Thursday, 6 September 2012

in a supporting role

for those following the presidential elections in america, you will know that the big thing this year (well ok, the second biggest thing, the first would have to be this) is the speeches from the wives at both the republican and democratic national conventions.  they seem to be a bigger deal than usual particularly because the republicans have been waging the "war on women" and suddenly realised they need votes from women, so hyped up ann romney's speech to the nth degree.  then the democrats needed to respond in kind, and super-hype up michell obama's speech.

in case you haven't listened to them yet, and particular want to, here's michelle obama:

and here's ann romney:

i've listened to the first but not the second - don't think i could bear it.  but that's not the point.  the point is that i'm not comfortable with these women being put in this position of having to sell their husbands to the voters.  it's too much of women in a supporting role, which we already get constantly.  it's too much focusing on the man, rather than on the skills and achievements of the woman.

the need to play happy families in a presidential race falls so much on the wives, but also on the husbands.  and it's the standard, stereotypical portrayal of husband, wife & 2 kids - with the central focus on the husband.  and because this stereotypical portrayal is then closely linked to "family values", the message is clearly given that only a person in this type of family can possibly have strong family values.

hence why it's nearly impossible for a single woman (or man) to run for a leadership role.  even though she may have just as strong family values as anyone else.  but no, she is bound to be maggie-barry'd.  i saw this happen to helen clark, who only appeared with her husband on crucial occasions like election night, but rarely at other times.  he never campaigned directly for the labour party as the political wives above are doing, and i'm glad about that.  i remember a rally at the university of waikato, where someone asked (and i paraphrase) "why isn't your husband here with you? don't you believe in family values?".  given that she was probably asked this 10 times a week, she had the perfect response, something along the lines of "he lets me go out by myself, he doesn't need to be here holding my hand all the time".

i don't recall burton shipley doing a lot of rallying and campaigning for the national party either - but then i wasn't really interested so might not have been paying attention.  i certainly don't get the impression that julia gillard's partner nor mr merkel are out and about, and furiously campaigning in the way these 2 wives are.  in fact the only male politician i can think of who has done that is bill clinton, but given his history & the support he received from his wife, that's the least he could do.

another thing that annoys me is this: why do we need the wives to tell us how much their husbands love women voters.  surely the men themselves should be able to come out and clearly give that women.  if a male presidential candidate can't directly appeal to and relate to women voters, then he shouldn't be running.

i suppose there are a few positives.  even in a supporting role, these women are strong and positive, articulate (even if saying things i'm not particularly interested in listening to) and active.  and having them in the foreground rather than the background is not a bad thing.   i just wish michelle obama's speech was about michelle obama - some of it was, but all of it could have been.  her husband is clearly capable of speaking for himself.  not so sure about mitt romney, and not interested in finding out.

and i'm not saying there's anything wrong with wives being supportive of husbands.  i think it's more about the context and culture, and the way that support is being played out - the messages that it sends.  i don't like it, i just don't.


Moz said...

I don't think we can really make a call on the US presidential elections until we have a few female presidents to compare them to. My impression is that the whole family gets dragged into the mess and it's not necessarily a "supportive wife" thing so much as "you want to live in the White House, who are you".

I like the Westminster tradition of near-invisible partners, it makes sense to me. I mean, I'm not going along to any other job interviews with my spouse. On the other hand, if they did run for office I'd almost certainly be part of the campaign team. But I'm already part of the campaign team for the party they'd most likely be running for, so that's possibly not a strong indicator.

Hugh said...

"i don't recall burton shipley doing a lot of rallying and campaigning for the national party either - but then i wasn't really interested so might not have been paying attention."

I -think- Shipley spoke at a National Party Conference once, but I could be imagining it.

Apparently he was a bit of a star during diplomatic dinners and so on, but that's another matter.

I think what we may be seeing here is as much a function of American political culture as it is gender. America has a strong expectation that the spouses of Presidents will play a major role in their administration. There are few countries which have similar expectations. I remember when Gordon Brown's wife spoke at the Labour conference, it was greeted with a lot of equanimity and disdained as being a move towards an American Presidential style of campaigning.

Of course since America has never had a straight female President (or for that matter a gay male President) and doesn't look likely to get one any time soon, the question of whether this convention would hold for a First Gentleman is an open one. Bill Clinton was quizzed quite heavily on what his role would be if Hilary was President, so there seemed to be an expectation he'd be visible, but as you mentioned Clinton is an unusual case - another prospective first Gentleman is unlikely to have a former President as their husband (calls for Michelle Obama to run in 2016 notwithstanding).

Aliya said...

To understand how we Americans view our First Ladies and the many roles they play, one has to go back to the the inception of our country and the wives of the "founding fathers". We recognise that they wield great influence and can make or break a politician. Dolly Madison and Martha Washington were no shrinking times when society expected them to be....Dolly in particular played a big role in how we see our first ladies,setting of the script in fact see

We believe that "birds of a feather, flock together" and think that it is very important to hear from the closest of close. and vet those that surround a man...or in the future a woman. I can only imagine the vetting of Bill Clinton if Hillary decided to run next election.

Also, I found Michelle Obama's speech quite effective for a variety of reasons...including the fact that she is an articulate African American woman, who is breaking down just as many barriers and stereotypes that her husband is.

I liked it, I liked it, I liked it. Re: Ann Romney, didn't see it and can't bring myself to watch it now. But I understand that many like her as well.