(WOMENSENEWS)--In her first appearance as a formally declared presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton made the case for children's health insurance. During the event she held the hand of a small girl and kids squirmed in the audience.
The maternal atmosphere recalled a similar recent debut by Nancy Pelosi, when she took up the hammer as Speaker of the House surrounded by swarms of children. The day before, the New York Times ran a photo of her hugging a co-worker's child. A week later the San Francisco Chronicle ran a front page picture with Pelosi sitting next to her granddaughter.
Both Clinton and Pelosi are obviously doing what they can to emphasize their maternal and matriarchal aspects in what I can only speculate is an effort to soften hard-working, hard-driving identities that still aren't as palatable in women as in men, even in the year 2007.
While this nurturing emphasis may win Clinton and Pelosi some publicity points no one should think the media response to this is entirely benign or that it doesn't contribute to a public perception gap about which gender is better left in charge of the children and which with the legislative agenda.
After Nancy Pelosi's historic election as Speaker of the House, the Washington Post described her as a "grandmother of five."
The Post didn't refer to her as a "20-year veteran of Congress," which probably had more to do with her election.
Meanwhile, the Post described Harry Reid, the new Senate leader, as the "son of a hard-rock miner" with no mention of Reid's 16 grandchildren.
'Reid, Grandfather of 16'
Imagine how differently the story would read if it began "Pelosi, daughter of a mayor" and "Reid, grandfather of 16."
We have had countless fathers and grandfathers in political leadership positions, but their family ties are rarely if ever mentioned in their news coverage.
I'm not suggesting that parenting or grand-parenting isn't valuable. Of course it is.
But female politicians shouldn't be singled out as jugglers. That just takes us back to the 1980s.
The Sunday after Pelosi's inauguration, the New York Times' feature opinion piece written by New Republic senior editor Ryan Lizza purported to question the Democratic strategy of electing a pack of new "alpha" male Democrats in Congress. But Lizza's opinion takes as fact that strength and leadership are "masculine" traits, to be contrasted with the image of the Democrats as the weak "mommy party."
The suggestion was clear that male is strong; female--used interchangeably with "nurturing"--is weak.
But let's look at how the men were characterized in the article.
He Also Teaches Music
Senator Jon Tester is described as a "husky Montana farmer with a buzzcut." Very virile, but the author omitted a few facts. Tester is a hobby farmer and an organic one at that. Since when is organic farming seen as tough?
And Tester's occupation? Music teacher. Why didn't that get mentioned? Could it be it didn't sound tough enough?
Then there's Virginia Senator Jim Webb, included because he was a marine 30 years ago. I had to dig to find biographical information on Webb. You don't find anywhere on his official Web sites that he is the father to four kids with three wives (according to Wikipedia).
Sounds like his parenting activities are of more interest than Pelosi's, but for some reason they got passed over.
Personally I don't care how many times Webb has been married. But if the media is going to dwell on Pelosi's offspring let's have equal time.
The editors provided a photograph of Pelosi with a caption labeling her the "flip side" to all this strength and toughness.
Opinion Out of Touch
In going so far to describe these guys as tough and by avoiding their connections with their children, the opinion piece is out of touch with any kind of reality, past or present.
I don't know that there was ever a time that real parenting, and nurturing, was considered weak. But somehow, the opinion, by all its omissions, implied just that.
In the rush to portray Tester as a big tough guy the opinion not only fails to mention the organic farming and music teaching it also omits to say he is the father of two children and the grandfather of one, just as the Post omitted the fact that Reid is the grandfather of 16.
I'm willing to bet these men do care about their children and grandchildren, and they strike me as the kind who probably care about other children as well. And that doesn't make them weak. It makes them strong.
Meanwhile, there was nothing weak about Pelosi's fiery inauguration speech. She had the gallery on its feet so often it seemed like an old-fashioned revival. And there was nothing soft about the way Pelosi marshaled her six-point plan through Congress' first 100 hours.
Senator Clinton, meanwhile, is making all the front-runner moves. This week, in a sign of her fundraising strength, she waved off federal financing, laying down a funding gauntlet that other aspirants are expected to match.
This country faces lots of issues that need urgent and responsible attention. From the war on Iraq, to global warming, to financing Social Security, six years of empty macho rhetoric has dumped big problems into the new Speaker's lap. This won't be the first time mothers have come in to clean up the mess. But when Pelosi and Clinton lay down their visions and promises, I trust that they'll follow up.
Lisa Nuss is an attorney and writer currently living in San Francisco. She is blogging about the 2008 presidential race on http://www.howdareshe.com/.
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For more information:
"O'Connor Coverage Ruled a Media Breakthrough":
"Press Emphasized Pelosi's Gender, Not Clout":
"New 'Stepford Wives' Fuels Old Anti-Career Views":