Full disclosure: I’m one of the biggest political science nerds you’ll ever meet. Growing up, I had a framed copy of the Declaration of Independence hanging in my room, I spent part of my sixteenth birthday at a town hall meeting, and I’ll still fangirl over some of my favorite legislators like they’re the hottest celebrities.
So, it should come as a surprise to absolutely nobody that the political drama, The West Wing, holds a very special place in my heart. Personally, I could go on and on for hours about the show’s brilliant writing (Season Two’s finale always brings me to tears), acting (ummm…hello, 26 Emmys!), and character portrayal (C.J. Cregg is a classic feminist icon. End of discussion.).
But lately, with the increased salience of gender in politics, I’ve been consistently reminded of an episode where one character, Josh Lyman, dubs a liberal candidate’s inability to be taken seriously by male voters as a “mommy problem.”
The “Mommy Problem”
And, oh, what a problem, or rather, how problematic it is.
According to Josh, “When voters want a national daddy, someone tough and strong, they vote Republican. When they want a mommy to give them jobs, health care policy equivalent of matzo ball soup, they vote Democratic.”
Under the “mommy problem,” voters tend to associate Republicans with policies related to issues surrounding power like the military, international relations, and business. And, on the flip side, these same voters tend to associate Democrats with policies related to issues surrounding caretaking like education, environmental protections, and welfare.
In short, the public views conservative politics as stereotypically more masculine and paternal, while viewing liberal politics as stereotypically more feminine and maternal.
So, we must ask ourselves—What is the purpose of gendering our two party system?
And, more importantly—Who profits from this gendering?
Because while it’s true that there are many policy areas out there such as healthcare or welfare that disproportionately affect women, it’s important for us to make a distinction between gender politics and gendered politics.
For, whereas gender politics examine how gender specifically operates in society’s various arenas, gendered politics is the unnecessary masculinization or feminization of political issues.
“Gender politics are the politics of feminists.”
Gender politics are the politics of feminists. They are the politics that we utilize to challenge society’s gender stereotypes and inequalities, and they are a tool of empowerment that we can use to build coalitions of activists.
They are the politics that we use to fight for equal pay for equal work, control over our bodies, and justice for survivors.
Gendered politics are the politics of obstructionists. They are the politics that our opponents use to reinforce old assumptions surrounding not only familial gender roles (i.e. the father is the breadwinner, while the mother is the caretaker) by subtly framing our political system in a mommy-daddy binary, but gender as a whole (i.e. women are more nurturing so they’re better suited to work on education rather than military policy.).
They are the politics that frame issues affecting all citizens such as healthcare or environmental protections as frivolous in their supposed femininity.
They are the politics that portray stereotypically feminine traits such as empathy, compassion, and charity as political liabilities that ought to be avoided by calling supporters of liberal policies, such as welfare, “coddlers” or “weak.” And furthermore, they are the politics that ignore the reality that although not all women subscribe to these stereotypically feminine traits, it’s not a weakness to care for our fellow citizens, but rather, is a strength.
So now we must examine the ways that we, as American citizens, fit into the mommy-daddy divide of politics. Are we happy as children of this two-party system of gendered politics? Or is it time for us to grow up and search for something more?