“We know our economy is stronger,” the President said, “when our wives, mothers, and daughters can live their lives free from discrimination in the workplace, and free from the fear of domestic violence.”
“Our wives, mothers, and daughters” – it’s a rhetorical device that the President often uses in speeches, and in this case, it came in service of workplace equality and confronting domestic violence. As I’ve said before, many times, this President is a feminist, and I believe that his discussion of and action on these two issues is evidence of that. So you know: Huzzah!
Alas, no. A petition has been created at WhiteHouse.gov calling on Mr. Obama to change his rhetoric. It reads in part:
This “our wives, mothers, and daughters” phrase is one he routinely employs, but it is counterproductive to the women’s equality the President is ostensibly supporting.
Defining women by their relationships to other people is reductive, misogynist, and alienating to women who do not define ourselves exclusively by our relationships to others. Further, by referring to “our” wives et al, the President appears to be talking to The Men of America about Their Women, rather than talking to men AND women.
I mean: Yes, I agree notionally with pretty much all of this. Referring to women “exclusively by our relationships to others” is harmful, etc, but a) I weary of people who choose not to consider the source (or even acknowledge any credit due – Barack Obama “ostensibly” supports women’s equality?); and b) it’s a rhetorical device.
As the American Prospect’s Monica Potts commented in her Twitter feed the next day, “it’s a rhetoricians trick, not the same old misogyny.” It’s a way to draw the listener in and create emotional intimacy with abstract issues, one I employ in my writing frequently. In the same speech, the President also said “we don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations…” – same device. It works because the speaker is saying to his audience: “Imagine the people you value in your life, and join me in caring for all people like them.”
But then (and I hate when this happens) I started to think about it, and while I will neither be signing the petition nor complaining to or about the President (who is a feminist), here’s where I think an actual problem lies: Men who are leaders and opinion shapers — particularly of a certain age — are far, far more likely to say “wives, mothers, and daughters” than they are to say “husbands, fathers, and sons.” The President frequently refers to himself as these last three things, but I can’t recall (and take that for what it’s worth) him saying “our husbands, fathers, and sons,” or anything like it. At the State of the Union, “son” came up once, in the aforementioned context, “fatherhood” was also mentioned once, and “husband” not at all.
Ultimately where this leads, whether intended or not, is the Othering of women, by which I mean: The undergirding of such speech patterns becomes “I am a man talking to men about women” — the normative, default “American” is, thus, a man, and women are the Other. (Or, in the petition’s words: “the President appears to be talking to The Men of America about Their Women, rather than talking to men AND women.”)
For this to not be the case, the speaker has to also refer to men with relational language, at least now and then. Mr. Obama could say “Americans know that our economy is stronger when our wives, mothers, and daughters are given the same rights that our husbands, fathers and sons enjoy” — and: Boom. Problem solved, with the added advantage of introducing a turn of phrase that expresses a caring relationship with men, language too infrequently heard.
To my mind, there’s nothing inherently wrong with referring to women in this way, as long as it is not, in fact, exclusive — whether or not we personally “define ourselves exclusively by our relationships to others,” most of us do exist in those relationships. The language just needs a tweak, an expansion, to be more inclusive.
And so I shall neither sign, nor complain — but I will make a request:
Dear Mr. President,
You and I are of the same generation, and we were both raised to a great extent by our grandparents. Like me, you often sound like you’re about 20 years old than you are, and sometimes that’s very sweet and feels familiar. Sometimes, however, you sound a little bit Stone-Agey, as when you inadvertently make it sound like the Americans you’re talking to are exclusively male (see above blog post). When you do this, you inadvertently damage the causes I know you espouse: Equality, mutual respect, and a better future for all Americans.
I would be grateful if you could work with your speechwriters to achieve an even more inclusive vocabulary than you already use. I’m certain many other American women (and men) would be similarly grateful.
Thank you so much for all you do to advance feminist goals and move us toward a more perfect union.
Emily L. Hauser