The Real Purpose of the 'Cult of Moms': To Deny Women Public Power

Connecticut Attorney General George Jespen listens at left as Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan speaks during a news con
Connecticut Attorney General George Jespen listens at left as Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012, where they discussed a settlement regarding mortgage loan servicing and foreclosure abuse. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Political powerhouse Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has been a subject of national media attention since answering Chicago Sun-Times reporters' questions while at the Democratic National Convention a couple of weeks ago. Okay, now: Hold your breath and get ready for this one. Nope, the questions were not about some initiative or lawsuit of the Attorney General's office but, instead, about being a mom, and whether that might make it difficult for her to run for, or be, Illinois governor. (Mind you, Madigan has been Illinois attorney general for nine years, and, for most of them, she has been a mother.)

Well, it was a political gathering, you might say, and, Rebecca, you're a Lisa Madigan supporter, you might say. And you would be right. But I'm thinking that, even if you're not a Madigan supporter, this story might seem odd. After all, it is 2012, and 35 American women, most of whom were moms, have been governors. Indeed! Turns out, my reaction was the same as the response among some media: From the Washington Post to The Huffington Post, to all kinds of women's media, the Sun-Times' reporters' questions have been noted.

Another reaction to their questioning came Thursday, when the organization Name It. Change It. ("Sexism and equality don't mix" is its tagline), wrote to its supporters:

[W]e have started a petition asking the Chicago Sun-Times to affirm that sexism has no place in their political coverage. The Sun-Times should apologize to Lisa Madigan for their sexist story and acknowledge that reporters should not treat woman candidates and politicians differently in their coverage due to their sex."

(Now, I'm also a big fan of the Sun-Times: More's the wonder.)

The first time I remember Madigan getting national media attention was during the 2008 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, when the New York Times published an article titled "She Just Might Be President Someday" (the subhead was: "If not her, who?") about other women politicians with the requisite qualities to be POTUS.

Writing about Attorney General Madigan, the Times compared her to Clinton:

"Mrs. Clinton seemed to have the most success in the last months, fighting like a mama bear for her cubs. So some people look to women who have earned reputations as tough fighters: Lisa Madigan, a Democrat who is attorney general in Illinois [is one]..."

Not only was Madigan considered in play by the Times' sources, but she was in play exactly because she has putative motherly qualities, e.g., being a "tough fighter" on behalf of the vulnerable. Hmmm, this sure seems to me like a quality we need in all our elected officials, not just our president. Of course, that group would include governors.

Got that? Madigan's qualified. Oh, but I forgot, she's a mom. Oh, but so is Hillary Clinton -- yet, there was no question about Clinton's presidential qualifications. QED.

The notion that a mother can't be a governor flies in the face of history. As I wrote, 35 American women have already been governors, and more are in the pipeline of both parties. I'm guessing most of the latter are mothers, too.

Indeed, the issue here isn't about a news article. It is about the inescapable conclusion that the "cult of mom" movement we've been reading about lately is not about the wonder and joy of motherhood, but a strategy for banishing women to the kitchen and the nursery, and from the halls of political power. This is all about power, and nothing about what women are capable of doing, not to mention are as good as men at.

Think about it: Political power is a scarce commodity. And attaining (and keeping) it is really hard to do. (Even POTUS's struggle, though not so much lately.) Therefore, the fewer competitors the better. Is it any surprise then that a "cult of mom" strategy is launched when the goal is to decrease the number of one's competitors? And, to pile on, the strategic fall back position can go like this, as it seemed-to in the Sun-Times' article: Perhaps it's okay for a mom to hold a mid-level office (as if a state's attorney general were that). The strategy really does fall flat on its face once you think about it.

Nothing could be farther from the truth than the notion that being a mother is incompatible with having important public duties. Here is another factoid: In 2012, 17 women serve as U.S. senators. Fifteen are moms. By my count today, come January 2013, there could be six new U.S. senators who are moms.

Last week, at the same time as the Madigan brouhaha was going on, I met and talked with Christine Quinn, Speaker of the New York City Council, and Heidi Heitkamp, former North Dakota Attorney General, now North Dakota Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate: Quinn, a lesbian, now-married New Yorker, maybe next mayor of the largest city in the U.S.; and Heitkamp, a married-to-a-man mother, and, if elected, the first North Dakota woman elected to any federal office.

These two women come from two very different worlds, and their day-to-day personal lives appear vastly dissimilar. Can I tell you how similar Quinn and Heitkamp actually are? Both are feisty, smart, strategic, disciplined and committed to securing women's opportunities to seek whatever job, whether or not a mom (or married). Their respective family status (and sexual orientation) is immaterial to this commitment. They're just like Lisa Madigan!

Back in the day, when my girlfriends and I first starting advocating for women to hold public office -- that would be around the time that longtime Member of Congress Shirley Chisholm, an African-American married woman, ran to be POTUS -- 40 years ago -- the notion that a lesbian could be "out" and hold one of the most important offices in the country would have bowled us over. But, a wife or a mom? No big deal. It shouldn't be now, either. Let's forget this nonsense and focus on what matters, folks.