First lady -- a glorified housewife?

Today’s question: At their convention, Republicans ignored Cindy McCain’s impressive business accomplishments and instead focused on her record of philanthropy. Why is a strong woman a good VP candidate but not a good first lady? Previously, Marcotte and Mangu-Ward discussed the media’s focus on gender, whether a socially conservative candidate could ever appeal to feminists and Gloria Steinem’s criticism of Sarah Palin.

Sarah Palin’s running for VP, not first lady
Point: Amanda Marcotte

Sure, there’s a double standard when it comes to how the GOP is selling Cindy McCain and Sarah Palin, highlighting the former’s philanthropy and the latter’s accomplishments as an executive, which are strong for an ordinary person but still remarkably weak for a vice presidential candidate. I suspect the reason the public is supposed to be awed by her is because she’s a woman who pulled it off. To me, it’s obvious that women can be governors and mayors, but from the condescending way the Republican campaign treats her, you’d think she’s impressive just because she can read.

But there’s a double standard for a fair reason: Cindy McCain is not running for office. She’s indicated that she intends to continue to be a small part of John McCain’s life even if he wins, though time will tell if she’s allowed to do this. Palin, on the other hand, is trying to get our votes. She’s not John McCain’s mistress or his third wife in training. She’s his colleague, and it’s appropriate to treat her that way. Sorry, Republicans, that means she’s eligible for criticism.

I’m not entirely sure the campaign that brought Palin on understands the difference between “running mate” and “consort,” though. Republicans ballyhoo her ruthless, Spiro-Agnew-returns type with glee, alluding to vicious animals such as barracudas and pit bulls. But she’s being sheltered as if she were the idealized naive housewife. The campaign’s first photo of her gave the impression that she’d be another lady taking tea in the White House. Then there’s the careful shielding of Palin from media inquiries, as if she’s a delicate flower. We shouldn’t condemn Chris Matthews for describing her campaign as a mix between “a vice president and first lady”; we should ask why the McCain campaign is so sexist as to handle her this way.

Say what you will about Hillary Clinton, she didn’t see a need to soften the edges of her campaign to make it an Extra Downy woman’s effort. Like the feminist she is, Clinton campaigned as if the only legitimate differences between male and female candidates are the clothes they wear and how much prejudice they face (and she came close to winning with such a threatening image). We almost forgot that Clinton’s pathway into Washington politics was her stint as first lady, where she lost a major battle on healthcare and was resigned to playing a traditional role of non-threatening philanthropist for the rest of her husband’s presidency.

Not that this change of roles for Clinton stopped the endless squalling from right-wingers who thought that the only suitable role for a first lady is to be a glorified housewife, with far-flung philanthropy substituting for the more mundane everyday housewife life, such as working church bake sales and PTA meetings. Clinton’s deviations from the first lady-as-housewife model started her on the path to being the national symbol of all right-wing men’s fears of emasculation.

Laura Bush and now Cindy McCain show no sign of bucking the trend of displaying proper subservience to their husbands. They buy into the idea that the first lady’s role is to reassure the nation that the standard of wifehood is still intact. Clinton pushed the envelope and Michelle Obama has room to push it further, though the latter has put her prestigious career on hold to help her husband. The day that we have a first lady in the White House who continues her career instead of spending all her time doing charitable work is the day I’ll believe that the nation has finally accepted that wives can have their own careers and stops treating the majority of married women as if they’re deviations from the norm.

Amanda Marcotte is the executive editor and writer for the blog Her first book, “It’s a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environment,” is published by Seal Press.

Cindy McCain is Martha Stewart to Sarah Palin’s Rachael Ray
Counterpoint: Katherine Mangu-Ward

At first glance, the Republicans’ would-be first lady and VP nominee are the yin and yang of woman. Together they form the very model of a modern working matriarch.

Palin takes care of business. She’s the careerist half. Look! There she is giving a press conference coated in amniotic fluid! She’s back at work three days after giving birth! She’s breast feeding during conference calls! She still has time to style her bangs and put on pearls! She hunts. She fishes. She fishes for money. She’s tenacious, as her speech at the GOP convention made clear. She elicits slavish devotion from a certain type of man, such as Adam Brickley, the blogger who got his 15 minutes by “discovering” Palin; the Atlantic’s resident conservative and early Palin booster Ross Douthat; and Rush Limbaugh.

Cindy McCain just takes care. She keeps house (OK, eight houses). She smiles. She’s a “crier.” People use the word “elegant” a lot when they talk about her. Her fidelity to the 1950s housewife shtick is so intense that she even once managed an addiction to prescription pain killers. Her charity work is perfect first-lady fodder -- cleft palates and land mines a la Princess Diana. She has a master’s degree in special education, for crying out loud.

She keeps her mouth shut. As the Clintons have been so ably demonstrating for more than a decade now, it’s no mean feat to keep from saying something that’s going to cause trouble when your spouse is running for office.

But here’s why Palin and Cindy McCain can both legitimately claim the title of strong, modern woman in their own right: Each borrows liberally from the stereotype of the role the other is supposed to be playing.

Cindy McCain’s feel-good, goody-two-shoes care giving involves MBA-level management skills and the occasional trip in an armored car. She’s the chairwoman of a large corporation. She flies planes and races cars. She asked for and got an ironclad pre-nuptial agreement from John McCain.

Palin sold herself to the people of Wasilla and later Alaska as a folksy hockey mom, which she is. When she talks, she sounds like a church lady; she is a church lady.

Cindy McCain is Martha Stewart to Palin’s Rachael Ray. While they’re baking cakes and smiling for the cameras, it’s easy to forget that both Stewart and Ray run billion-dollar empires.

One part of being a strong woman (having it all, if you will) is choosing who has access to which parts of one’s personality, and when. Both women have managed this feat of personal public relations impressively, each finding her own balance of power, personal fulfillment, pulchritude and pregnancy. To suggest that John McCain is the puppet master of both women gives them far too little credit -- and him far too much.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor at Reason magazine.

<< Previous day | Main page | Next day >>
Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5