Do We Need a Mother-in-Chief?

I know I am supposed to love Michelle Obama’s DNC speech. The talking heads on CNN and the endless stream of comments on my Facebook page tell me so: “A showstopper.” “Hillary’s ace.” “Powerful.” “Stirring.” Still, I am disappointed.

Obama’s speech is framed around themes of motherhood and childrearing. She reminds us that the president is, primarily, a role model for children. Sure, this is true yet it has very little to do with the substance of the job that Hillary Clinton is applying for.

via Wikimedia and licensed through Creative Commons

via Wikimedia and licensed through Creative Commons

Michelle Obama is a Harvard Law School graduate, a former executive director of Public Allies, and a university and hospital administrator. As first lady she has spearheaded national movements against childhood obesity and in support of military families. She is also the mother of two seemingly incredibly grounded daughters.

Hillary Clinton is a Yale Law School graduate, worked as a public interest lawyer for decades, led health care reform efforts as first lady, was elected to the Senate for two terms where she sat on the Senate Budget, Armed Services, and Education and Labor committees. Let’s not forget that Clinton served as Secretary of State for 5 years. Clinton is also a mother and grandmother.

Given the professional accomplishments of both women, I am disenchanted by the fact that Michelle Obama chose to focus her endorsement speech of the country’s first female presidential nominee wholly on the motif of motherhood. Most male presidential candidates are parents but being a father is rarely held up as prevailing qualification for the job of president. I have misgivings about the heavy emphasis on Obama and Clinton’s maternalism. I worry that it distracts from the job qualifications that Hillary Clinton has earned, throughout her lifetime, to be uniquely positioned to walk into the Oval Office on day one and serve as president.

Michelle Obama used the words “children,” “kids,” and “daughters” 34 times in her endorsement speech yet never said the word “Senator.” Not once. Hillary Clinton’s steadiness and measured disposition may come from being a mother to her child and a “champion for children” globally. Yet, Clinton has also carefully cultivated and constructed a career where she’s been forced to make impossibly difficult decisions, under tremendous pressure, and with consequences that go well beyond her nuclear family.

Decades ago, when Hillary Clinton was asked about her advocacy and policy work as first lady, she responded, much to the ire of some, “I suppose I could have stayed home, baked cookies and had teas.” Obviously, there is nothing wrong with the choices of a woman who wants her primary identity to be wrapped in the mantle of mother and homemaker but that hasn’t been Clinton’s mainstay.

Understandably, we are in unchartered territory with Clinton’s nomination as the first female president. I am sure Michelle Obama’s speech went a long way to “soften” Hillary Clinton’s image with women. I sat on the couch watching the speech next to a female friend, a mother, who wept because the speech touched a cord. I get it. I just don’t like it.

In her DNC speech, Michelle Obama implies, not so subtly, that she and Hillary Clinton each have “the most difficult” and “the most important” job, that of being a mother. Sure, being a mother is a hard job but is it “harder” than being Secretary of State of the United States? The comparison is an impossible trap and one that many women, both mothers and non-mothers, face throughout our careers.

In a 2007 60 Minutes episode, reporter Lesley Stahl asked actress Felicity Huffman if being a mother was the “best achievement” of Huffman’s life. Huffman, a multiple Emmy and Global Globe Award winner, responded with indignation:

No, no, and I resent that question. Because I think it puts women in an untenable position, because unless I say to you, ‘”Oh, Lesley, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done with my whole life,” I’m considered a bad mother.

As I watched Michelle Obama’s speech, I felt a sinking feeling that Obama and Hillary Clinton’s hard fought, glass ceiling smashing, publicly-focused professional accomplishments were being negated, or at least diminished, at the expense of their private, familial roles.

The reduction of Clinton to mother-in-chief may be just what is needed to land our first female president in office. In 2008, many white, liberal voters were comfortable with Obama because he was black, but not too black. Similarly, maybe we need to ease into the reality of a woman leading the country by reminding ourselves that she still fits neatly into our collective conception of what it means to be a woman: professionally capable andmaternal to the core. Michelle Obama’s speech drives home this duality.

