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Ladies' Choice

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 Clinton in the early primary states. The Des Moines Register’s December 1 Iowa poll showed Obama not only winning the overall race by a narrow margin, but for the first time beating Clinton among women, 31 to 26 percent. As the air of inevitability around Clinton vanishes, so does her lock on female voters. And the Obama campaign is trying to lock down his new supporters with a very special appeal to the peacenik earth mother it apparently believes is lurking within every woman (or at least every Democratic primary voter).

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 supporter from Exeter, New Hampshire. “I want to create a world that’s safe for my son and has harmony rather than sadness and poverty and grief and fear.”

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 Chicago’s affluent suburbs--neighborhoods filled with the type of women the campaign needs to reach. Call it the Whole Foods vote: the half of all college-educated Democratic women, most of them liberal and upper-middle-class, who are skeptical of Hillary Clinton, in large part due to her late arrival on the antiwar bandwagon.

“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 Clinton primary campaign. “Make history with Hillary!” was one early slogan. At her alma mater, Wellesley College, Clinton told students her election would help American women “shatter that highest glass ceiling” of what she called the “boys club of presidential politics.” The theme was not feminine difference, but gender equality, as represented by the symbol of one woman reaching the highest heights of power.

But the Clinton campaign, too, can stereotype women’s concerns in its attempts to win their votes. For weeks, they’ve been hammering the story of Obama’s noncommittal “present” votes on seven Illinois State Senate bills that attempted to limit women’s access to abortion. Illinois Planned Parenthood says it urged Obama to vote “present” to preserve a pro-choice seat in the legislature, but the Clinton camp isn’t backing down--on December 20 they hosted a conference call with reporters to attack the votes further.

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 Iraq, the economy, and health care consistently poll as the top issues on the minds of American women, Republican or Democrat, with terrorism, the environment, and education occupying a second tier. The priorities of male voters are almost indistinguishable.

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. Clinton has been able to neutralize that threat in part by promising to withdraw the troops, but also, when it comes to women, by becoming a vessel for lifetimes of frustration with male-dominated politics. The Obama campaign is responding by subtly suggesting that Clinton’s original support for the Iraq war was anti-feminist, like all wars, and a failure to, as Schakowsky puts it, “consider the personal consequences of what war is all about.” Was it more anti-feminist than voting against--or running against--the first viable female presidential candidate? The answer to that question depends on what kind of feminism one subscribes to.

Perhaps Clinton fears Obama’s mommy shtick, because lately, she’s adopted it. One recent Iowa TV advertisement steps away from the “make history” rhetoric to focus on--yep--motherhood. “Hey, I’m a girl!” it seems to scream, as Clinton appears alongside her mother, Dorothy Rodham, and her daughter, Chelsea, at campaign events and in an antiseptic kitchen. “My mom taught me to stand up for myself, and stand up for those who can’t do it on their own,” Clinton narrates as the words “Hillary lives with her mom,” flash across the screen. She continues, “I’m proud to live by those values, but what I’m most proud of is knowing who I’ve passed them on to.” The camera settles on a smiling Chelsea, currently standing up for others by working for a hedge fund.

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