Polly Bergen played the mother of the first female President in ABC’s Commander in Chief a few seasons back with a wink to those who remembered her past. Back in 1965 Bergen also played the first female POTUS, in a movie called Kisses for My President.
While her husband (Fred MacMurray) hung about awkwardly, President Leslie McCloud handled her job ably. The first gentleman wasn’t sure what his job was, however, and all the implied questions about where the dividing line between men’s work and women’s work lay and why were resolved when she, already the mother of two older kids, became pregnant and resigned, facing a choice between losing the job or losing the baby. Even in the sixties a working woman with kids was imaginable, but working with a baby was not.
Forty years later, Geena Davis’s Mackenzie Allen might have been that child Leslie McCloud left office to raise. With three school-age kids, the baby question didn’t arise for mama Mackenzie, presumably for two reasons: first, things had changed enough that the point of the story was no longer to find an ending that pushed her out of office, it was to show her managing there. Second, and equally pragmatically, because, as the female candidate for VP in the 2000 film The Contender assured those worried about the chance that she might become pregnant in office, Mackenzie and her husband could be assumed to employ reliable birth control (something still fairly new in 1965).
Nonetheless, though she had many devoted fans, Mackenzie too left office early–when the show was canceled. So, yes, she could be imagined holding the job, but then again, not so much.
Those two story lines in tandem with this year’s political stories suggest both that we’ve come a distance, and that we’re still conflicted about what kinds of work women are supposed to or are allowed to do in our world. Hillary has already lived the life of a working mother with a young child in the White House, but her status as First Lady looked enough like a familiar role and occurred against a backdrop quite different from that of today. These days advocates for revising the national work/family dynamic speak on every other corner. In between you’ll hear voices raised for a return to a world in which women knew their place and stayed in it.
Part of the conflict stems from the fact that the system we operate within makes it so hard for women to succeed. The question of how to accommodate the dual needs of kids of all ages–and babies in particular–as well as a demanding job remains a huge issue in contemporary America, and Sarah Palin’s candidacy brings it front and center even though she herself has not made it a talking point.
It’s an issue for working women all over America, from executives to middle management to line workers, shop assistants, and clerks. And increasingly it’s an issue for men, whose working wives make child care a family concern. The world is full of working people with young kids, and they need answers.
A few basic changes could make enormous differences. A national investment in an affordable, reliable system of good childcare (see the French example) would release a torrent of talent and energy into the rebuilding economy on at least three levels: the childcare workers who will earn more and get more education while providing more consistency to the children they’re tending; the mothers and fathers of those kids who will be freed to participate more fully in growing the economy; and the children, who will themselves be more educated and more able to contribute down the line.
If we value families as the source of the next generation of citizens, there’s plenty of room to make changes in the work culture so that people who want to spend time with their kids while building careers can do so. And framework changes in areas like the tax code so that mothers’ income isn’t unfairly charged as it is in the current income averaging system could reshape the way women’s work adds up in the home budget. Many more changes, large and small, could emerge from a vigorous national discussion.
While this political season won’t yield a woman president, it has seen a movement of women into the political forefront as never before. We’re ready for a national leadership (male and female) that takes seriously the contributions on both the home front and the business front of all citizens and commits to facilitating both. So far Barack Obama is the only candidate who has demonstrated an interest in pursuing such family-friendly change. If he, as an active father to young children, can carry that banner into the White House, he can count on lots of kisses, of the metaphorical kind, from families all over the nation. And the groundwork for a return to a burgeoning national economy for good measure.
[This piece was first posted on huffingtonpost.com]