Katherine Butler: What made mothers so superior?

Sarah Palin’s logic is that mothers have special powers, privileged access to some kind of innate, intuitive wisdom that is denied to the childless

Share
Related Topics

Have you got kids? Careful how you phrase it if the answer is no and you're a woman, especially one whose biological clock has been ticking for a bit.

The correct answer should you wish to avoid an awkward silence or, worse, sympathy should probably be: "No", followed immediately by "Not yet!", or, "I'd love to have had them, but sadly...". (That one shuts the discussion instantly with its hint of tragic medical impossibility, or that you were left at the altar and never recovered.) Don't, under any circumstances, reply cheerfully as you sip your Prosecco that in fact you are happy with no kids but would the questioner like to see pictures of your Jack Russell terrier.

Because, to have failed to be a mother, or as the folksy parlance dictates, "a mum", is to be caught without your flak jacket in a conflict zone. You may well get splattered in the crossfire, whacked by the maul of a giant furry paw, or trampled under the weight of a terrifying mama bear, she-elephant or whatever the next political species invented by conservative political strategists in the US might be.

The mama grizzly made her debut in American politics this summer, and if you like scary movies watch the video in which Sarah Palin launched the concept. To rousing music, ordinary women are shown making placards, gathering in parish halls, as if preparing to march in their millions on Washington, while Palin, in her strangely compelling Fargo gosh darnit, ya know voice, claims that all over the US there's "a mom awakening". These women who are supposedly "risin' up" seem at first to represent something positive. But then Palin explains the threat: "Here in Alaska, I always think of the mama grizzly bears who rise up on their hind legs when somebody's coming to attack their cubs, to do somethin' adverse towards their cubs. You don't want to mess with the mama grizzlies!" So naturally the band of conservative women candidates the Alaskan Queen is backing in next month's mid-term elections are known as the mama grizzlies. Leaving aside the nauseating sentimentality, and the illogicality of a supposed maternal uprising over child-friendly Obama policies from healthcare reform to better pay for teachers, the mama grizzly, in cynical marketing terms, is a stroke of genius.

Palin has identified a powerful and universal myth, but it's one we should be wary of importing into British politics. The crux of her video is when she anticipates the question why we should listen to her lady-bears just because they have given birth. Palin's logic is simply: "Because moms kinda just know when somethin's wrong." So that's it. Mothers have special powers, privileged access to some kind of innate, intuitive wisdom that is denied to the childless.

This elevation of the mom has little to do with feminism. No, Palin's women are warriors, who possess a sixth sense thanks to their elevated oestrogen levels perhaps; they are already tough and strong. The female grizzly is nothing if not one of the fittest survivors in the wilds, and the mom cast as this primeval, sometimes violent creature is deliberate.

All this would be merely entertaining from a distance if similar mom-power tactics weren't filtering so swiftly into our own political discourse. Increasingly you can't begin to aspire to a political career until you have queued up to be interrogated by Mumsnet, Netmums or somebody wielding a Bugaboo.

The tirelessly selfless mother is so morally unimpeachable a figure that only a very brave or foolhardy politician would dare to question the authority that supposedly flows from the role. But how far can this be taken? How long before we see the Tory ennoblement of the television presenter Kirstie Allsopp so that she can begin running the country, which is what readers of one women's magazine recently voted for on the basis that she "understands mums". Implicit in this bogus narrative about mum-wisdom is that mothering is so instinctual that only another mother – even better if, like Kirstie, she's rich and well connected – can truly understand where it comes from.

The Coalition leaders are falling over one another to do penance for having upset the angry mums. It can only get worse as savage spending cuts kick in and the frenzy for scarce public money, like food for bear cubs in the frozen wastes of Alaska, intensifies. But the message political leaders are sending is offensive to and neglectful of the millions who have not personally burdened the state with any child-related costs but who, never having had babies, are assumed to be too irresponsible, heartless or maybe downright weird to be allowed near any form of policy-making.

I wonder, though, how much these militant über-mothers are thinking beyond their own individual families when they demand that the political classes listen to them. Terms like soccer mom in the US were, after all, coined for the kind of middle-class mother who would knock another mother's eye out if it ensured her own little emperor got picked for the team.

For all women, mothers included, the mum-power narrative is a regression. Women have long fought to be defined on their own terms, not by their marriages. So why are they so eager suddenly to be defined by motherhood?

Michelle Obama stepped up to the frontline in the debate this week, presenting herself as "Mom-in-Chief" at a rally in Wisconsin. "More than anything else, I come at this as a mom," she told the crowd. "My first priority has been making sure that my girls are happy and healthy and adjusting to a very interesting new life in the White House." Of course you have to decode this depressing twaddle. Michelle is being wheeled out as the Democrats' secret weapon as her husband struggles in the polls. But in raising a paw, she's accepting the rules of engagement in the mommy wars, a conflict no woman needed ever to sign up for.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketers / Sales - Home Based - OTE £23,500

£19500 - £23500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced B2B Telemarketer wa...

Recruitment Genius: Showroom Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This global company are looking for two Showro...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This publishing company based i...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A teenage girl uses her smartphone in bed.  

Remove smartphones from the hands of under-18s and maybe they will grow up to be less dumb

Janet Street-Porter
Rohingya migrants in a boat adrift in the Andaman Sea last week  

Burma will regret shutting its eyes to the fate of the Rohingya boat people

Peter Popham
Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor