American suffragists, such as Alice Paul, understood this--that’s why they built their demands on human and civil rights, not women’s role as mothers, a position men in politics neither wanted nor respected.
As the Hillary Clinton campaign gathered steam over the past
year, feminists, often in spite of past misgivings about the candidate, were
excited by what seemed to be a unequivocal message that women’s political
leadership--not motherhood, or peace rallies, or high-profile female surrogates
like Oprah--could change women’s lives. Feminist messaging of a particular,
second-wave vintage became a defining characteristic of the
Even if feminists come to be less than over-the-moon about
Obama's record on choice, the fact is that they are not likely to base their
votes on shades of grey in candidates’ reproductive rights records. The war in
In such a climate, does Barack
Obama’s message of feminine difference make sense? The campaign, of course, is
desperate to connect the strong antiwar views of grassroots Democrats to their
candidate’s long history of opposition to the war.
Like Obama’s web documentary, the commercial is cheesy, off-putting, and chock full of stereotypes, even as it manages to convey sentiments that feel, at least to me, somehow emotionally true. But no matter how viscerally distasteful, this campaign for the hearts and minds of Democratic women will only kick into higher gear over the coming weeks and months. Women are more likely to be Democrats (they represent 60 percent of Iowa Democratic caucus-goers), more likely to make it to the polls (in 2004, 54 percent of the electorate was female), and more likely to choose their candidates late in the game. Let the pandering begin.
Dana Goldstein is a writing fellow at The American Prospect.
By Dana Goldstein