The True Story Behind the "War on Moms"

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Mary C. Brennan is professor of history at Texas State University%mdash;San Marcos. She is the author of "Pat Nixon: Embattled First Lady" (Kansas, 2011).

The Republican Party has a complicated history with mothers and motherhood. Although the modern party has associated motherhood with the American Way of Life, family values, and all that is right with America, individual politicians have tended to focus on the aspects of maternalism that fit their message of the moment while overlooking the reality of the women who occupy those roles. Ann Romney is certainly not the first Republican (or for that matter Democratic) wife whose commitment to her husband and children has been used to increase her husband’s credibility, moral standing, and/or humanity. From Mamie Eisenhower to Pat Nixon to Laura Bush, presidential candidates have touted their wives’ domestic skills as evidence of their own understanding of American virtues. Richard Nixon even held up the American housewife and mother as the perfect example of the superiority of capitalism when he argued with Nikita Khrushchev in 1959 during the famous Kitchen Debate.

Politicians have discovered, however, that they must tread carefully when praising domesticity, particularly in individuals. On the one hand, the indignant response from Republicans over Hilary Rosen’s comment about Ann Romney “not working” since she was a stay-at-home mom certainly won support from some other stay-at-home mothers. However, these same comments may have angered women who doubted that Mrs. Romney, due to her financial situation, could truly understand the reality of the lives of the majority of women struggling to make ends meet on a single salary or working part time to keep food on the family table. During her years as wife of the vice president, Pat Nixon experienced a similar dilemma. Mrs. Nixon’s purported superhuman ability to cook, clean, sew curtains, and even iron her husband’s suits while simultaneously performing her duties as Second Lady,  supposedly without any hired help, may have demonstrated the importance of wives fulfilling their traditional duties. Nevertheless, this image of domestic accomplishment alienated women who either did not believe the claims or felt threatened by her skills. Praise for Betty Ford’s ability to raise “normal” children while her husband spent most of his time on the road giving speeches or in Washington as Speaker of the House turned to dismay when her children turned out to be a little “too normal” and too similar to many of the other young people in the America of the 1970s. Although Ronald and Nancy Reagan became icons of social conservatism, the GOP tried to downplay the reality of their troubled relationships with their children. Presidents’ wives who pushed the boundaries of the traditional image of motherhood too far—Rosalyn Carter and Hillary Clinton, for example—were forced to reassert their domestic abilities or cost their respective husbands votes.

The role of candidates’ wives changed in the last half of the twentieth century. No longer were they only supposed to sit on their front porches as Nancy McKinley had done, gazing adoringly at their husbands, nor were they supposed to be the activist women that Lou Henry Hoover and Eleanor Roosevelt had been. In the years following World War II, political spouses became full-fledged participants on the campaign trail with “projects” that fit with women’s domestic concerns. Because wives served as barometers of their husbands’ moral character, they had to testify to their man’s abilities as a father and provider. Some wives willingly gave stump speeches extolling the virtues and talents of their husbands, while others subjected themselves to countless interviews in which they told family stories, detailed their husband’s favorite home-cooked meal, and spoke warmly of their special memories of fathers with the children. They frequently traveled with the candidate, speaking to women’s groups or giving interviews to society editors. Increasingly as the years went by, they also campaigned on their own. Lady Bird Johnson traveled through the South by herself for a month before the 1964 election. By 1972 even Pat Nixon, who had rarely given speeches throughout her husband’s long career, had her own campaign schedule for traveling throughout the country, explaining why her husband should be re-elected.

Ironically, as the role of the candidate’s wife became increasingly dependent on her ability to prove her domesticity and motherliness, the political parties overlooked the important role of the volunteer work of tens of thousands of mothers across the country. These women, many of whom firmly believed in the “traditional” household of stay-at-home mom, breadwinner and decision-maker dad, and obedient children, frequently became involved in politics through local issues. They were dissatisfied with school board decisions; they wanted a new traffic light; the park needed to be cleaned up.  Others feared what they perceived to be the growing influence of communism in their communities.  As a result of their concerns, they did what women were supposed to do. They held teas to discuss issues or listen to speakers; they brought the matter to the attention of their clubs; they wrote letters. Although most of these women accepted the premise that politics was “a man’s world,” some joined political organizations such as the National Federation of Republican Women or, if their views were of a more conservative bent, the Minute Women of America, Inc. These women often performed the numerous necessary, but mundane, tasks that successful party operations required. Housewives with school age children could stuff envelopes or walk door-to-door gathering signatures and still be home in time to meet the children after school and make dinner. Even women with toddlers or babies could write letters to congressmen or host a “meet the candidate” event in their backyard. In the words of historian Catherine Rymph, these women performed the “housework of government.” Just as many husbands simply expected that they would come home to clean houses and home-cooked meals, so party leaders accepted women’s help without recognizing its true importance to their organization and success. Candidates would come and praise the women for their party participation, but emphasize that their most important job was raising their children to be good citizens.

Some women took a more proactive stance to their responsibilities to their families. Fearing for the safety of their children from communists, liberals, and the forces of modern society, they charged into the political fray themselves. A few ran for governmental office; most organized committees to boycott organizations they found unsavory, or demonstrated against school officials and local or national politicians they distrusted. They were, on occasion, very successful at achieving their goals. The mothers and wives of the Minute Women of Houston, Texas conducted extensive research, wrote letters of protest, and attended school board meetings until they were able to force the resignation of a school superintendent they believed to be a communist. Mother of five Phyllis Schlafly worked within the Republican Party when she could, but willingly stepped out on her own when she thought they did not go far enough. She and her organization, the American Eagle Forum, managed to build enough opposition to stop the Equal Rights Amendment from winning the final three states needed for ratification. These women justified the apparent hypocrisy of their violation of their own beliefs in leaving government to their husbands by explaining that their actions were necessary to protect their families. The men in their lives generally accepted the women’s political activism on the same terms: their actions reflected an expanded definition of the protection of family.

Most politicians like to be associated with an image of motherhood that they can control and define. In particular, in the last half of the twentieth century, male candidates have used their wives both as active campaigners and symbols of their devotion to home and family. Rarely does the reality of the life of a political wife, a real world mother, or a female party worker intrude on the rhetoric of the campaign trail.

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