Four years ago, when Sarah Palin was nominated to the Republican ticket, columnist Sally Quinn famously asked, “When the phone rings at three in the morning and one of her children is really sick, what choice will she make?”
Governor Palin never got the chance to answer that question, but fictional candidate in the miniseries Political Animals Elaine Barrish did. And she pulled back and chose her (grown) children. It was a fitting ending for a political show in a year that has seen attachment parenting beatified, pregnant Yahoo! President Marissa Mayer excoriated, and the word vagina banished from the floor of the Michigan State House.
I had high hopes for Elaine Barrish, because Political Animals was running on USA, a network where women kick a lot of ass and are routinely badly behaved (Fionna Glenanne of Burn Notice and Mary Shannon of In Plain Sight to name but two). But at the end of the day, Elaine Barrish fared no better than her doppelganger Hillary Clinton, who had the Democratic nomination taken from her when she was stripped of her wins in Michigan and Florida. It seems that, even in Hollywood, mothers just can’t get elected.
In 1984, when Geraldine Ferraro was nominated to the Democratic ticket, the fact that she was the mother of three teenagers did not enter the conversation. On the screen, working mothers were seamlessly integrated into the storylines on The Cosby Show, Kate and Allie, Family Ties, Cagney and Lacey and Cheers.
But by 2008, when Palin was put on the ticket, working mothers were a lot less visible. On The Starter Wife, New Adventures of the Old Christine and Medium, all the mothers worked part-time and Michelle Obama, who had quit her high powered job to support her husband, was venerated as the embodiment of motherhood.
Today’s TV mothers seem to be working more, perhaps a reflection of the economy and the number of women with children in the workplace. With the exception of the ironically titled Modern Family, where all of the moms are at-home, women are working on The Good Wife, Blue Bloods, and The Middle. On Up All Night, the dad is home while the new mother works. On Necessary Roughness, and the recently ended In Plain Sight and the cancelled Missing, the mother’s work drives the plotlines.
The number of working mothers has increased in Congress as well—there are now at least 10 mothers of young children and babies on the Hill, including single and unmarried mothers. Four babies were born to women during their Congressional tenure in the past four years and those numbers could increase: women are competing in 17 of the open 33 Senate races and 154 of the open House campaigns. A number of the candidates are under 40 years old, meaning another baby boomlet could blossom in D.C. in the next few years.
The season (series?) finale of Political Animals seemed to leave the door open for Elaine to run again. On HBO’s Veep, Selina Meyer, went through a pregnancy scare herself, though it was quickly resolved. It would have been interesting to watch that scenario spin out because the last time there was a fictional pregnant woman in the Oval Office was in Kisses for My President, the 1964 comedy about a female president who resigns when she learns she is pregnant.
Hollywood, like most of America, seems to enjoy gorgeous female action heroes (see Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider, Salt and Mr. and Mrs. Smith), but draws the line at putting a baby on a woman’s hip and the button for the bomb in her hand. They would all do well to remember the quote from Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, who arrived in Washington from Colorado in 1973, with a 2 year old and 6 year old in tow. It was such an unusual scenario that Schroeder was asked how she intended to work in Congress and raise small children at the same time.
To which she replied, “I have a brain and a uterus, and I use both.”
Nora Barry is a digital producer and the author of A Different Story–The Chess Queen, a retelling of the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine.