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.