Forget the truck, the barn jacket, the Cosmo centerfold: Nothing about Sen. Scott Brown has appealed to me as much as what he’s doing in his new TV commercials, cooking and cleaning at home.
I’ve seen the “Dad” and “Husband” ads repeatedly, and maybe because I don’t watch much TV (not because I shun it, I’m just too disorganized to fit it in), I’m drawn to watching every time, usually while I’m doing the dishes myself: Brown wears a t-shirt and eyeglasses, looking more homey than senatorial. He’s stirring up something in the kitchen, he takes clothes out of the dryer; he gives his wife a chastely romantic kiss on the forehead.
Gail Huff—Brown’s wife and a longtime New England broadcast journalist, mother to their two grown daughters—describes how her husband was once the parent who rousted the kids out of bed and got them off to school every morning, after she’d left for work hours before. Huff explains how understanding and supportive Brown is of her career, and of women in general.
The ads are presumed to be an appeal to women voters, Brown’s weaker link of support. In a poll conducted at the end of May by Western New England University, women preferred Democrat Elizabeth Warren over Brown, 52 to 37 percent. Men plan to vote for Brown over Warren, 50 to 38 percent. That poll and another tallied last week confirm that this, the most expensive Congressional race in the U.S., is a statistical tie right now, with 8-10 percent of voters undecided.
Kudos if you can cite Brown’s voting record since he became the Republican senator from Massachusetts after his 2010 special election victory, or if you know the intricacies of Warren’s candidacy as a law professor and consumer advocate. But let’s just stick to emotions for now—the important stuff.
I’m not even undecided, and I’m thinking about Brown’s tug on my apron strings. I think about how Huff was at work before dawn and how Brown was at home, handling what is sometimes the most stressful couple of hours in a stay-at-home mom’s day. In a country where mothers—even fully employed ones—still spend more time caring for children and doing housework than fathers, Brown’s domesticity makes for a powerful image.
So, if Warren were to make a similarly emotional appeal, what exactly would that look like? Voters probably don’t want to see this grandmother baking cookies or tending the garden. Maybe playing with her golden retriever, or shooting hoops with her family would work? In her own TV ads, Warren is left trying to explain how ardently she’s worked for the average taxpayer—which she has—but the pictures are nowhere near as compelling. When women as leaders are expected to spread themselves across all facets of work and home life, there’s no element of surprise or fascination left for someone like Warren to use in a visual campaign ad.
Warren married young, had children young, picked up her law school diploma while pregnant for the second time, and was divorced by the time her first students would begin to call her “professor” but her children were not yet both in school. Her first husband was a NASA engineer, her second husband is a Harvard law professor. I wonder if Warren—like so many accomplished women—at home still did the lioness’s share of the work.
The question is relevant as our culture discusses how to elevate more women to positions of power and influence. Last November, when Virginia Rometty became the first female CEO of IBM, the New York Times ran a story about how important supportive spouses are—male or female—to a quest to the top. But husbands who stand behind their high-achieving wives seem reluctant to talk about their stigmatized role. That’s exactly the kind of attitude that needs to change, Anne-Marie Slaughter argues in “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”
In the Atlantic magazine’s summer issue, the Princeton professor says that creating “a better society” means making wholesale changes and reducing men’s persistent advantages over women in the workplace. The barriers between home and work, not being able to speak about the importance of family time, is just one flawed facet of a culture that still values separation of the two. Slaughter isn’t saying all women have to want it all—or that her elite definition of “all” fits everyone—just that we should create better avenues for those who do.
Brown arguably enabled his wife’s ascent to the most prestigious level she’s attained in her profession; while in Boston she worked in the seventh largest broadcast market in the country. He wants us to know him as the “independent voice” who’s been reaching across the aisle, but we’re also supposed to view his contributions as a family man as another reason to let him keep his job.
Warren, meanwhile, is running on her accomplishments as a champion of the middle class. Her influence over day-to-day money issues for the benefit of all consumers can’t be overemphasized, but they’re difficult and complex to communicate to the average citizen. Warren does have laudatory titles such as Bostonian of the Year (2009) from the Boston Globe, for her innovative approaches to protecting consumers, and was a candidate for Time magazine’s person of the year (2011) for the same dogged commitments. Her daughter may be able to tell stories that demonstrate how Warren comes through time and again as a mother and grandmother, but that isn’t a big part of the campaign.
Give Brown credit for truly being there for his children and his wife. But the fact that Warren isn’t trading on her supermom and grandmom status to get elected, shows that when a woman performs well at work and at home—we still think it’s a bigger deal if a man does the same thing.