Why does the female political identity still revolve around motherhood?

By Eleanor McKelvey - National Director of Online Engagement (Blog)

In 2007, Sarah Palin referred to herself for the first time as mama grizzly. By the 2010 US mid-terms, she had assembled a whole entourage of female politicians who she supported under the title “mama grizzles”. The nickname came across as a fairly transparent attempt by Palin to defend herself and her colleagues as hard-nosed and gritty in spite of their motherhood.

“If you thought pit bulls were tough, you don't want to mess with mama grizzlies,” Palin said in the run up to the 2008 US Presidential election.

By T toes from Decatur, USA - palinwave,  CC BY 2.0

By T toes from Decatur, USA - palinwave, CC BY 2.0

Why did Palin feel the need to excuse her motherhood in this way?

Ever since women have started taking up office, the political right has had a difficult time reconciling stereotypes about motherhood with women’s performance of political duties. Conservative ideals venerate the “natural” heteronuclear family as the basic unit of society and, with it, traditional gender roles. As Norocel (2018) points out, this has resulted in conservative female politicians being confined to two stereotypes:

a)      The career politician – whose identity is centred around her career

b)     The mother politician – who centres her family in her identity and job

Right-wing female politicians are expected to fully embrace or reject “motherhood”, and all the associated stereotypes. Conservative female politicians who have children tend to focus their political interests on social/family issues. They must go to great lengths to prove that motherhood has not rendered them soft or unfocused. On the other hand, the political right expects female “career politicians” to construct an image as cold and pragmatic (i.e. not “motherly”), and to have no expertise or interest in social/family issues.

Right-wing expectations about childless female politicians played out noticeably whilst Julia Gillard was PM. For example, Tony Abbott criticised the Australian Government at the time as “lack[ing] experience in raising children”. This comment was pretty hypocritical coming from a man who, in 2013, showed no concern about a lack of personal experience when he decided to appoint himself minister for women’s issues. Furthermore, in 2010 Abbott’s colleague George Brandis undermined Julia Gillard after she responded to comments made by Abbott about his daughters’ virginity. Brandis said, “[Gillard’s] overreaction…is not something she would have said if she were herself the mother of teenage daughters”. This argument was completely ridiculous given that, unlike Abbott and Brandis, Gillard has actually been a teenage daughter herself.

It isn’t only male politicians who weaponize the childlessness of female politicians against them. In 2016, UK Conservative Party member Andrea Leadsom said she thought she would make a better Prime Minister than Theresa May because, unlike May, her having children meant she had a “very real stake in the future of the nation”.

By European People's Party - Angela Merkel, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33089118

By European People's Party - Angela Merkel, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33089118

Theresa May, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has even been given the nickname “mummy” by colleagues (Merkel is referred to as “Mutti” by the general population). The nicknames feel distinctly uncomfortable, as though designed to taunt at these women’s childlessness. According to the stereotypes of right-wing politics, if these women are branded as “mothers”, by default, they are no longer career politicians. The nickname thus destabilises these women and their sense of identity. It also seems to speak to our society’s continuing discomfort with accepting women’s authority outside of the context of motherhood.

Because motherhood is seen as opposed to being career-focused, female politicians often find themselves being told that motherhood will cause them to neglect either their children or jobs. Upon her pregnancy announcement, member of the Japanese House of Representatives Takako Suzuki complained about repeatedly being asked questions such as, “Are you abandoning your job?”, and being told that people “feel sorry for her baby”.

Overall, it perhaps isn't hard to understand why, as a mother, Palin felt the need to defend her hard-stance and commitment to politics. Nonetheless her relative success at cultivating an image somewhere between the stereotypes of the mother and career politician was pretty remarkable. When the majority of female politicians try to reject the strict boundaries of these stereotypes, the political right is quick to ridicule them for it. For example, Matthew Continetti of the Washington Free Beacon described Hillary Clinton as “flaunting” her grandchild during her presidential campaign, and called it “one of the most transparently cynical and sentimental acts of a major American politician that I can recall”. But what alternative did Hillary have, faced with the previously ascribed labels of “cold” and “distant”?

By breaking down the essential ties between motherhood and female politicians, we could open up room for women to develop more diverse political identities. Currently, women in politics tend to occupy “soft”/”social” Cabinet positions – how is this affected by the assumptions we make about women’s interests/expertise? Certainly, motherhood provides an experience for individual growth, but it is neither necessary nor sufficient for the development of qualities like empathy or community-mindedness. On broader terms, if we want to see more diverse governments, we must stop holding female politicians up to meaningless standards, and then manufacturing “downfall” from their failure to meet them.