Beto O’Rourke wants to be president of the US – but he’s already said several things that would scupper a female politician’s chances, says Stylist’s digital women’s editor Moya Crockett.
Have you heard? Beto O’Rourke is running for president. The 46-year-old former Democratic congressman from Texas announced his bid on 14 March, following months of speculation that he’d enter the race. The news has been received jubilantly by O’Rourke’s supporters, many of whom he won over when he tried – ultimately unsuccessfully – to unseat Republican Ted Cruz as Texas senator in 2018. Thanks to his laidback, charismatic demeanour and optimistic, unifying message, many of O’Rourke’s fans see him as a natural successor to Barack Obama – and a much-needed antidote to Donald Trump.
O’Rourke is by no means a terrible candidate for the US presidency. He’s appealingly energetic and a powerful public speaker, and could have the ability to appeal to a wide range of voters. (And to be fair, almost anyone would be a better choice than the man currently occupying the White House.) But it’s also worth considering whether he’d receive the same adulation – and be bestowed with the same star status within the Democratic party – if he was a woman.
Because since he burst into mainstream public consciousness last year, O’Rourke’s messaging has been peppered with revelations that would have seen a female politician hung out to dry – or, at the very least, viewed with unfair suspicion. Much of this has to do with how he speaks about his wife of 14 years, Amy, and their three young children. In February, during a conversation with Oprah Winfrey, he revealed that he had spent barely any time with his family since launching his successful campaign for Congress in 2012.
“For the last seven years, my family hasn’t seen me,” he said. “I haven’t been there for them, I haven’t helped Amy in raising these amazing kids in any significant, consistent way.”
This statement fits with what O’Rourke reportedly told a crowd at a coffee shop on the day he announced his presidential run: that his wife is raising their three kids, “sometimes with my help”. It also jibes with the impression O’Rourke gave of his family life in an interview with Texas Monthly magazine in January 2018: while he often brings them along for campaign events, he doesn’t spend huge amounts of time at home.
“Sometimes I call [Amy] and can hear the exasperation in her voice,” he said. Elsewhere in the interview, he elaborated: “I’m physically not there anymore. When a gate falls on [their eight-year-old son] Henry, Amy’s like, ‘It would be nice if you were here.’” He also revealed that when he told his wife he was going to run for Congress, “she just immediately started crying. It was so hurtful to her.”
Shall we go on? Days before O’Rourke announced his presidential bid, Vanity Fair published a glowing profile on the politician, accompanied by a glamorous front cover shoot. Vanity Fair journalist Joe Hagan quotes the O’Rourkes’ youngest son Henry as saying: “Dad, if you run for president, I’m going to cry all day… Every day.” At the end of the piece, O’Rourke states that he was “just born to be in it” – “it” being the presidential race.
None of this makes O’Rourke a monster. He’s been busy carving out a stellar political career, and that makes it extremely difficult for him to be a hands-on dad. That’s understandable. And by repeatedly acknowledging the fact that he’s been something of an absent husband and father, he could actually be trying to give his wife the credit she richly deserves. After all, it seems highly unlikely that his career would have flourished if she’d been unwilling to take on the bulk of childcare responsibilities.
But it’s worth considering whether a female politician could speak so frequently and frankly about how she hardly sees her children – the implicit message being, ‘I am prioritising my career over my family right now’ – and still be widely viewed as likable, affable and charismatic. The answer is that of course she couldn’t. The thought is so ludicrous as to be almost inconceivable – because women in politics are almost invariably scrutinised through a familial lens.
If a female politician is a wife/mother/grandmother, the world at large wants to know what kind of wife/mother/grandmother they are. If they’re not married or don’t have children, the world wants to know what that tells us about them as a person and politician. We saw this with Hillary Clinton, whose political image was undeniably shaped by the fact that she stayed with a philandering husband, and who marketed herself during her presidential campaign as a doting grandmother. We saw it ahead of the 2017 general election in the UK, when Theresa May was forced to account for why she’d never had children during an interview on LBC radio. We also saw it a year earlier, when Andrea Leadsom suggested she’d make a better Tory leader than May because she was a mother.
Leadsom was widely vilified for those remarks, but it’s not hard to understand why she thought having children would be a winning selling point for her. Many female politicians with children consciously or unconsciously emphasise their maternal status – or have it emphasised for them by their supporters – as a way of showing that they are nice, trustworthy and ‘normal’; that they understand what life is like for hardworking people in the real world.
In the run-up to the 2018 mid-term elections in the US, several female candidates highlighted the fact that they were mothers. The New York Times reports that Mikie Sherrill, who was eventually elected as a congresswoman for New Jersey in the mid-terms, was often introduced on the campaign trail as a “navy pilot, federal prosecutor and mother of four”. Two Democratic gubernatorial candidates, Krish Vignarajah in Maryland and Kelda Roys in Wisconsin, even released campaign videos that showed them nursing their babies while discussing their policy positions.
There’s nothing wrong with women being proud about the fact that they’re juggling political careers with motherhood. In fact, it’s impressive and inspiring – especially since political systems in both the US and UK are notoriously challenging for parents to navigate. But it’s telling that many politicians who are mothers emphasise the hands-on nature of their parenting. That New York Times article opens with a scene of Sherrill wiping chocolate off her six-year-old daughter’s face before going on stage. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, one of O’Rourke’s rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, included footage of her cooking for her family in one of her promotional videos.
It is almost impossible to imagine a mother in politics being let off the hook if she announced – as O’Rourke has – that she left her husband to deal with the kids for seven years while she pursued her own ambitions. In a woman, that would be seen as callous and craven; as somehow unnatural. In a man, it’s just seen as par for the course.
O’Rourke is allowed to prioritise his career over his family. He should acknowledge the work his wife does to raise their children. But we’ll only know we’ve reached an even playing field for men and women in politics when we hear a female candidate say that she doesn’t help with domestic labour “in any significant, consistent way” – and get away with it.
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