First ladies and prospective first ladies are generally agreed to be lagging indicators of the status of women in the American polity. In the recent Democratic and Republican national conventions, Ann Romney and Michelle Obama presented very different gender ideologies, attuned to critical contrasts within their respective parties.
Here MaryAnne Borrelli, author of The Politics of the President’s Wife and expert in presidential studies and women and politics, analyzes the convention speeches of Romney and Obama – both of whom were tasked by media commentators in recent weeks with the challenge of “humanizing” their husbands.
In the weeks leading up to the Republican and Democratic national conventions, media commentators assigned Ann Romney and Michelle Obama the task of “humanizing” their husbands. This was not expected to be an easy task.
At the time, Gallup was reporting Mitt Romney’s “likability” at 48 percent – a rating that had changed little in the previous eight months. Barak Obama’s job approval had remained lower than 50 percent, virtually without pause, since late in 2009.
While Michelle Obama was thought to be confronting the greater challenge, speaking on behalf of an incumbent president, both women were “reintroducing” men who were well known and widely criticized.
But as difficult as “humanizing” may have been, this was only one of the messages Ann Romney and Michelle Obama delivered in their convention speeches. More importantly, Romney and Obama endorsed distinctive gender ideologies, with the goal of mobilizing influential partisans.
Romney’s Patriarchal Focus
As she has done throughout her husband’s campaign, Romney spoke as a satellite wife at the Republican convention; her words relayed and amplified her husband’s statements.
Focusing on the private sphere, she presented Mitt Romney’s patriarchal relationship with his family as anticipating his presidential relationship with the nation.
“This man will not fail.” Why not? Because he has not failed his wife or his children. The patriarch as president, the president as patriarch – these highly gendered roles have been historically intertwined.
Today, this gendered vision of leadership and power resonates particularly well with social conservatives, a segment of the Republican base that has been hesitant to endorse Mitt Romney.
Obama’s Appeal to Supporters of Women’s Rights
Michelle Obama’s convention speech also was centered in the private sphere, with her explicit assertion that “my most important title is still ‘mom-in-chief.’” Still, Obama’s speech was less consistently focused on her husband – she stood both as satellite wife and presidential surrogate.
Obama’s independence was evidenced in the lengthy narrative about her upbringing, her self-portrayal as a child of the struggling middle class, an identity that she immediately leveraged on her husband’s behalf.
“We can trust Barack to do what he says he’s going to do, even when it’s hard – especially when it’s hard.” Why? Because, like his wife, he was raised in a family that knew hardship and yet believed in American values, an experience that instilled in him a deep sense of empathy. Obama’s speech, explicitly and implicitly, was an appeal to supporters of women’s rights, feminism, and women-centered activism.
Romney, Obama Portray Conservative Gender Role Models in Tight Race
First ladies and prospective first ladies are generally agreed to be lagging indicators of the status of women in the American polity. When these women are assigned the further task of defending and reframing their husbands in a tight race, there is still more reason for them to be conservative gender role models, avoiding the “distraction” of debates about gender roles and ideas.
Even so, in 2012 Ann Romney and Michelle Obama are expressing very different gender ideologies, attuned to critical contrasts between their parties. If the power and impact of their campaigning is to be understood, these connections between gender, party, and politics must be recognized.
And if the identity of these women is to be respected in its full complexity, then examining their gender is only the first step.
Michelle Obama’s media relations testify to the importance of race in perceptions of the first lady. If Ann Romney becomes first lady, and if she chooses to present herself as physically challenged, or even as disabled, she would have an opportunity to overturn historic preconceptions of the bodily perfection required of a “lady.” This was a change begun by Betty Ford, with her advocacy on behalf of breast cancer prevention and treatment.
Romney and Obama are very different gender role models. And it is their differences that reveal the most about this campaign, that promise to reveal the most about the United States presidency.