Monday, February 04, 2008

Who's Your Mommy?

That makes no sense, even though asking "who's your daddy?" does. One of the thoughtlets my mind sprouted when I read this piece by Susan Faludi, reviewing a book about what some women writers think about Hillary Clinton:

After I'd finished Thirty Ways, I picked up a New Yorker article by one of the contributors, Lauren Collins, about a Missouri teenager driven to suicide by the taunts of mean girls on MySpace. I felt as though I were still reading Thirty Ways: The essayists' reasons for their rancor at Hillary are as immaturely nonspecific as those of that poor girl's adolescent tormentors. "I have yet to meet a woman who likes Hillary Clinton," Ms. Roiphe sniffs. "We just don't like her," she says, channeling the women she has met. "We like her husband, but we don't like her."

Nyah, nyah!

It's been noted that many men seem to have a problem with Hillary Clinton that revolves around their perception of her being "mom"—the smothering, devouring American Mom whose power male writers have been shuddering under since at least the 1950's. But reading this book, I began to wonder if these women's problem with Clinton also has to do with mom—and a mom's lack of power.

I think she has a point. Our ideas of powerful women tend to be based on mythology (Echidne, ahem) or on the very few women who stick out in the history after most women have been carefully nailed down into its background. So we are told about Joan of Arc (who got burned to a crisp for her daring) or about the female saints (who got their breasts cut out for their daring) or about the great queens such as Elizabeth I (never got laid) or Catherine the Great (got laid by horses). Or we are expected to find the female role models for power among the sex goddesses of the silver screen era, even though their power was derived from male approval and looks. But at least they got laid, I guess, and not by horses.

Real world ideas of powerful women are still fairly weighted towards mothers and school teachers. That's probably not good for getting good public models of powerful women, because children usually resent those whose job it is to control them and in some ways women are very powerful in those roles vis-a-vis children, even in societies where they have no other power at all. At the same time, as Faludi points out in her piece, mothers are pretty powerless in terms of their external influence. In traditional societies it is the father who has all that power. The mother's power is all directed inwards, and there is no good comparison to that in the public sphere.

Indeed, mothers are viewed as fragile and easily tainted in a lot of traditionally traded male insults, insults which are used in the public sphere. The tamest example of those is calling someone "the son of a bitch", but you can learn a whole passel of more colorful insults about the sex lives of mothers by just reading a few unmoderated blog threads. These insults suggest that the symbolic power of mothers is still based on some concept of sexual purity, not on their power as women who get things done, even though in reality they obviously are very good at getting things done.

What is my point here? Not quite sure, but I think it's important to talk about the myths we have for powerful women, for strong women who get things done, for women in leadership positions. To expect those women to act like our mothers is pointless and a certain setup for failure when they do something we dislike. That our shared mythology has so few alternative models for female power is frightening. What's even more frightening are the alternatives that do exist: the evil stepmother of the fairy tales, the bitch, the Snow Queen. All this is worth thinking about.