Last week, Michelle Obama unveiled a stump speech that could have been given by Jackie Onassis or Edith Roosevelt or Betty Draper at a civic meeting saying things we happen to know are not quite true. Speaking as "mom-in-chief," Obama said her children are her "first priority" and "the center of my world." "That's really why I'm here today," she continued, explaining why she was doing a week of campaign events. "You see, more than anything else, I come at this as a mom."
Was this Michelle Obama doing her own cartoonish version of Mama Grizzly? (She would not be the first female Democratic pol repackaging herself for the age of Palin.) Certainly extreme retro is not Obama's most convincing mode. But don't let it give you the wrong idea about what's really going on. The amazing new thing about this election season is that a female candidate can be almost anything she wants to be. She can be an eight-months-pregnant ultraconservative with a stay-at-home husband (Cathy McMorris Rodgers), a wrestling executive whose husband told a female wrestler to bark like a dog (Linda McMahon), or a 28-year-old CPA Democrat defending—as a feminist cause—Facebook pictures that show her sucking a dildo (Krystal Ball).
Contrast this with a not-long-bygone era—2008—in which women in politics had only a few limited moves. Hillary Clinton took us through them rigidly in her Victor/Victoria presidential race, at first manning up as much as possible and then making an abrupt turn at the very end, shedding a tear and then owning her feminist identity in her famous "18 million cracks in the glass ceiling" speech. Then Sarah Palin showed up, Down syndrome baby and posse of children in tow, and owned her motherhood unabashedly. Now, with a wider variety of women running, here is our attempt at a taxonomy of the new and subtle ways that a lady pol can mix up the tough and the vulnerable.
Pure Mama Grizzly
The common thread connecting the women in this category is a tendency to splice footage that looks like it comes from home videos into campaign ads. New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte's ads include scenes of the candidate and her husband, an Iraq vet, wrestling with their two little kids on the couch. They also include shots of her saying she's "tough," shooting a gun and riding a snowmobile. Ayotte is not afraid to show her domestic side, but never in the Patty Murray "mom in sneakers" mode. She wears big snowboots and puts criminals behind bars. A Democrat can take this road, too. Alex Sink, who is running for governor of Florida, embodies tough-momdom in her scolding lecture ads. ("I've got no patience for it!") In this ad, Sink points out that if elected she would become the only Florida governor whose kids went to the state's public schools, and then shows a picture of her hugging her teenage daughter. *
A lot of Republican candidates are trailing more with women than men. But in California, Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina doesn't really have that problem. Maybe there's a counterintuitive lesson here: Fiorina hasn't done much to soften her image, though she does talk a bit about her battle with breast cancer. Here's one obligatory picture of her and her husband cooking in the kitchen—but it would be more in keeping with the tone of the campaign if Fiorina picked up one of the gleaming pots and hit her opponent, Democrat Barbara Boxer, on the head.
As the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Fiorina once said there is no glass ceiling and then regretted it. "Dumb thing to say," Fiorina toldSalon's Rebecca Traister. To illustrate her conversion, she famously tells a story on herself about stuffing a pair of her husband's socks into her pants to prove to a bunch of men at a business meeting that "Our balls are as big as anyone's in this room."
This about-face could have translated into female solidarity—imagine a race in which, even as Boxer and Fiorina went after each other on policy grounds, they'd declare their mutual respect. Instead, Fiorina got caught mocking Boxer's hair and then went after Boxer for her "arrogance" in asking to be addressed as senator at a congressional hearing. Boxer, for her part, has been just as merciless. "She broke the glass ceiling when she got her job as C.E.O. of Hewlett-Packard," she said of Fiorina. "But she got fired. She failed. "
Meg Whitman, the Republican running for California governor, falls into this category, too, what with allegations that she once shoved her employee and mistreated her maid, just as Betty Draper did on the Mad Men season finale. But her opponent, Democrat Jerry Brown, handed her a feminist Get Out of Jail Free card, which we will address below.
In Nevada, Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle is running her campaign without softening herself in the slightest. She makes almost no mention of her family in her ads or on her Web site (here's a brief exception that proves the rule). In her debate with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Angle chided him to "man up" in criticizing his stance on Social Security. Other women are also inflicting "man up" on their male opponents this season, as Anne Kornblut points out in the Washington Post: Robin Carnahan, running for Senate in Missouri (she told Rep. Roy Blount to "man up" about health care reform) and Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell. The latter gets the creative metaphor award for telling her rival in the Republican primary, Mike Castle, to "get his man pants on" after he filed an election-law complaint against her.
