What do Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Mitt Romney all have in common?
They all should let their wives do the talking.
Michelle Obama, Jill Biden, and Ann Romney all enjoy greater standing in the polls than their husbands. And while, at first, it would seem that because of their less-significant jobs there is less pressure on them to perform well, and therefore less backlash if they don’t, this ignores another important factor. Statistically, a woman is looked down upon and more people are likely to disapprove of her if she appears too aggressive – meaning “manly.” So, given that these strong, powerful, intelligent women are so popular, it must mean that there is something special about them that takes away from their behavioural androgyny.
Take Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt for example. Both of these women were also strong, highly intellectual, competent, and ambitious women – and perhaps that made all the difference. These two did not enjoy such high approval ratings during their years as First Lady, or even afterwards. Because of their ambitions, these women were perceived as trying to become career politicians, trying to get into the man’s game as it were. With this behaviour came the perception that these women were somehow less feminine than others. And as we all know, as soon as women start acting outside of their gender roles, (and especially if they’re not particularly attractive; Eleanor Roosevelt’s memory STILL has not outlived the comments made about her looks,) their popularity hits an iceberg.
If they don’t start calling you power mad (Clinton), then you’re a lesbian (Roosevelt); and if you’re neither of those things, then you’d better hope you’re pretty (Steinem). Or else the patriarchy reaches for its collective torch and pitchfork.
What Michelle Obama, Jill Biden, and Ann Romney do so well is to find that balance of strength and femininity, and to never appear as though they are trying to overstep. If they walk that very careful line, as women who want to be successful in this day and age are expected to do, then they can slowly start to exercise more powers.
Each First Lady has their pet project. Barbara and Laura Bush were both really big on literacy, and would go around the country reading books to children and promoting literacy in schools all across America; Ladybird Johnson took on the project of “beautifying America” and went about planting flowers on our highways and such. Hillary Clinton, in a largely unpopular but admittedly ballsy move, attempted to do nothing less than fix the health care system. What Michelle Obama has done is tried to tackle an equally huge (and arguably related) problem but under the guise of something much more innocuous, and therefore less threatening.
Michelle Obama is an advocate of healthy eating and exercise. As an extremely popular figure for women and children – with both Republican and Democratic women – the current First Lady has worked for the WIC program, which helps pregnant women and mothers with infant children afford common food staples by giving special deals on certain items, and the Let’s Move program, which promotes the activity of children in all areas from sports to physical recreation like gardening and learning to cook healthy meals. In this way, she is very much an omni-present force in the lives of many Americans, but in a way that is so non-threatening, and in fact so positive, that people can’t help but like her.
She has now even taken on the second pet project (Shock! This is how you know she’s doing something right. If Hillary had taken on more projects, people would have cried abuse of power) of supporting military families, and bringing their struggles to light. By taking a non-partisan stance on yet another issue facing women and children, she both skirts the perception of overstepping – since she was already working for women and children – and solidifies the affection those demographics already have for her. Well played, Michelle, well played indeed.
Her determination and intelligence, coupled with her charm and ladylike appeal make her the magic bullet for women in politics: the one that everyone likes, and therefore the scary one who could potentially take over the world (with no one noticing).
No one has seen much of Jill Biden. In fact, the rare Jill Biden sighting is much like that of a unicorn, fairy or leprechaun of lore. For, you see, Jill Biden has done something no other Second Lady (her somewhat degrading official title) has done: she has elected to keep working. It’s true! Jill Biden is an English teacher at a community college, where she has been teaching since 4 days after President Obama’s (and, by association, her husband’s) inauguration in January of 2009.
To me, this is extremely impressive. She could have easily chosen to stay home. I mean, when your husband is the Vice President of the United States, arguing that you “can’t come in to work today because you have legitimate reason to believe your life is in danger” would be a pretty easy case to make. Most people would probably understand. But not Jill! She loves teaching, and she loves English, and she apparently doesn’t care to be idle for long periods of time.
Again, these are qualities of strong, capable women (independence, intelligence, a desire for employment) that do not threaten accepted societal norms (she’s a teacher, of English, with no political ambitions whatsoever). She is soft-spoken and pretty, quietly supportive, and yet, still gives off the air of high intellect, confidence, and competence. She, like Michelle Obama, has managed to find that perfect balance between power and femininity that make the new political female so inspiring – and if you’re a male, potentially terrifying.
In its non-threateningness. Irony.
I have to give Ann Romney quite a bit of credit here. For one, I have respect for her quickness, her sense of presence, and her media savvy. She knows what she’s doing in front of a camera; she is very, very smart when it comes to tailoring that perfect image.
Take the “scandal” that first really brought her into the limelight, for instance. When Hillary Rosen said she had never worked a day in her life, whether it was the Romney PR people or what who gave her the idea, Ann’s rebuttal was damn good. The woman did raise five sons. And while, no, that does not technically count as employment, and while many American women have to raise five sons while also holding down a job, that does still count as work – and hard work, at that! I’m sure the nannies and babysitters (and tons upon tons of readily available cash) made life a little easier on the Romney household during that time, but raising five kids is no easy task, regardless.
What’s even more remarkable about Ann Romney is that she has really been able to humanize Mitt. In every speech, with every word, and even back in 2008, Mitt Romney has seemed cold, distant, not relatable, and some (many) would even say robotic. But when he’s around Ann, he’s actually a real person! There’s smiling, there’s laughter, there’s – dare I say it?? – there’s even love, by golly! She gets him to tell jokes. She tells cute stories. Together, they appear to be much more similar to the average American than Romney appears on his own. In my observation, this has made a huge impact for him in the polls. In many ways, I believe Mitt Romney has his wife to thank for bringing him (and his campaign) back to life.
And again, somehow, she manages to do this through use of the very things that make her girly. She wears understated makeup, makes sure her hair and clothes are perfect, talks about being a mom, emphasizes romantic things that Mitt does, she injects a bit of physical contact (like an gentle arm grab or a knee touch) here and there – all very feminine things. Because of this, she does not threaten any viewer or voter who might see her; instead, quite the opposite, she comforts them. They know that if she became First Lady, she would neither abandon her husband nor try to take over, a balance in perception which she has achieved by playing up her strengths as well as her femininity, which, thanks to women like these, can no longer be considered a weakness.
You see, as an offset to perceived “strength,” you would think that femininity would have no choice but to play the role of “weakness.” But when you take the fact that these women are enjoying greater power and popularity as a result of it into consideration, that perception doesn’t make much sense. It seems to me that the ability to wield these two things with skill is practically the mark of the modern political warrior princess.
Now, with that thought, contemplate who would win in a fight between Michelle Obama and Xena.
– THE DUEL CITIZEN