Hillary Clinton and The Cult of True Womanhood

The attributes of True Womanhood, by which a woman judged herself and was judged by her husband, her neighbors, and society, could be divided into four cardinal virtues – piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Put them all together and the spelled mother, daughter, sister, wife – woman. Without them, no matter whether there was fame, achievement, or wealth, all was ashes. With them she was promised happiness and power.

— Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820 – 1860”

I agree w/Hillary, it’s time to elect a woman for President. But I want that President to reflect the values of being a mother. #MothersDay

— Jill Stein, Twitter, May 8, 2016

What’s important about Hillary Clinton? She’s been a Secretary of State, a senator, a partner in a law firm. She has a much stronger understand of policy, both foreign and domestic, than any of her opponents. But that’s not what’s really important. What’s really important, Jill Stein tells us, is her fitness to be a mother, which is apparently lacking, despite the fact that her only child seems to have turned out just fine.

One of the many, many infuriating things about Stein’s tweet is that it’s impossible to imagine anyone saying something similar about a man. Does anyone think that  either Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump “reflect the values” of being a father? Would anyone even ask that question out loud?

I think what Jill Stein is getting at — although it’s impossible to be certain from this tweet — is that Hillary is too “hawkish.” It’s true that Hillary favors a more interventionist foreign policy than Stein (or I) would like. But why frame that in terms of motherhood? Denigrating Hillary’s maternal qualities, doesn’t make Stein’s message any clearer; indeed it makes it harder to understand. And this kind of framing plays into True Woman stereotypes: all real women are gentle, demure, peaceful. No True Woman would willingly go to war.

I grew up in Arkansas; Bill Clinton is the only governor I remember. I learned the definition of the word “lesbian” because I overheard my mom speculating about Hillary. It’s not that there was any reason to believe that she was a lesbian; it’s just that she didn’t seem like other women. She was bossy, pushy, opinionated. She talked back to people. She made no bones about the fact that she thought she was smarter than, well, most everyone. “You have to admit,” my mother said darkly when I tried to defend her, “she’s an awfully strong woman.”

It’s been common, in this electoral cycle, to joke about the double-bind Hillary finds herself in (Brett Arends compiled this helpful list for MarketWatch, and Jimmy Kimmel assisted Hillary with her speech delivery on his show). But it’s not just about Hillary, and it’s not just conservatives and third-party outliers. In 2008 even feminists disparaged Sarah Palin for campaigning with a young baby and joked about her teenage daughter’s pregnancy. Palin was running for national office and wasn’t clear on the fact that there was both a North and a South Korea; there was a lot of room for criticism. There was no need to bring up her maternal success. But people did. What kind of a father is John McCain? I have no idea. I don’t remember that the topic ever came up.

Welter argues in her essay that the True Woman explicated in the ladies’ magazines of the nineteenth century eventually evolved into the New Woman–a woman who was strong, independent, and ran her own life. “And yet,” Welter writes, “the stereotype, the ‘mystique’ if you will, of what woman was and ought to be persisted, bringing guilt and confusion in the midst of opportunity.” It’s been two hundred years, and the evolution isn’t complete. The guilt and confusion still linger. You have to wonder if, as a country, we’re ever going to get to a point where a woman’s motherliness is not the overwhelming criterion for how we judge her.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s