Oklahoma is poised to have its first female governor, as two accomplished women contend for the job, one a Republican member of Congress and former lieutenant governor, the other a former corporate attorney, judge and Democratic legislator. They should have plenty to work with on the campaign trail without having to resort to which one of them is the better homemaker. No, they didn't compare their chocolate chip cookie recipes. It's worse than that.
At a debate Tuesday
, Republican Mary Fallin said that the experience of being a mother of six sets her apart and is the key credential that makes her more qualified to serve as governor of Oklahoma than Democrat Jari Askins, who is unmarried and does not have children. Four of the six offspring Fallin takes credit for have been her stepchildren for just under a year since she married their father.
Perhaps if Fallin had cited the challenges of blending two families as evidence that she understands conflicting loyalties and could work in a bipartisan manner, I would feel more kindly about her touting her maternal achievement. Instead, it feels like a throwback to an earlier time when a woman's worth was measured by her marital status, and a woman who did not bear children was expected to explain why not.
Republican Elizabeth Dole
ran into this on the campaign trail in 2000 when a woman vying for the presidency was a novelty, and the media seemed more interested in her personal life than in the two Cabinet posts she had held. Profiles of Dole typically pointed out that she was "childless," an adjective that when applied to a woman sounds pejorative.
And yet it was hard to blame the media at the time because Dole invited scrutiny of her personal choices by ending a recitation of her considerable qualifications for the presidency by routinely declaring, "I think the most important career a woman can have is that of a mother raising fine young future citizens." She understood that as a politician she was expected to present herself in the context of a family, and while she had a powerful and well-known husband, Sen. Bob Dole, and an adult stepdaughter, she felt compelled to blunt possible criticism from voters about never having had a child.
Dole's campaign aides were frustrated by what they saw as a double standard. Republican Pat Buchanan
was also running for president at the time, and he happens to be childless but was never asked about not fathering children. It just wasn't an issue for a man in the same way it was for a woman, and that's apparently still true today.
Yet the Oklahoma race is between two women, and they're both of an age where they should know better. Republican Fallin is 55; Democrat Askins is 57. They've seen the gains women have made in being judged on their own merits and not an outdated stereotype. The audience at the Oklahoma debate greeted Fallin's citation of her motherhood as her key qualification with groans of displeasure, a signal that the voters have been there, done that on this particular gambit, and that even in a conservative state like Oklahoma where paeans to family values are standard fare, not having kids shouldn't be a barrier to public service.