Politics provide a great example of how insidiously messaging about gender roles persists despite pushback. The belief that women belong in the home is still strong, and it’s especially strong in the case of mothers, who are expected to drop everything and dedicate their lives to their children. Mothers are apparently incapable of balancing work and home lives, of pursuing careers while also caring for and loving their children, and can’t be trusted to make good decisions for their children if they are also working, at least, so society seems to believe. In politics, this is particularly stark.
It is not uncommon for politicians to have families and in fact it is somewhat expected, because politicians want to be able to play the ‘family values’ card. It’s a lot harder to do that if you don’t have a family; at the very least, a loving partner, but ideally, also children. Politicians of all genders commonly have children, yet it’s the children of female politicians who seem to attract the most attention and ire.
It’s taken for granted that of course men would work outside the home even if they have children, and that a political career is important enough for a man to continue pursuing it while also raising children. This is, after all, man’s due; that he should rule the household and the world. Thus, you very rarely see the media questioning whether a man can safely run a campaign and have children. You don’t see magazines probing into the private home life of male politicians to ask if they’re fit fathers, or to question whether they should continue their careers even if they might ‘damage’ their children. Very rarely, for example, do you see a discussion of David Cameron’s son Ivan, who died at age six as a result of disability-related complications. It is considered, as it rightly should be, a personal matter.
For women in politics, though, family lives are open season. The media assumes that it will have access to the homes and families of female politicians and that these should be subject to reporting, blurring the lines between private and professional life. Women are asked about cooking, home decor, and other household matters as though these are appropriate subjects for media profiles when they’re running busy political campaigns. This reiterates the idea that women belong at home, by constantly dragging the homes of women politicians into the public sphere. Instead of keeping the home and work life of these candidates separate, the media does just the opposite, and it is rarely criticised for it. After all, it’s just reporting neutrally, right?
There’s also substantially more debate about whether mothers should be ‘allowed’ to be in politics. It comes in the form of criticism suggesting that mothers who pursue political campaigns are selfish and not thinking in the best interest of their children. In columns asking whether growing up with a mother in politics is damaging or detrimental[1. Ask Chelsea Clinton how she feels about this.]. In suggestions that children of mothers in politics must be awfully cold, lonely, and unloved without their mothers around to support and nurture them, as though politics suddenly whisks mothers away and forces them to lose all contact with their children.
Mothers in politics who make a point of making time for their children are criticised. They’re labeled too weak and sensitive for politics, and people claim they can’t focus on the task of politics if they’re always paying attention to their children. The same attention to work/life balance is praised in men, who are labeled sensitive and forward thinking if they take a weekend off from a campaign to go home, or make time every morning to have breakfast with their children, or attempt to keep their children out of the public eye. The persistence of this double standard highlights the common social belief that mothers can’t be mothers and something else, that they must be consumed by a parenting identity.
If there’s one thing I’d like to see a lot less of in the media surrounding this year’s campaign, it’s speculation about mothers on the campaign trail. The media on all sides is guilty of perpetuating outdated, tired ideas about gender roles and the capacity of fully-grown adults to balance private and professional lives. People of any gender carefully consider the decision to enter politics, well aware of the potential impacts on their lives and those of their families. They discuss the situation with family members and decide how they want to proceed on the basis of that information.
And men entering politics know from the start that they will have it much easier in terms of being able to maintain separation between their private and public lives. They are also well aware that they are less likely to be judged, critised, and condemned for deciding to enter politics with children at home. Few male politicians support women candidates against allegations that being mothers makes them somehow unfit, even when those women are from the same party and are not political opponents. This speaks poorly of men in politics, and is yet another reminder of how many people think women shouldn’t be involved on any level in the political sphere, that they should instead sit quietly at home and raise children.
You can raise children and raise a nation if you want to. Unfortunately, if you do want to, you’re going to encounter a lot of people trying to stop you, trying to claim you don’t belong, undermining you at every turn, because they believe you don’t belong and shouldn’t be given a chance. That includes the very people from within your movement you were hoping would be present to support you through your campaign.