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Nepotism Is Not Feminism


The author, editorial director of Feminist Studies, takes issue with the language the president used in last week's State of the Union address.

He said it again.

In his recent State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama declared his commitment to equal pay for women in the name of “our wives, our mothers, and daughters.” It was a phrase we also heard during his second inauguration speech. To some, the phrase might sound like a touching affirmation of his position on women’s economic rights, but to keen feminist ears, it is discordant.

At an obvious level, Obama’s opening with “our wives” addresses mostly male members of his audience. The first time I heard it, I flinched, but thought it was an oversight by speechwriters. Now that he’s used it in two speeches, we can assume he means it. The phrase has not passed unremarked: hundreds have tweeted about it, and there is even a petition to ask the White House to end its use.

Now, I do understand the appeal of the wording; I get that the reference to familial roles brings the category “women” closer to home, bathes it in warm tones, and reminds us of Obama’s personal motivations for taking equal pay seriously—we have been told of his grandmother’s travails, his single mother’s struggles. However, it simultaneously accomplishes something quite different: it undermines the idea that women can be political actors detached from their status within households.

When you refer to women only in familial terms, you re-inscribe the notion that the public sphere—the polis—is inherently a male space. As any political theorist will tell you, the very concept of the public sphere was defined in opposition to the household, and in specific opposition to familial obligations. From Aristotle to Locke to Marx to Arendt, the public sphere in the West was that space of free and equal association of unencumbered “citizens.” But, as feminist political theorists note, the very founding of the public sphere was premised on the exclusion of women. It was precisely because women and the enslaved performed the necessary work of running households (feeding, cleaning, tending and mending) that men were “freed” to become public actors.

Clearly those are not the gender divides and roles we live with today, after over a century of women’s struggle for full citizenship in all its forms—voting rights, equal pay, freedom from harassment, bodily integrity. Yet the President’s speechwriters believe that the most appealing rhetorical device remains one that anchors women within their kinship roles, in relation to men. The very use of the word “our” by Obama has force because it implies women “belong” to us. It calls for men to grant women a hearing because women are “theirs.”  But women don't deserve equal pay for equal work simply because we are related to men. Nepotistic thinking is unnecessary.

There is another issue at play here. The phrasing probably helps Obama’s image far more than it helps actual women. Familial, especially fatherly, roles have a charmed status largely when used by men; politicians typically want to be seen as responsible protectors. A female politician calling for action in the name of “our husbands, fathers, and sons” risks diminishing her stature. Her role as wife, in particular, holds little potential to garner authority, given our hierarchical constructions of marriage. Motherhood as a political identity has a mixed record that only a few politicians have managed to successfully navigate; there is a clear tension between appearing too caring and seeming impartial, as ideal citizens are supposed to be.

A male politician, by contrast, is under no burden to prove that he belongs in the public arena, and indeed appears more sympathetic when invoking his familial role and acknowledging or paying tribute to his personal ties. When he calls for action in the name of military “sons and daughters”—one other context in which familial roles are frequently invoked—it is again in his capacity as protector. We see the political cachet Obama can get from invoking his role as the responsible black father, and the unstated racial scripts that this move activates. And we all know the pressure the president faces to appear less aloof.

Let’s also acknowledge we live in a time when people aspire to create expansive and redefined forms of kinship, especially as they live in blended families, single-parent families, and they imagine new forms of gender and sexual identification. We seek to “belong” to multiple people, beyond those whom we were born to or live with; our language of belonging also needs to be expanded. We certainly cannot presume that only those who are our kin are worthy of our attention, our care, our outrage and our commitment.

The language for shaping a future politics should be more creative: I look forward to a world where women don’t have to belong to anyone, and where constricted family roles no longer haunt the sphere of the polis.

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