Male candidates also sometimes use the phrase. But in the hands of a woman, it's testosterone transference: You drain the guy's masculinity and show off your own cojones at the same time. This tactic takes Hillary Clinton toughness—her "It's 3 a.m. and the White House phone is ringing" ad—and adds the extra insult. It's not just that the female candidate would be swift and decisive in an emergency; it's that the male candidate would curl up in a ball and weep. Liz Cheney and other conservatives imply as much about President Obama and his inability to "stand up and defend America."
A survey released last month sponsored by the Women's Media Center, among others, showed that sexist insults against female candidates work their dark magic. When their male opponents called them mean girls, ice queens, or prostitutes, voters' opinions of women running for office dropped far more than if the men stuck to criticizing them on gender-neutral policy grounds. The survey also found that women bounced back from a sexist attack by calling out their opponents for it. Meg Whitman followed that advice perfectly last week, thanks to her opponent, Jerry Brown, who gave her an opportunity the Whitman campaign couldn't have scripted better. After one of Brown's aides was caught calling Whitman a "whore" on tape, Tom Brokaw predictably asked Brown about it in a debate. "We've heard no outrage from you," Brokaw said.
Brown knew enough to confirm that he'd apologized to Whitman. But then he backpedaled: "This is a five-week-old private conversation," he said. "I don't want to get into the term and how it's used." Whitman seized the chance to take umbrage. "Jerry, it's not just me, it's the people of California who deserve better than slurs and personal attacks," she said. "I think every Californian and especially women know exactly what's going on here. And that is a deeply offensive term to women."
Whitman has set up a group pitched to female voters, MegaWomen. The "whore" remark, and Brown's defensiveness about it, was especially welcome to her because it changed the subject away from the revelation that Whitman abruptly fired her nanny of nine years, Nicky Diaz.
Taking umbrage has also been the strategy of Krystal Ball, who is running for Congress in Virginia as a Democrat and has had to contend with photos that show her in a Santa hat sucking on a red dildo affixed to her husband's nose. "They wanted me to feel like a whore," Ball wrote after the photos were released. "They wanted me to collapse in a ball of embarrassment and to hang my head in shame." This has cheered the feminist blogosphere, which praised Ball for standing up to a double standard. But did she really do that—wouldn't photos like these have equally embarrassed a male candidate? Does it work to call down "whore" on yourself? Maybe Ball is striking a new blow for sexual liberation. Or maybe she is playing the gender card in a way that's not as old-fashioned as Michelle Obama, but not exactly the way forward either.
Wife. Grandmother. Queen of the Ring.
OK, we admit that Linda McMahon, who is running as the Republican candidate for Senate in Connecticut, is in a category all her own. She's putting on her own show as she wavers between defending the bizarre cartoon sexism of the wrestling world and then going soft on us. In interviews, McMahon has been asked, for example, about a pay-per-view boob-fest her company, World Wrestling Entertainment put on (with Girls Gone Wild), her husband's bark-like-a-dog order, a slap her daughter gave her in the wrestling ring, and oh-so-much more.
On The View, McMahon chalked up the stunts to "bad acting" and said that her real place is in the board room. But if she was making the calls, doesn't she have to take responsibility for this roll of the WWE's Most Degrading to Women moments, put together by Mothers Opposing McMahon? And what about the untimely deaths of young WWE wrestlers suspected of using steroids?
Lately, McMahon has fallen back on the First Amendment to defend her company's programming, never mind that it protects all kinds of things candidates would be ill-advised to do in public. McMahon has also paired her tough executive image with a gentler one. This ad plays soft background music and starts out, "I'm a wife. I'm a mom. I'm a grandmother." On The View, McMahon was demure in lavender, a contrast to the footage that showed her striding into the wrestling ring in a leather jacket and heavy chain jewelry. The good news is that by pouring $50 million of her own money into the campaign, McMahon can buy ads to show all sides of herself. The bad news is that she has so saturated the airwaves that voters say they're getting sick of her—especially women, with whom she is way down in the polls.
It's refreshing to see women trying out new scripts. Whether or not the candidates win, maybe this election will drive away some of the tired old images—lesbian, indecisive, "mom in sneakers." It will also end the idea that women will automatically vote for a woman candidate. Jerry Brown has more female supporters than Meg Whitman; ditto for Harry Reid over Sharron Angle and Richard Blumenthal over Linda McMahon. That, too, is an important lesson: Among the many new things a woman candidate can be is the candidate for the men, not the ladies.
Correction, Oct. 19, 2010: This article originally described the people in the ad incorrectly as Sink's two teenage daughters; one of the women in the picture is Sink herself. Sink has a daughter and a son. (Return to the corrected sentence.)