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The story of Zoe Baird's failed nomination to be the first woman U.S. attorney general exposes underlying discourses that help construct the spaces of political leadership with a double standard for men and women. The discourses view women's actual or potential motherhood as trumping other aspects of their identity, understand mothers as responsible for children, and assume that responsibility cannot be fulfilled outside a particular set of spaces. A maternalist strategy reinforces these discourses, tending to relegate mothers to a particular space in politics rather than politics writ large. Contesting these discourses to move beyond maternalism will help pave the way for the first woman president.
When part of the contents of a 500-page FBI report was leaked to The New York Times in January 1993 showing that Zoe Baird hired illegal immigrants to provide child care and other duties and did not pay Social Security taxes for them, it created a firestorm that derailed Baird's nomination for U.S. Attorney General. Public opinion measured by polls, calls to members of Congress, and radio talk shows blasted Baird for her "criminal" behavior. There was a lot of talk at the time about class resentment--after all, Baird reportedly earned more than $500,000 a year. Critics charged that she could have found an American to do the job if she had only been willing to pay the price, that she must have considered herself above the law, that she would not have the confidence of the people to be the nation's top law enforcement official.
But clearly there was more going on than class resentment or trust, even more going on than fear of illegal immigrants. This also was very much about the changing roles of men and women--and the possibilities for mothers with daily responsibilities for children to enter the spaces of political leadership. It became clear that the price Baird and other mothers paid went far beyond dollars per hour.
Why else, for example, would several men face the same problem at virtually the same time and survive, including two cabinet level appointments and two Supreme Court justices, especially without any expression of class resentment. And why else would then-President Bill Clinton drop Kimba Wood after announcing he would nominate her in Baird's place-when Wood, who hired undocumented domestic workers before it was illegal to do so and had paid all taxes, had broken no written law. The unwritten law she broke was to step outside the prescribed spaces for mothers with young children.
I remind you of this story of a failed nomination to highlight the underlying discourses that say mothers of young children do not belong in the highest spaces of political leadership. These discourses are revealed in Senate hearing testimony, news reports, editorials, letters to the editor, talk radio, and public opinion polls. And they continue to exist today: When President Bush included in his second-term cabinet Margaret Spellings as Secretary of Education, National Public Radio and The Washington Post were among the news outlets that listed among her primary identifications that she was the mother of four. (1) I do not have to tell you that fatherhood has never been listed as an identity or credential associated with a U.S. cabinet position. Until we contest and transform the discourses of politics and the discourses of motherhood, very few mothers with minor children will be considered eligible for the highest offices--leaving a double standard for men and women candidates.
I use discourses plural because several exist simultaneously. In documents surrounding the Zoe Baird nomination, for example, the discourses came from liberal Democrats, conservative Republicans, working class women, middle class women, and more. While the details vary somewhat, what they all have in common is that they reflect attitudes that mothers are nonpolitical beings and less than ideal workers. (2) At the heart of this is the assumption that mothers are responsible for children and cannot carry out that responsibility outside a particular set of spaces. When they do venture outside those spaces, the assumption is that they do so incompletely, always with one foot in what I call MotherSpace. (3)
I use the example of Zoe Baird and her Senate Judiciary Committee hearing not only because she was the first woman nominated for U.S. Attorney General, but also because she was the first mother with daily responsibilities for a young child to be nominated to such a high-level position. Before Baird, and to a great extent since, most of the women in top leadership positions either had no children or grown children. Clinton's third nominee for attorney general, confirmed 98-0, was Janet Reno: 6'2", single, and at 54 not likely to have any children. (4) Further, Baird represents a new generation of political leader nominated by the first Baby Boomer president. Yet the tenacious discourses still prevailed. Even though Baird did not use her motherhood to get nominated, she and others invoked it during the hearings and it was used against her to spoil her nomination.
The spaces of political leadership, constructed as masculine, could not accommodate her. The discourses of leadership could not accommodate her. And the discourses of motherhood and maternalism could not accommodate her. (5)
MATERNALISM AND SPACES
Any examination of women and political leadership shows that motherhood has served as a credential for leadership mainly through its link to a higher sense of morality. From Jane Addams' speeches in the early 1900s in the Votes-for-Women Movement, to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray's claims in 1992 to be "just a mom in tennis shoes," to Margaret Spellings tendency in 2004 to preface comments with the phrase "As a mother," many women have succeeded in politics by calling attention to their connection to children and often claiming this as a standing to get votes. (6) It is no wonder then that Zoe Baird and her supporters apparently thought it made sense to play the maternalist card to try to save her nomination.
Maternalism as a strategy fits comfortably with the assumption that mothers are primarily responsible for children. Yet mothers have not had this …