Why Does the Number of Grandchildren Matter?

When I came back to Ottawa after the holidays, I was kindly loaned a copy of the December 6 issue of MacLean’s magazine by someone who knows about my involvement with Equal Voice. He rightly thought that I would be interested in an article by Louize Ch. Savage entitled, “She won’t back down.” The article was about Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House Speaker in the United States House of Representatives. Please see http://www2.macleans.ca/2010/12/01/she-wont-back-down/ for reference.

As I was reading a fairly positive review of Pelosi’s work, I almost missed something about the commentary. In the author’s introduction of Ms. Pelosi, Savage describes her as a “70-year-old grandmother of seven and godmother of Barack Obama’s major legislative accomplishments.” When I first read this I didn’t give it a second glance until I read the following on the next page:

“She embodies the notion that a woman can ‘have it all – just not all at once.’ She didn’t run for office until her fifth child was a senior in high school, and became Speaker of the House once she was a grandmother. Yet she plays the game as hard, if not harder, than the men.”

Wait – what does having seven grandchildren, and the timing of Pelosi putting forth her candidature for public office, have to do with how effectively she assists with the passing of legislation? Furthermore, why must a woman compare to a man? Has the public so engrained a “tough” image of politics into their mindset that it becomes more difficult place a woman into this sphere than a man because of stereotypes? Now there’s a jackpot of dissection material, perhaps too much for this short musing. These questions have been studied many a time, but let’s take a moment to ponder the grandmother question.

What the author states is that Pelosi didn’t enter politics until she was sure that her work would not interfere with raising her family. She can have it all, just not all at once. Here is a classic example of how our perception of candidates can uphold barriers that discourage women from running for office. Essentially, these sentences can be taken as a character justification for Pelosi, one that inadvertently associates her political capability with her personal life, parental skills and ability to run with the boys, so to speak.

Powerful women are often described in terms of their personal relations. “This candidate is the mother of this many children and is the wife of so-and-so. She is good at both these roles of mother and wife.”  Male candidates are not described in this way nearly as often – that is, their parental skills are not as often used to justify their ability to govern.  What happened to the standard description of so-and-so has such-and-such an education background and experience?

No wonder there are so few women, especially young women, who become elected officials. Within the context of our political culture and its ideals of what a candidate should be, we expect too much of women in a private area that should, theoretically, have little to do with their public work.  It is true that Pelosi does represent the view of many women who believe that public work should come after the children. However, it’s important to realize that physical and personal descriptions of women are often absorbed by the reader without much critical thought. I would venture, as many others have, to say that such descriptions have become normalized in our political culture and create barriers in the electorate’s mind towards those women who rightly feel they can have it all AND all at once.  Perhaps by continually calling attention to these normalized descriptions, we can be more critical of them.

As a side note: WordPress offers related articles to the posts you write. Check them out. Pelosi’s grandchildren are mentioned again.

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