Facebook friends and I have been commenting on and complaining about the preponderance of “I’m a mother!” type justifications for political activity and political activism at the national party conventions this year. As I work through why the tendency or trend annoys me, I think about how and if parenthood has changed me. Obviously it has. So often I hear that parenthood changes you because finally you have to think about someone else. In that case, I guess parenthood justifies political activity and participation, and might explain why you should vote for someone who’s a particularly good parent (however that is measured), because the presumption is that a parent will have more empathy and more of an investment in the future. The better you are as a parent, the more loving and concerned, the better you will be as a political actor–or so the talk seems to go.
As an historian, I’m immediately reminded of ideas around Republican Motherhood, the Republican Wife, and the Republican Family first explicated for me in the works of Linda Kerber and Jan Lewis. To explain the concept in its most basic form while teaching, I use this image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Artist_and_His_Family_James_Peale.jpeg. [I had no idea until just now that Wikipedia used it too for the same reason.] The first thing to understand is that I don’t mean a partisan Republican family, I just mean a family in a republic as idealized in the late 18th-century. In this ideal, the family is the building block for the nation. The man and woman play separate, but essentially equal roles, hence in the painting their arms are linked and they are the same height. Every female in the picture, however, gazes at another person or something within the private domain of the family. The two male figures in the picture gaze out of the frame, the father towards us, the viewer, the son towards something off in the distance outside the family (the future?). The woman’s place is to care for the virtue and well being of the family; the man’s place to be the mediator between the family and the public or political sphere. Hence a man votes as the head of a family, on behalf of himself but significantly also his dependents (property laws for suffrage during the period contributing to this idea). A woman wouldn’t need to vote because her husband does so on her behalf. Yet she would need to be educated because she could participate in petitioning her government or in parades or other non-voting or office-holding political activity. And of course she had to help educate and raise virtuous future citizens.
Can you see where I’m going with this? Of course, women have the vote now and can hold office. Of course, none of the women we’ve heard have defended being active in politics because they have children. They have used it, however, to explain how and why they became involved. See for example Elaine Brye, the mother of the four soldiers, who kept saying, “I am not a political person” and Stacey Lihn who was there to support health care reform based upon her daughter’s illness.
You don’t, however, have to be a parent to be a good person and to see why our healthcare system and the insurance industry are broken. You don’t have to be a parent to be a good person and see that our financial system needs reform. You don’t have to be a parent to be a good person and see that the American educational system needs to do better. You don’t have to be a parent to deserve to benefit from these reforms. Furthermore, you don’t have to be a child to deserve to benefit from them. Specifically, though, since as a friend pointed out, this discourse doesn’t implicate men as much as it does women (although both Obama and Romney do mention their children quite a lot), you don’t have to be a mother to see these things.
Those of us who are parents might not see clearly how the language is exclusionary, and how it is condescending and even a little infantilizing. Yet it is. When I look at my own life, I don’t think parenthood matured me any more than not owning a home until I was 35 kept me a child. I have grown up more in the past 5 years, for sure, but not more so than my friends without kids. I have not become more compassionate or a better person simply for having kids. I have become so, I think, because I’ve experienced more of life. So have my friends who haven’t become parents.
We run two risks with the language using motherhood as a justification for our worldview. Firstly, we run the risk of excluding women who don’t have children from having a say in politics. I would have thought that idea was ridiculous a few years ago, but the insane focus on reproduction and women’s sexual behavior this year has made me wonder about our communal vision of womanhood in this country.
We also, I think, limit our vision of the sources of human compassion. I’m not less self-centered because I have living children. In fact, I might be a little more selfish. It’s just that I have two little parts of my self running out and about in the world to make my selfishness seem dispersed. (Actually, only one of them is running yet, the other just kicks his legs around like he wants to take off as soon as possible.) I am more protective of my time. I am less generous with my money because I need more of it. I spend less time calling and checking up on friends. The last time I did something really political I wrote to my representatives about progesterone drugs for preventing preterm labor and about the effect Mississippi’s Personhood Amendment would have on a pregnant woman with my history. James Madison might decry me as particularly interested because these two actions were directly a result of my pursuit of motherhood–a self-centered goal.
Not that my actions were a bad thing, but they represent an interest that might overshadow other interests. Someone without children might have as valid an interest that’s not related to parenthood. They might want to promote a cause simply because they’re a good person. And that’s why I hope to do ultimately, as well. Not to fight for something or vote for someone simply because I’m a parent, but because I’m striving to be a good person. Parenthood has highlighted certain issues for me, but they’re not more important than what I was interested in before. In so many cases, actually, they overlap.
“I’m a mom” makes for a good story line. I get that. But I would love to hear a woman be able to stand up and justify herself with a different emotional appeal–just simply the fact that she’s a person. She can look outside of her self and see what’s needed in the world too, just as well as any man, parent or not.