In this year’s presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton has focused on the importance of motherhood and families. She often speaks of her mother, whose tough childhood inspired Clinton to advocate for children, and of her own role as a mother and new grandmother and how it’s pushed her to make the world a better place.
But this hasn’t always been Clinton’s public persona. In her first campaign for president in 2008, Clinton displayed a steelier disposition and even downplayed the historic nature of her candidacy. As first lady in the 1990s, she projected independence and strove to separate her image from motherhood.
Berkeley News spoke with professor of history emerita Paula Fass, a social and cultural historian and author of a new book, The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child, who looks at why Clinton is focusing on motherhood, and whether it will be effective.
Berkeley News: How has Hillary Clinton’s focus changed throughout this year’s presidential campaign?
Paula Fass: One of the things that I began to realize is that despite Hillary’s initial attempt to present herself as the first woman breaking the glass ceiling, that really retreated and the convention was clearly the apotheosis of mothering and motherhood in a way that I didn’t expect. It’s wonderful. And I think it was the right way to go because there is a long tradition of protecting and representing children and women’s issues, women being accepted as both legitimate and important.
How does it compare to how she presented herself in the past?
When Bill Clinton came to office in the 1990s, he basically said you’re getting two for the price of one — my wife is going to be kind of a co-president. And she positioned herself in the West Wing, which was the first time that a first lady had ever done that. She positioned herself as a representative of the feminism of the ’70s and ’80s. That doesn’t mean she didn’t care about Chelsea. She made it very clear that she was an important part of what was going on, but that it wasn’t motherhood that she was most visually representing. It was the independent woman.
So despite the fact that she was married to the president, she was going to be an independent woman. She was not going to subordinate family issues to that independence. It was really reflective of that second-wave feminism where detaching yourself from children was considered actually very important because for so long the association of women and children had kept them back. And that was true. Historically, it was true. So it was necessary to kind of proclaim that women were independent beings and not be valued only because they were mothers.
To whom is Clinton trying to appeal with this strategy?
I think now there’s an appeal going out to millennials for whom family life has become newly important. I think young women today really do want to have children, have families, have an intimate and personal life. I don’t think they want to give up the other things. They quite correctly have a right to both. And I think she’s been advised about that — that her appeal to millennials should not be strictly an appeal to women as independent, but as women and their parts as being mothers in in their families.
I hadn’t really thought of Clinton’s focus on motherhood and families as a millennial issue.
I think millennial women are having a tough time. They want to maintain the gains that women have achieved, but they also now, quite rightly, want to have a family life. I was there on the battleground… I really think I can sympathize. I also have a daughter who just got married who just turned 35 and she’s a scientist and she’s going to want to have a family too, so I see it from several angles.
What is happening in the U.S. that makes it effective for Clinton to focus on the importance of families?
The economy has deeply slowed down and has caused great fears about the success of our children. Middle-class people are fearful about the success of their children, which has led to a lot of oversight and over-management of children.
I also want to point out that one of the things that millennials have to deal with that no previous generation really has is that the competition has automatically doubled because it’s just assumed that women are going to take the same kinds of jobs and careers as men. It wasn’t true for young women in the ’60s and ’70s, so you have an automatic increase in competition by a factor of two. Two people for one job. So the intensity of this kind of anxiety is great.
And there is a sense that we are in a global world where our kids have got to compete with kids in China and India, so it’s harder and harder. This is what I think the millennials are all about. It’s harder and harder to be successful in terms with which we are familiar.
Do you think Clinton will be effective in raising the visibility of motherhood and families in her campaign?
I think she’ll be effective enough in the right places — suburban women — for her to win the election. That’s her target group — suburban women — many of whom have been Republicans who I think cannot support Trump. These are women who are college-educated and trying to balance their lives at home with their children. I think she’s been effective enough to get their votes. That’s what she needs.
You have mentioned that we live in an individualistic society that values competition and winning. Do you think Clinton can balance the idea of inclusivity and motherhood with the value of competition?
Well, look at her. I think she can. I think she has to. And remember what Trump said about her [in the second debate]: She’s relentless. She doesn’t give up. In other words, she’s a highly competitive, success-driven person. So, yes, her whole career and her wanting to break the glass ceiling is a sign of that. Of not giving up the idea. She’s definitely leaning in.
Paula Fass is a professor of history emerita and the author of The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child, and a contributor to the Berkeley Blog.