Moms in Chief
The Rhetoric of Republican Motherhood and the Spouses of Presidential Nominees, 1992-2016
Tammy R. Vigil
In 1776, when Abigail Adams implored her husband to “Remember the Ladies,” John Adams scoffed, declaring, “We know better than to repeal our masculine system.” More than two hundred years later, American women continue to struggle against the idea that they are simply vassal extensions of their husbands—a notion that is acutely enacted in presidential campaigns. An examination of how the spouses of recent presidential candidates have presented themselves and been perceived on the campaign trail, Moms in Chief reveals the ways in which the age-old rhetoric of republican motherhood maintains its hold on the public portrayal of womanhood in American politics and constrains American women’s status as empowered, autonomous citizens.
The rhetoric of republican motherhood describes the ostensibly ideal female patriot as domestically focused, self-sacrificial, deferential, and defined by her relationship to others, particularly her husband. Moms in Chief combines the study of history, gender, communication, and politics to show how the spouses of the major parties’ presidential nominees from 1992 to 2016 at times fulfilled, at other times flouted, but at all times were handicapped by this stereotype. From Barbara Bush as dynastic mother to Michelle Obama as “Mom-in-Chief,” from Laura Bush as all-American wife to Melania Trump as model immigrant, from Teresa Heinz Kerry as assertive heiress to Bill Clinton as past president and prospective first gentleman, Tammy R. Vigil explores the function of presidential consorts in their spouses’ campaigns, and she scrutinizes how their portrayal by opponents, the press, and themselves has challenged or reinforced perceptions of the role of gender, and the place of women, in American political life.
“Moms in Chief: The Rhetoric of Republican Motherhood and the Spouses of Presidential Nominees, 1992–2016, is an insightful examination of the politics and rhetoric of presidential spouses and aspiring presidential spouses. It breaks new ground in exploring the role these unique political actors play in the American political process. Tammy Vigil has written the authoritative study on this subject that scholars in the field will be citing for decades.”
—Brian Frederick, associate professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Bridgewater State University and coauthor of American Presidential Candidate Spouses: The Public’s Perspective
“In this well-researched and timely book, Vigil provides a much-needed critical analysis of the role that candidate spouses play in the strategic messaging of presidential campaigns. In considering the ways in which gender- and sex-based assumptions are made about candidate spouses through the lens of ‘republican motherhood,’ Vigil reminds us that how we view potential first spouses can also shape public perceptions about the efficacy of women as political actors, both positively and negatively, within the American political system.”
—Lori Cox Han, professor of political science at Chapman University and coauthor of Women, Power, and Politics: The Fight for Gender Equality in the United States
“Presidential candidate spouses play highly visible, strategic, and active roles in modern campaigns, yet few academic studies have explored these important political actors. In Moms in Chief, Tammy Vigil provides a compelling and engaging analysis of the media coverage, partisan portrayals, and most importantly public communications of presidential candidate spouses from Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton in 1992 through Melania Trump and Bill Clinton in 2016. By employing the lens of republican motherhood, the book illustrates the highly gendered and traditional expectations American society continues to have for women in the role of presidential candidate spouse. This book should be required reading for anyone interested in the presidency, campaigns, or the role of gender in US politics.”
—Laurel Elder, professor of political science at Hartwick College and coauthor of American Presidential Candidate Spouses: The Public’s PerspectiveSee fewer reviews...
In the unofficial contest between candidates’ spouses, there are winners and losers. What is at stake, Vigil’s research suggests, is the very definition of women as American citizens and political actors.