When Dallas Mayor Laura Miller announced July 6 that she wasn’t running for re-election, headlines in The Dallas Morning News hyped the news that she’d “spend more time with her family.”
I put that phrase in quotes because when a politician steps down to supposedly spend more time with family, he or she is usually in trouble, washed up, or being forced out. In fact, a Fort Worth Star-Telegram story the following week poked fun at politicians who spout the “spend more time with family” excuse.
News media tend to treat powerful men and women with a double standard: Men who cite family considerations are copping out, while women are making sacrifices. News stories rarely focus on men’s family roles in the context of their jobs but often highlight women’s, especially if they are mothers.
When Miller’s mayoral predecessor, Ron Kirk, announced in November 2001 that he was leaving to run for U.S. Senate, the only Morning News mention of his wife and two daughters was that they stood beside him at city hall. But television and newspaper coverage about Miller’s recent decision gushed about how lucky her 11-, 14-, and 16-year-old children will be to have her at home. “I’m desperate to be with my kids,” a DMN story quoted Miller as saying. “My kids have always been in politics. They have always been in the limelight. This is about my quality of life and theirs.”
An editorial in the News nicknamed Miller “Mayor Mom” and noted that if she served another term, “she would leave office to find her three children in high school and college.” Yes, and? No one called Kirk “Mayor Dad” or chastised him for not staying home with his girls.
Back in 2001, when Miller was considering a run for mayor, a Gromer Jeffers Jr. column in the News focused on her mothering role. The piece led off: “Laura Miller’s daughter, one of her three young children, was tired of talk about her mother’s potential bid for mayor. So she called a family meeting and provided the clan with eight reasons her mother should not mount a mayoral campaign. Ms. Miller says she took heed. ‘I don’t want to become mayor and lose my family,’ she said.” She ran anyway and won.
The notion that only women must choose between parenthood and careers is outdated. Men make these choices and sacrifices, too. But media continue to promote the notion that motherhood is incompatible with power. The most powerful woman in the United States – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice – is unmarried, unattached, childless, and tough as nails. Sen. Hillary Clinton, widely considered a presidential candidate, is a mother, but her daughter is grown and out of the house. (And did anyone ever insinuate that Bill was a bad father because he worked outside the home while Chelsea was growing up?)
Some smart female politicians have found ways to exploit the stereotypes. Texas gubernatorial candidate Carol Keeton Strayhorn has fought to have her alleged nickname, “Grandma,” printed on the ballot. (Her battles over the “Grandma” moniker, including a lawsuit against the Texas secretary of state, also keep her constantly in the news, otherwise known as free advertising.)
Elizabeth Vargas helped break stereotypes in January when she became one of the few women ever to anchor a nightly news program. But after her co-anchor, Bob Woodruff, was injured in Iraq and unable to return, she announced she was leaving ABC’s World News Tonight. Vargas cited her pregnancy and 3-year-old child as the reasons, but some speculated ABC had forced her out. An older white male, Charlie Gibson, now anchors for the program. In September, Katie Couric, who happens to be a widowed mom, takes over the venerable CBS Evening News. She’ll certainly contrast with past anchors, including Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather. (Did anyone ask who was taking care of those men’s children while they broadcast the news?)
In the late ’80s or early ’90s, when Annette Strauss was mayor of Dallas, a former colleague of mine at the News wanted to describe Strauss in print as “grandmotherly.” He said that was valid because that was what she truly looked like – that indeed, it was simply factual to use that term. His feminist colleagues chimed in to say that his reasoning would be valid as soon as reporters and commentators started describing old white guys in power as grandfatherly. I’m pretty sure he was persuaded not to use the term. But the point is, that was at least 15 years ago, and to some extent we’re still fighting the same battles of language and perception.
Tracy Everbach is a journalism professor at the University of North Texas. She can be reached at TracyEverbach@hotmail.com.