Years down the line, after we’ve gotten over this hurdle of putting the first female in office, perhaps women running for the highest office, and those speaking as her surrogate, will calibrate political speech and find parity with the rhetoric of highly ambitious male politicians and vice versa. For now, I suppose we shouldn’t cast out the good, Obama’s DNC speech, at the expense of the perfect. As a feminist, I look forward to the day when a professionally accomplished, female public servant can give an exhilarating and convincing presidential endorsement speech on behalf of another highly qualified female candidate and not have the speech be overshadowed by predictable themes of maternalism.

This post originally appeared on Medium.

hBJubbxFE5fFu0ZDTxcywCBCkVCZ_PVBNNeUih4Kf3c%2cksTKQC9-5j_zhZX9yytRZDBuRnLvNm-aNwofHhu-6E0%2ccTRfQ8KMX8gHzsTxMRmS8VCMhcgzYutlEPrXMary Finn is a veteran educator. She currently works as an administrator with the San Francisco Unified School District. Mary also founded and runs Polis, a vibrant community of adult learners who seek to add fulfillment and meaning to their lives through an ongoing engagement with the liberal arts and sciences. Mary is a political junkie and worked as campaign field organizer on the Obama presidential campaign in 2008.


  1. Heidi Willis says:

    I think you missed the point of her speech. It wasn’t to paint Clinton as “Just a mother” but to APPEAL to the mothers out there that are going to cast their votes in November. She wanted to remind them to think about the kind of country that they want to leave their children. Plus Michelle has a right as a mother to fear for her daughter’s future based on what happens this Nov. Not every speech is going to talk about motherhood or children or even Hillary’s accomplishments which they shouldn’t. Each speech is taken together as a whole to appeal to a broad range of voters. If you leave out mothers or motherhood out of the convention completely, you’re missing out on connecting with a huge segment of society. This isn’t all about hammering on about Hillary’s resume, this whole thing is about appealing to voters directly. SO, please, stop with the criticism of Michelle’s speech. She did an amazing job.

    • “Reduced to mother-in-chief? Incredible condescending from a so-called feminist. It is truly unfortunate that “themes of maternalism ” bothered you.

    • I have to agree with Heidi. Michelle’s speech was not so much about Hillary as it was about the life we are going to leave for our children. What this election means in the grand scheme of things…….like the environment, money in politics (which I know Hillary is very much into now but……she has to play the game the way it is now), and mostly about the Supreme Court. Michelle spoke as a mother to reach out to other mothers and appeal to women to vote for the sane candidate who will not destroy our country and maybe the world.

    • CollectiveConscience says:

      Some people think she did an amazing speech. Some people (including me) agree with Mary Finn’s assessment. Some people do not care either way. It is amazing that we have freedom to disagree.

      It is sad that this presidential campaign has placed more emphasis on candidates’ parenting and children than previous campaigns. A sad reminder that in patriarchal societies women can accomplish many things, and even have political clout, but the most important thing is whether these women are mothers and how their children turned out. Sad.

  2. yowza!

  3. As great as Michelle’s speech was, i must agree with Finn’s observation which notes its limitation. And perhaps this was inevitable being that our First Lady herself, despite her credentials, has projected a maternal role in accompanying the President. If we remember, Hillary’s projection as First Lady was that of a more professionally inclined companion, which was part of her criticism by conservatives, both republicans and democrats. Hillary has been the trailblazer here.

  4. Joanne Morelock says:

    Much has been made of Obama’s status as a “good husband and father.” There’s no question that part of what is going on is simultaneously to spin Clinton’s rise to power as feminine, while also giving a platform to point at Trump’s more disgusting behaviors, and position the Dems as the party of family values. Motherhood is not essential to femaleness, but a feminist movement that leaves out/erases mothers and the process of raising children has in some essential way missed the point. Feminists in the political arena throughout history have very often been champions of children and healthcare; Hillary is no exception. Her commitment to healthcare, women, and children is not a ploy to be seen as non-threatening. It is the core of who she is. That female perspective is part of why we as a country need more women in power. We all need to be talking more about children, and what it takes to raise them to be good citizens. While it is slightly annoying that Clinton must embrace her gender-stereotyped feminine attributes, it is a wonderful thing that people are comparing Obama’s fatherhood to Trump’s. This positioning helps the Dems do that, and is truly a step in a feminist direction.

