As Mom Goes, so Goes the Nation

In presidential politics, talking to women as mothers is as American as apple pie.

Lauri Luczak
“It seems like it’s kind of a mom awakening ... women are rising up.”— Sarah Palin, Mama Grizzlies Ad

Sarah Palin’s 2010 “Mama Grizzlies” ad was intended to advance what she sees as an ideological movement afoot among conservative women. Though not a campaign ad — she wasn’t running for office last year — it elicited a bear-sized response from pundits of all political persuasions and set the tone of her public persona going forward. In the two-minute video, the former governor of Alaska proclaimed a “kind of mom awakening” among conservative women, comparing them to mama grizzlies ready to “rise up on their hind legs when somebody is coming to attack their cubs.”

While Palin is a recent figure on the national stage, her desire to channel political participation through motherhood is even older than the rights she urges women to use. In this, she echoes male candidates of the last several centuries. Maybe that’s one reason Palin’s strongest supporters are men — her vision of maternal power fits with their worldview.

Unlike most prior presidential hopefuls, however, would-be candidate Palin is a mom herself. This allows her to speak to mothers as a mother.

Long before 1920, when women were granted suffrage in the United States, women’s participation was defined almost exclusively through their domestic and maternal roles. During the Revolutionary War period, “republican motherhood” asserted that women’s patriotic duty was to raise children who were good citizens and committed republicans, building a strong foundation for the young nation. During the Progressive Era more than a century later, women drove social reforms with the settlement house movement and the fight for prohibition. Their efforts were cast as public “housekeeping” — cleaning up the streets and communities in order to provide children with healthier environments. In both these instances, women’s political legitimacy was drawn from their maternal and domestic roles.

Motherhood also shaped women’s entrée into the national electorate. When women went to the polls for the first time in 1920, presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle appealed to motherhood to defend opposing positions on the creation of the League of Nations. The drumbeat of domesticity hammered on with Republican Herbert Hoover’s 1928 campaign, which issued an appeal to “the stocking-darning, dish-washing, home-making woman” to vote for Hoover. Three decades later, political leveraging of motherhood continued when Democrat Adlai Stevenson asserted, “The hand that rocks the cradle, peels the potatoes and pounds the typewriter keys also pulls the voting lever … as mom goes, so goes the nation.”

Inevitably, as women’s roles began to broaden, presidential campaign messages focusing on motherhood adapted to a wider spectrum of issues. Nixon and Carter used the threat of war to get the attention of mothers, but, unlike Palin, they viewed themselves, rather than the women they were appealing to, as the protectors. With millions of women joining the work force following the women’s movement, family leave, child care, maternal and child health became signature issues aimed at mothers — some single and struggling.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Republican candidates injected motherhood into the “family values” rhetoric that shaped presidential politics. In 1992, Vice President Dan Quayle famously remarked that the main character in the popular television sitcom “Murphy Brown” was encouraging destructive behavior among women by promoting motherhood out of wedlock.

Ironically, though women’s roles have grown exponentially more diverse in the last few decades, presidential political discourse since the mid-1990s has seemed to migrate back to familiar maternal territory. First there were “soccer moms,” then “security moms,” “Walmart moms” and finally, “waitress moms.” Though there are women who draw political meaning from their role as mothers, these narrow labels don’t accurately describe women’s concerns and decisions in the voting booth. Instead, they are empty monikers, bandied about by pollsters and the media.

Where do Palin’s mama grizzlies fit on the historical spectrum? Certainly they are a throwback to an earlier time, an era when women were hemmed in by “stocking-darning” and “cradle-rocking,” confined to one-dimensional roles in the political sphere. Yet these images of mama grizzlies also illustrate Palin’s effort to build a new conservative feminism. These women protect their cubs. They stand up for America. Palin is urging women to find political power in their identity as mothers. But Palin does not say that they advocate — or should advocate — for particular policy outcomes. Instead she speaks in general terms of their anger, their power and their family focus.

Palin’s rhetoric will likely be compelling to a subset of female voters who share her views and see motherhood as central to their identity, and even conservative women whose identity is larger than motherhood or altogether nonmaternal may be willing to overlook her intense “mama” focus in order to support her larger political message.

As history shows, wooing moms is a sine qua non in presidential politics. But candidates must take care not to confuse the catchall label with real political issues that often divide voters, rather than unite them.

There is a difference between how motherhood is wielded in campaigns and how it actually shapes women’s political views. Motherhood does affect some women’s political sensibilities and does shift their perspective on some issues. It makes them more empathetic. It leads them to care more about schools and community issues than they did before they had children. But it does not unify women’s political beliefs. It does not reshape their orientation to the world. It does not make them all mama grizzlies.

Jill S. Greenlee is an assistant professor of politics. She is working on a book project, “The Political Dynamics of Motherhood.”