With the national elections growing closer every day, everyone is talking about the candidates — who they are and what they say — but few people think about the women who are married to the candidates and how they might influence the campaign.
Two assistant professors at Texas A&M University — Tasha Dubriwny and Kristan Poirot — were asked to analyze the convention addresses given by Michelle Obama and Ann Romney. Both professors hold joint appointments with the Department of Communication and the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at the university.
“One of the important things to recognize is that Michelle Obama and Ann Romney took the stage with distinctly different goals,” says Dubriwny.
As the background of Ann Romney’s speech — literally, the photographs of Ann and Mitt on the stage behind her — indicated, Ann Romney’s primary purpose was to humanize her husband. Her second purpose was clearly to appeal to women voters, particularly mothers, Poirot adds.
“On the other hand, Michelle Obama needed to revitalize the passion America felt about her husband four years ago.”
The two researchers say they would argue that while Michelle Obama was as successful as Ann Romney in appealing to women voters, Michelle Obama did not need to speak explicitly — or only — to women in order to appeal to them.
“Instead of explicit statements — such as Ann Romney’s ‘I love you women’ statement and her many paragraphs detailing the struggles American moms face — what Michelle accomplished was the development of a motherly persona — the ‘mom-in-chief’ persona,” adds Poirot.
They say voters certainly should also keep in mind that for Michelle, the need to forcefully appeal to women is lessened because it is the Republicans in this race who are facing the gender gap.
What the researchers say is most interesting when comparing the two speeches are the personae, or roles, taken on by Michelle and Ann.
“Michelle’s development of the mom-in-chief persona links motherhood directly to politics,” notes Dubriwny.
“Michelle stands as a mother — we know this through her repeated references to her two daughters and the concern she voices for the future of the children of the nation — and she enacts an interesting blend of the mother-as-politician.”
The two researchers point out that what they see happening with Michelle is similar to the stance that Ann Richards of Texas took so many years ago: offering a maternal way of thinking through politics and political situations.
“By enacting the mom-in-chief role, Michelle can certainly create enthusiasm about her husband, but she can also deliver decidedly political remarks about future of our country,” they add.
Despite her emphasis on mothers, they believe that Ann Romney’s persona was most clearly that of a supportive wife.
“Certainly, she emphasized her five children and 18 grandchildren, but that emphasis may have diminished the potential to view Ann as a mother,” says Poirot. She explains that is because her children are grown, whereas Michelle Obama is still actively engaged in mothering younger children.
“Ann begins her speech by telling us explicitly that her speech will not be about politics, which is interesting given her attempt to appeal to mothers,” adds Dubriwny. “Are mothers outside of her understanding of politics?”
They again point out that, for Michelle, her incorporation of motherhood into the political realm is much more successful in allowing her to speak frankly about politics and the future of America.
“Simply put, there is a distinct difference between Michelle Obama’s understanding of motherhood as political and Ann Romney’s understanding of motherhood as apolitical. If anything, Michelle Obama pointed again and again in her speech to the political nature of the most personal of issues — mothering, who one chooses to love, and so forth,” they add.
Based on this analysis, the two professors suggest that Michelle Obama was more persuasive — in part because of her development of the mom-in-chief role — than Ann Romney.
“However, it is clear from public reaction that both were successful in their own right,” they note. Comparing their speeches in terms of persuasiveness does not quite get at the significant differences between them.
“For example, it is interesting that Ann Romney’s speech attempted to humanize her husband through stories of his poverty as a college student — stories that speak to Mitt’s reputation as a man born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” notes Dubriwny.
Poirot adds that Michelle told similar stories about Barack Obama, but these stories could be read as both offering us more confirmation that Barack came from a disadvantaged background and as offering us an implicit comparison with the stereotype of an always wealthy Mitt Romney.
What will it take to move the undecided moms to one side or the other?
“It will certainly take more than one political speech. In particular, if the Republican Party wishes to close the gender gap, they need to repeatedly emphasize the friendliness of their platform to women and families” says Dubriwny. She adds that this could be a tough sell. Mothers who support traditional understandings of the family are one group of women who the Republicans may appeal to successfully.
So, do the researchers think political spouses are important or not? Yes, they say, spouses are absolutely important.
A spouse like Michelle Obama — who has significantly higher approval ratings than her husband — can be relied upon to humanize her husband and make him more likable, simply by being likable herself.
“On the other hand, if we think about Hillary Clinton, spouses can also cause a good deal of controversy,” Poirot adds.
They point out that women as mothers were (in recent history) not seen as a voting bloc until the 1990s with the rise of the “soccer mom.”
“Certainly, the wives of male political candidates play an important role in appealing to these women,” says Dubriwny. “But, we have to remember a few things: not all mothers are the same — there are single moms, married moms, working moms, lesbian moms, disabled moms, etc. — and thus their politics are not going to be the same. Further, not all women are mothers — and not all mothers identify solely or even primarily as ‘mom.’”