  5. Jan Dymond says:

    I very much applaud the references to what you label maternalism. I think it’s an important and even needed perspective today. Paternalism has been a criticism for many complaining about the slow trudge of equality. Maternalism just might be the ticket on a few major items in the Oval Office jurisdiction. Equality does not require the neglect or erradication of these nuances of who we are…..maternal, rural, social rather then economic policy oriented…….equality requires that the valuing of those aspects be the same. Ms. Clinton has always brought her maternal view to the table…..which is why she saw what advocacy needed doing…….and why she went through the painful process of forced change throughout her career.

    Women have got to stop thinking that there is something degenerative about being maternal. It is a blessing the world could well use tons of these days.

  6. While you look forward to the day when professionally accomplished women aren’t “overshadowed by predictable themes of maternalism,” I look forward to the day when my fellow feminists stop setting up this false dichotomy between motherhood and professionalism. What makes you feel that Obama’s appeal to mothers and investigation of the role of motherhood “overshadowed” Clinton’s qualifications?
    As a professional researcher in academia who also holds a senior position in a nonprofit, I get really tired of feeling like I have to “hide” my motherhood for fear of upsetting the sisterhood. I have two male colleagues who love to talk about my son with me, and I feel confident and comfortable when they see me in “mommy mode.” It helps professionally, as I’ll invite them over for a Saturday brunch planning session and never fear that they’ll see me cleaning out a bottle or behaving as a mother. On the other hand, I have female colleagues (without children) whom I would NEVER meet outside of a strictly professional setting because I feel constantly like I am having to assure them that my motherhood isn’t “predictably” overshadowing my career. They all ask loaded questions about “balance” and there’s a subtle overtone that let’s me know they’re happy for me, BUT…
    There’s been no shortage of discussion on Clinton’s extensive career and qualification. Allowing her to be the COMPLETE person she is, and to bring her entire life experience to the White House, is in not only her best interest as a candidate, but the best interest of the feminist cause altogether.

  7. And I think people know and accept Hillary’s “professional” accomplishments….remember, one of the main focuses of all the speakers was to make Clinton appear more regular, more accessible and more likable”. I agree with you that male candidates have never had to list their “familial” bonds, but I suppose this comes with breaking glass ceilings and forging new ground in the political forum. You’ve presented an interesting aspect, though!

  8. Close your eyes and imagine that it was Barack and not Michelle Obama who gave that speech. Would you applaud?

    If the answer is yes, is this not a double standard? How dare she stand up there and give a speech that focuses on the future and opportunity for today’s children, including her own?

    If the answer is yes, perhaps it is finally time for feminism to grow up a little bit and realize that what we should be learning is that we don’t simply want a person with a vagina in the White House, what we really want is a person who embodies the very best of traditionally “feminine” and “masculine” characteristics both. Someone who is compassionate, empathetic, maternal even at times, and yet assertive, steady, nurturing, and not afraid to make tough decisions. We could have it all and you would settle for half the cake: a woman good at playing by and winning within the strict confines of mens’ rules. Why not ask for instead a whole human being?

    We have already had that in President Obama. He is thoughtful, compassionate, decisive, assertive, a great listener and a great speaker. He knows what he wants and what he wants is not power, or to win, or to defeat the other guy with his bravado. What he wants is to lead and support the nation and all of its citizens.

    Hillary, in playing and winning the man’s game has cracked the glass ceiling, yes, but at what expense? The shards are already falling on women who do not share her respect for the masculine world. I for one would not want to have to become a Hillary to be successful. I would want to hold on to the best of both worlds, keep aspects of my character that express my humanity, and be chosen as a leader for my courage and wisdom and compassion and everything else that I hold to be important.

    Don’t bash Michelle. Hillary could never give such a speech and be believable. She is missing a whole, good, respectable part of herself having succeeded the way that she did.

    I’d posit that Michelle is every bit as tough if not more so than Hillary. And yet she still espouses “feminine” virtues and has the courage, yes courage, to express them on the world stage without embarrassment. I’d vote for her over Hillary any day of the week. I did vote for her husband over Hillary and stand by that choice wholeheartedly.

    Hillary is what old feminism looks like, 1970s feminism. We need leadership that goes ahead and takes the next step in respect for women (and men too): respecting them for who they are.

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