It was clear from the beginning of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign that the “woman issue” was going to play a large part, with an emphasis on shattering glass ceilings. What was not clear until the convention was the degree to which this would be centered on mothers and mothering. The Democratic National Convention showcased many things, including American multiculturalism and patriotism, but nothing was as prominent as the emphasis on mothers and motherhood.
In many parts of the convention, the mothers of young people who were either victims or heroes were a featured part of the proceedings. Clinton’s most personal discussion in her acceptance speech was about her mother, Dorothy. Chelsea Clinton’s introduction was all about Clinton’s role as a mother and grandmother. The video introducing Mrs. Clinton showcased her work with the Children’s Defense Fund.
Motherhood was everywhere in the convention — a glowing and effusive tribute not to women per se but to women as mothers. Not since the early 20th century, when women’s public presence and their striving for the vote was geared toward the protection of children and families, has motherhood been so prominently featured in politics. Drawing on this older tradition, through which women influenced public affairs, Clinton spoke to ideals of protection for families and social inclusion. Clinton and her campaign hope to make these ideals just as appealing today.
Donald Trump made this an easy choice for Clinton and the Democratic Party. He has presented himself as someone who is not only self-consciously macho, but who wants to serve as a kind of disciplinarian for the society, a law and order candidate who strives to take command, and an authoritarian father who will fix what ails us as a nation. In a contrary symbolic move, Hillary Clinton presentation of herself in the guise of motherhood and her emphasis on the softer, more inclusive aspects of national culture became an almost predictable response.
But more than symbolism is at stake. As Donald Trump was increasingly portrayed during the Democratic National Convention as not in tune with American values, as ignorant of American history and untutored in constitutional principles, Democrats emphasized the degree to which our family values are also our national values. And here they had a substantial base to work from. Since the beginning of the American republic, American child rearing has encouraged a much more democratic ethos between the generations, one that saw children as having not only a role to play, but the right to a voice in family deliberations. In the family as well as in the society, Americans de-emphasized hierarchy and saw children as resourceful and independent. In a democracy, children would learn early to guide their own futures.
Since the early 19th century, mothers have played a much more conspicuous part in family affairs. Americans rejected patriarchy in their family relationships since almost the start of national identity and, ever since, have inscribed these views of family life as a basic resource of national life. This does not mean that there were not families where fathers emphatically ruled and were authoritarian and dictatorial, but these traits were rejected as norms of the culture. In the 19th century, mothers, not fathers, were believed to guide their children toward morality and social conscience in an individualistic society; in the 20th, child rearing advisors believed that mothers could be enlisted to make sure that children were healthy and psychologically well adjusted. In an individualistic society, with an emphasis on competition and winning, the family provided necessary ballast.
Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Convention have used this history to great effect, showcasing an American tradition of family democracy and making the strong connection between American family life and American political life. The resonance was clear in the enthusiastic reception at the convention. It will also provide the late summer and fall campaign with a substantial basis for appealing to Americans across the country.
It is revealing that the first woman seriously to be considered for the American presidency (and the likely first female president) will have chosen to appeal to the public on the basis of this fundamental national experience rather than the overt feminism that she embraced as a first lady with an office in the West Wing. Donald Trump made Hillary Clinton’s choice easy, but American history made it obvious.
Paula S. Fass is professor of the Graduate School and the Margaret Byrne Professor of History Emerita at UC Berkeley. She is the author of The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child.
Cross-posted from the Princeton University Press blog.