When Mark Penn wrote in 2006 campaign memo that the nation was not ready for a “first mama” president, his concerns seemed to be rooted in Hillary Clinton’s ability to be the “tough single parent” of the nation instead of appearing too feminine or – by proxy – weak. Penn’s outlook was ultimately flawed, as Clinton’s defeat signaled, but his concern about being the “first mama” candidate may be relevant for other reasons. Writing for the Huffington Post, Dr. Prudence Gourguechon explains the concept of “mother transference” and outlines how it affects women in public leadership.
The most profound experience of power any of us have in our lives is the infinitely powerful mother of early childhood. The dirty secret in our psyches is that if you dig deep enough you discover a hidden feeling that women are actually not soft, nurturing and emotional, but all-powerful and not so nice. The universal “omnipotent mother” of early childhood had power and control over every aspect of our lives: whether or not our needs are met, whether our communications are understood, whether our development is supported or thwarted. As a result, we humans are deeply ambivalent towards women in power. A powerful woman tends not to exert an automatic pull of attraction like a powerful man, but rather wariness at best or even repulsion.
Drawing from a larger field of scholarship on “maternal transference,” Gourguechon provides a potential psychological explanation for the language that some male candidates have used against Hillary Clinton in this presidential cycle. In a December 2015 interview with NPR, Jeb Bush reacted to Clinton’s attacks on his policy positions on immigration, telling host Steve Inskeep, “I don’t need to be lectured to about my commitment to the immigrant communities because I did it.” Bush is not the only candidate irked by being “lectured to” by Clinton, as Marco Rubio has argued that she can’t “lecture” him on living paycheck to paycheck. Most recently, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders shared his frustration with being “lectured” on foreign policy with a New Hampshire audience. While not calling Clinton out by name, he implied she was the source of the lecturing: “As somebody who voted against the war in Iraq—who led the opposition to the war in Iraq, lately I have been lectured on foreign policy. The most important foreign policy in the modern history of this country was the war in Iraq. I was right on that issue. Hillary Clinton was wrong on that issue.”
The language of “lecturing” evokes the same sense of “nagging, restricting, shaming, or controlling” that Gourguechon argues is associated with the negative side of maternalism. It’s unlikely that Bush, Rubio, or Sanders consciously chose to describe Clinton’s attacks in a way that reinforces gender stereotypes that can work to women’s disadvantage. However, if Gourguechon’s theory is true, using this language against a woman candidate is likely to yield different reactions among voters than it would if used against men. This doesn’t mean that candidates can’t contest or complain about their opponents’ contrasts, but it raises a valuable recommendation recently offered to journalists by columnist Callum Borchers: “We ought to check ourselves before typing those terms to make sure they are genuinely applicable and not influenced by latent, sexist mindframes that we’re too proud to acknowledge.” Candidates – male and female alike – would do well to similarly “check themselves” in the language that they use on the campaign trail, at least as long as voters’ expectations differ for first mamas and first papas.