In 1776, when Abigail Adams implored her husband to “Remember the Ladies,” John Adams scoffed, declaring, “We know better than to repeal our masculine system.” More than two hundred years later, American women continue to struggle against the idea that they are simply vassal extensions of their husbands—a notion that is acutely enacted in presidential campaigns. An examination of how the spouses of recent presidential candidates have presented themselves and been perceived on the campaign trail, Moms in Chief reveals the ways in which the age-old rhetoric of republican motherhood maintains its hold on the public portrayal of womanhood in American politics and constrains American women’s status as empowered, autonomous citizens.
1. What’s your elevator pitch for Moms in Chief? How would you describe the book in two or three sentences?
Moms in Chief provides a comprehensive assessment of the ways the press, the parties, and the candidates’ mates frame spouses during presidential campaigns. The book traces the history of women as political beings in the United States in order to contextualize an analysis of the depictions of some of the most high-profile women in national political contests. The project underscores how judging spouses based on traditional gender roles is problematic for presidential nominees’ consorts and for perceptions of women in the political sphere.
2. What led you to research and write about the spouses of presidential nominees?
While doing research for a chapter on the roles spouses play in presidential conventions for my previous book, Connecting with Constituents: Identification Building and Blocking in Contemporary National Convention Addresses, I became interested in the wives of presidential nominees and perplexed by the lack of research about them. People write a lot about first ladies, but not much about the women who audition for that position throughout a presidential campaign. I discovered that there were surprising similarities in the ways the wives of nominees represented themselves during conventions despite clear differences in their actual biographies, experiences, and political outlooks. That realization made me curious about the broader campaigns. As I explored the treatment of spouses during presidential contests, it became clear that my findings warranted a book-length project. The addition of the first male spouse during the 2016 contest made the comparisons of spousal characterizations even more compelling.
3. What was the most challenging aspect of researching and writing the book?
The most challenging part of writing Moms in Chief was keeping chapter one, the section where I recount women’s political history in the United States, a manageable length. The history of perspectives on women as political actors in the US provides a critical frame of reference for understanding the portrayal of candidates’ spouses, but it is also an extensive topic with myriad dimensions. Deciding how to shape that baseline summary in an informative and engaging manner was difficult. The original draft was almost three times as long as the final version. However, I am proud of how that chapter turned out. It is one that anybody interested in politics, citizenship, and women’s fight for political parity should read.
4. Moms in Chief is the first book to dive deep into the role of “the women” in presidential elections. Have you seen a distinct change from the role spouses have played in the development of campaigns since 1992?
During the span of time this book covers, there has not been a dramatic change in the role the spouses play. Claims of spouses as “secret weapons” preceded the 1992 campaign and continued through 2016. In more contemporary contests, though, the acknowledgment of how nominees’ wives helped develop and execute campaign strategies has become a bit more overt, and certain spouses have been more vocal and visible both with and without their husbands. However, these variations seem to be based on the personalities and talents of the individual spouses. After all, Melania Trump in 2016 was not nearly as active on the campaign trail or behind the scenes as Barbara Bush was in 1992.
5. As more women begin to seek the presidency, can you predict what possible role husbands (not including Bill Clinton) may play in future presidential campaigns as compared to female spouses?
In the short term, the likelihood is that men who are married to presidential nominees will not be viewed in as restrictive a manner as women have been (and likely will continue to be). I doubt that male consorts will be asked for their personal cookie recipes (and be criticized if they don’t have one), or that they will be pressed for parenting advice and to give tours of the family home. Customary sex roles that cast men as independent beings and women as defined by their relationships are still too entrenched in society. Established gender norms, paired with a deep partisan divide, make it difficult for candidates’ spouses to embrace the full complexities of their own identities due to the fear of possibly alienating segments of the population and costing their mate valuable votes. Male spouses will have the advantage of being perceived more expansively than their female counterparts; they will be able to emphasize their roles as husbands and fathers, but they will not be confined by these roles as women have been as wives and mothers. However, as gender norms continue to shift, it is possible that we will eventually be able to view candidates’ mates as autonomous individuals and full citizens whether they are male or female.
6. Your book suggests that the very definition of women as American citizens and political actors is at stake when they are representing their spouses during an election. Do you foresee more attention being paid to spouses in future elections?
There will be some additional attention paid to spouses during elections when the consort is novel in some way. For example, Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton received more scrutiny than Tipper Gore, Cindy McCain, and Ann Romney. The first husband of a nominee that is not a well-known past president will likely receive a bit more notice than most female spouses, but how much commentary he inspires will depend largely on his role in the campaign and his personality. It is important to note that a male spouse of a president will never serve as the model of American masculinity in the same way first ladies act as icons of American womanhood. The secondary status of a “first gentleman” will be incongruous with the historic standing of males as the dominant sex; the president’s husband will be considered an anomaly rather than an ideal.
Unless reporters and campaign strategists expand their perceptions of the spouses (particularly wives), the coverage of candidates’ mates will likely remain as it has for the past several decades—wives will be expected to conform to traditional gender norms and will be evaluated based on their ability and willingness to meet these conventional expectations. There will be some progressive movement in how women are viewed, but it will likely be incremental and slow to develop.
7. What is one thing you would like readers to take from your work?
I would like readers to understand that all women, even spouses of presidential nominees, are autonomous individuals who should not be narrowly defined by the relational roles they fulfill. Interpreting women based primarily on their relationships with others does a disservice to female citizens by making their value contingent on their familial associations. If women are to achieve political parity and be perceived as more than helpmates for their husbands and caretakers for their children, we as a society need to move beyond conflating the terms “woman,” “wife,” and “mother” when we talk about women.
Being a wife or a mother is a personally fulfilling and socially useful role for many females, but judging the political value of all women solely through these connections prevents us from establishing a political order in which women are allowed and even encouraged to voice their own needs, and not just the needs of those they care about, in the public arena. In this way, women can come to be treated as individuals and full citizens in the same way men are.
8. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?
If I could have any one person read Moms in Chief, it would be Abigail Adams. She had the foresight to understand the implications of the dismissal of women as autonomous citizens; she pled for the rights of women to be included in the founding documents of the nation and her entreaties went largely unheeded even by her own husband. As the second first lady of the United States, she understood both the importance of that role and the socially-imposed limitations political wives face. After reading Moms in Chief, Adams would likely be both excited by the gains in political power women have achieved since her day and disheartened by how much more remains to be done. She would be pleased that nominees’ spouses can participate openly in campaigns, yet she would be disappointed by the persistent barriers women still face as political actors.