By Kathleen O’Brien
January 04, 2011
TRENTON — Imagine this scenario: A woman governor heads for a Disney vacation with her family just as a blizzard is approaching. When the storm cleanup doesn’t go as well as planned, she is criticized for her absence.
Her response: “My number one priority is to be a wife and a mother.”
I think we can all agree her political career would be toast.
Crispy, blackened, set-off-the-smoke-detector toast.
“You could probably say the ‘mother’ part. But not the ‘wife’ part,” said Christie Todd Whitman, our state’s sole female former governor.
“Absolutely not.”And if the “wife and mother” defense didn’t do in a woman politician, she surely would be scorned if she indicated she didn’t dare cancel the trip because her husband said “don’t even think about” it.
“No way could a woman say that,” said Whitman, interviewed from her vacation in — where else? — Florida. “She’d get beaten up. They’d say, ‘It must be her husband pulling the strings.’ ”
Yet when Chris Christie defended his vacation by citing his role as husband and father and joking about deferring to his wife, they were the least controversial of his remarks. For who doesn’t like a family man?
When Christie implied that being governor comes in third place after husband and father, the temptation was to say, “Oh, you know what he meant.” And indeed, we do.
Yet we also note that defense still isn’t available to a woman.
“I don’t think a woman could say that now,” said Madeleine Kunin, former governor of Vermont. “But I would hope that someday she could.”
When a man professes his devotion to family, it’s considered a plus, said Kunin. “But it’s still questionable for a woman. You’d hear, ‘See? Told you so. She can’t do this job,’ ” she said.
“She might feel those were her priorities, but I doubt a woman would say it as an excuse,” said Barbara Roberts, former governor of Oregon. “Because that’s always the criticism of women: They’ve got kids, they need to focus on their family.”
Nor could a woman executive risk saying she’d gone on vacation at her husband’s insistence. What is charming in a man — “Look! Even a high-powered governor has to answer to The Missus!” — might be seen as undercutting a woman executive’s power. “With a woman, people always feel there’s someone behind the scenes calling the shots,” Kunin said.
“You can only imagine the fallout if a woman governor said that. It would be, ‘Is she the governor or isn’t she?’ Politically, it’s complicated if it looks like the spouse is too powerful or influential,” said Debbie Walsh, of the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University.
Women politicians who are mothers have to walk a particularly fine line, Walsh said. They have to prove to the voters that they pay enough attention to their children — that they’re good mothers. Yet they can’t show motherhood intruding too much into their work routine. “They also have to show they’ve got that all under control,” Walsh said.
Chris Christie slams local municipalities for snow removal during blizzard New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie slammed local municipalities that were critical of the state’s snow removal efforts while he was on a family vacation at Disney World in Florida during last week’s blizzard. Christie said, “I know who these mayors are and they should buck up and take responsibility for the fact that they didn’t do their job.” Watch video
When Jennifer Granholm campaigned to become governor of Michigan, there were hardly any photos of her with her small children on her website, Walsh said. And Sarah Palin came under muted criticism for accepting the Republican vice-presidential nomination so soon after giving birth to a special-needs baby.
Roberts, of Oregon, said she sympathized with Christie’s dilemma of trying to carve out some family time, but said voters expect the job to come first. “The truth is you neglect everything when you’re governor — family, friends, parents,” she said.
Whitman said one policy she had to make sure her family knew their continued importance to her was to assure that if they called her office, she’d drop everything to take the call. They never abused that arrangement.
Whitman recalled being criticized when she took time off the campaign trail to go mountain-biking with her family in Utah. “They said, ‘Clearly she doesn’t have the fire in the belly, that family trumps everything,” she recalled. “I thought it was ridiculous.”
All in all, it’s to the voters’ advantage to have a governor with a strong family life, Whitman said. But while a man can brag that his role as a husband and father, substituting words “wife” and “mother” still triggers a very different reaction.
“Wouldn’t work,” said Whitman. “Which is an irony of our times: We are not over the double standards.”