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The Politics of Motherhood

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The front section of February 18th's edition of the New York Times is peppered with stories about women as mothers -- Sarah Palin is quoted as saying, characteristically, that women, and moms specifically, are most qualified for handling the trials of the American presidency. And Michele Bachmann criticizes Michelle Obama for her promotion of breastfeeding as part of her effort to reduce childhood obesity. Characteristically, she is inaccurate when she speaks of Ms. Obama's attempt to create what she calls a "nanny" state.

I was chagrined, although not entirely surprised to also see the story chronicling Congress's attempt to defund the best help for mothers and families in America and around the world: Planned Parenthood. I'm just thrilled that I didn't have to read that another state tried to mimic South Dakota's ill-timed and nauseating legislation which would have protected those who murder to "save" the life of a fetus.

I was not surprised to learn of the crusade against Planned Parenthood being waged by the House's freshman class of Republicans -- but this is because after years of working to bring more women into leadership, there is one cultural/historical/societal/political belief that dies hard -- motherhood. Few things are more resistant to change than the cultural ideal of a woman fulfilling her role as a wife and mother. Despite the many gains that women have made in the last few decades, even the last century, we cannot seem to add up to much more in the eyes of some than mothers. Don't get me wrong, motherhood can be a beautiful thing, but not when it is used as an excuse to keep women out of the public life, and out of power.

There truly is a "politics of motherhood" that lies not so far underneath the politics of Palin, Bachmann, and the anti-Planned Parenthood fever that is gripping the nation. This politic is buttressed on the fear that women will abandon their roles as wives and mothers to pursue other occupations. Kirsten Luker wrote about this in her 1984 book, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, saying "the modern debate over abortion taps not only attitudes about the sanctity of life but also deep-seated feelings about the place women should occupy in society and about what the proper family structure should be."

I don't think that motherhood should be a taboo subject, and I certainly don't believe that motherhood and politics should be mutually exclusive. In fact, we need the values that are embodied in the concept of "motherhood" to become a part of our democracy again -- ideals of care for those most in need that should characterize our country and its budget, but are the first to be offered up to the chopping block by Congress in reducing the deficit. Those who support these cuts would have you believe that they are only attempting to avoid passing debt to the next generation. They would have you ignore, as they are ignoring, the hard truth that the future generations of our most disempowered youth will not get the education, healthcare and parenting they need if these cuts are made.

We need more women in the halls of power in Congress, our state legislatures, and America's corporations; we need enough women present to make our presence normal, to lead alongside men to bring these values. However, we can leave the "female impersonators" -- as my colleague Gloria Steinem is fond of saying -- we don't need any more women who look the part but do not carry these values.

I am a mother and a grandmother and like so many of the 11,000 women we have trained through The White House Project, I entered public life to make a better world for my children. I went into public life in order to effect policies that would allow both women and men to share in the work of caring for our families and for our democracy.

We have heard enough of the idealization of motherhood that comes from those like Bachmann and Palin -- policy makers whose stances belie their real concerns. We need to reframe the discussion around motherhood and refrain from falling into old-fashioned habits and ideas about what women "should" be like. The answer to the political and social obstacles that we must inevitably face in the coming months and years is not to put mothers on a pedestal, and it is not to demonize those who would use the basic concepts of care and humanity to lead. Instead, let all the members of Congress become mothers of our country. That would change everything.