‘Childless cat ladies’ and the long history of regulating who counts as an American
At the end of July, Senate candidate J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) introduced the newest Republican talking point, accusing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg of being “childless cat ladies.”
Since then, the same criticism has been made against many female or LGBTQ critics of former President Trump and his allies. This rhetoric is not just a catchy campaign phrase but rather the latest attempt in a long fight to define who counts as a real American or who is permitted to serve in high office.
Since the ink dried on the Constitution in 1787, Americans have contested and debated who counts as a citizen. Alexander Hamilton favored city-dwelling merchants and traders as ideal Americans, while Thomas Jefferson preferred yeoman farmers. Both agreed that “republican motherhood” was the ideal role for women. Raising educated and virtuous citizens was the best way women could contribute to the future of the nation. If women appeared to step too far beyond the confines of the home, they were often viciously criticized. For example, in 1805, Mercy Otis Warren wrote “History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution” and was particularly critical of the John Adams administration. Adams responded: “History is not the province of the ladies.”
During the first half of the 19th century, suffrage expanded to include all white men, regardless of their propertied status, but still excluded women and men of color. While there were growing voices calling for the end of slavery, those activists didn’t necessarily have the same concerns about citizenship. Even many abolitionists and ardent opponents of slavery remained convinced that Black Americans could not become equal citizens and supported colonization projects that would ship the newly-emancipated somewhere else.
Several decades later, advocates for women’s suffrage faced similar pushback to their demands for full citizenship. Remonstrants, or anti-suffrage activists, argued that the nuclear family was the basic unit of republican government, which required male authority over his family. This concept posited that women were represented by their fathers, brothers or husbands. Women who competed with men for jobs or engaged in political intrigue threatened to tear apart the nation’s social fabric. For example, Mrs. Madeleine Dahlgren argued that suffrage was not a natural right, as “idiots and lunatics” didn’t vote. She encouraged women to accept their place in the hierarchy, which was based on “immutable, fundamental, and higher social laws.”
Many politicians made similar arguments as World War II ended. While millions of men fought abroad during the war, women had joined the workforce in record numbers to produce the required supplies and war material. Now that veterans were returning home, politicians suggested that women should leave the workforce, allow the men to assume their place as breadwinner and return to their proper roles of homemakers, wives and mothers. Women who chose to defy these norms faced intense backlash and were called “unlovely women” that were “lost,” “suffering from penis envy,” “ridden with guilt complexes” or just plain “man-hating.”
The debate over the proper role of women citizens took on new life in the 1970s with the rise of the New Right and prominent figures such as Phyllis Schlafly. Schlafly argued that the family was “the basic unit of society” in which the husband has “the duty of financial support” and women have the privilege of “physical, financial and emotional security of the home.”
By framing advocates for women’s rights as “radicals who are waging a total assault on the family, on marriage, and on children,” Schlafly asserted that women shouldn’t engage with politics, but rather stay at home.
This claim shaped the political participation of average citizens and those that ran for higher office. When she was first lady of Arkansas, Hillary Rodham received vociferous backlash for not taking her husband’s name. The protest was so intense that she adopted the Clinton surname before the 1980 election so that it wouldn’t be a political liability for her husband’s campaign. By the time she ran for president, most of her supporters and opponents referred to her simply as Hillary Clinton.
These conversations continue today. When Sarah Palin introduced herself to a national audience in 2008, she emphasized her role as a hockey mom first, then her tenure as governor of Alaska. While I can’t speak to Palin’s parenting, her comments suggest that motherhood is still the first credential many women must demonstrate to make them viable as a candidate.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the proper roles for women are inherently racialized. Women of color have always worked outside the home at much higher rates than their white counterparts. By designating the stay-at-home mom as the ideal woman, this language designates women, especially women of color, who work outside of the home as less worthy or qualified.
This racial disparity may help explain J.D. Vance’s statement. Vance draws on a long history to argue that Ocasio-Cortez and Harris are incapable of representing the nation. That rhetoric should have no place in 21st century political discourse.
Lindsay M. Chervinsky, Ph.D. is a presidential historian and scholar in residence at the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies at Iona College. She is also the author of “The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.” Follow her on Twitter @lmchervinsky.
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