POV: We Must Recognize Michelle Wu’s Motherhood in Her Historic Boston Mayoral Win
POV: We Must Recognize Michelle Wu’s Motherhood in Her Historic Boston Mayoral Win
CGS scholar: “After I became a mother, as with other professional women, I felt pressure to keep my ‘private’ and ‘professional’ lives separate”
The election of Michelle Wu as Boston’s new mayor is historic. Wu’s election, as NPR noted, “broke a 199-year streak of white, male elected city leaders.” Much of the local and national coverage of Wu’s election also documented Wu’s history-making intersectionality in terms of both race and gender. Boston.com wrote that Wu, who will be sworn in as mayor on Tuesday, November 16, will “become the first woman, person of color, and Asian American elected as mayor of Boston,” while the New York Times penned, “Michelle Wu is the first woman and the first person of color to be elected mayor of Boston.”
But this focus on Wu’s win is missing an additional shaping factor in her identity: she is also a mother who insists that being a mother is another central formative factor of her identity, politics, and campaign. Until her motherhood is also recognized in these intersectional descriptions, the historic nature of Wu’s win will remain incomplete and dishonors her commitment to making mothering both visible and a key shaping factor of who she is as a politician and as Boston’s mayor-elect.
Of course, there have been politicians who are mothers—Hillary Clinton, Wu’s own mentor, Elizabeth Warren—and historically, women have advocated for social policy as mothers or have made what scholars refer to as maternalist appeals. As Seth Kovan and Sonja Michel suggest in their book Mothers of a New World, as large-scale state welfare programs and state policies both in Western Europe and the United States emerged, many women claimed new roles for themselves and began to make appeals for women and children. In short, many women “transformed motherhood from women’s primary private responsibility into public policy.” Crucially, however, maternal appeals were grounded exclusively in mothers advocating and appealing for public policy for women and children as mothers and not as multidimensional women advocating in the public sphere.
By the 1980s in the United States, many privileged well-educated women began to take advantage of the large-scale social changes that resulted from the 1960s and 1970s. Unfortunately many of those women were told that in order to be successful, they either had to forgo motherhood or keep motherhood invisible or secondary to their professional life and only part of their private identity.
As I was working on a PhD in the late 1980s and early 1990s, both my MA advisor and PhD advisor were childless women. Both shared with me that they had been told, both explicitly and implicitly, that “successful” academics were unencumbered by family responsibilities. In fact, my MA advisor told me that she made a decision to be childless in order to become a successful scholar.
Fortunately for me, however, neither discouraged me from becoming a mother someday. But I was counseled throughout my early career to wait until after I received tenure, advice, I might add, that many graduate students continue to hear today. Equally important, and especially early in my career after I became a mother, as with other professional women I felt pressure to keep my “private” and “professional” lives separate. After I turned my intellectual interest in feminist thinking and writing toward motherhood, however, I began resisting these pressures to keep quiet about motherhood, to resist separating motherhood as a central shaping factor of who I am as a human, a professor, a thinker, and a writer.
What is exciting and important to me about Wu, then, is that she has resisted this mothering-isn’t-one-of-the-central-factors-of-my-identity model. She has embraced the idea that her lived experiences of caregiving—first as a daughter, then as a mother—are pivotal to her identity as a human and a politician, and as such, must be made explicit and visible. Indeed, in my reading of Wu, she has been clear and direct about how her lived experiences—as a woman of color, as an Asian American, and as a mother—have informed her leadership, politics, and policy decisions. On her campaign website, under “Meet Michelle,” Wu describes herself: “I’m a mom, a daughter of immigrants, and I fiercely believe that we can solve our deepest challenges through building community.” In her final passage in this section, she writes, “This work is deeply personal for me. As a mom to Blaise and Cass, every day I feel the urgency of families fighting the system to hear us, and to build communities that are healthy, safe, and resilient.”
Back when she was City Council president and in the midst of a reelection campaign in 2017, three months after the birth of her second son, Cass, Wu wrote an editorial titled “City Council President: Why I’m Bringing My Baby to Work” for CNN. “Women especially are often asked to choose between being a mother and being a leader,” it said. “Without adequate policy support, too many women face not only financial barriers to balancing motherhood and leadership, but cultural stigmas too.” After fully acknowledging that she understands how privileged she is and that many parents do not have the same options she did, Wu continued: “In bringing my baby to work, I am happy to be a visible reminder of how messy and difficult it is to be a working parent.”
It should not be ignored that motherhood was also a shaping factor in the candidacy for mayor of Annissa Essaibi-George (CAS’96). In her second campaign ad, titled, “Teacher, Mom, Mayor,” Essaibi-George said, “I’ll be the teacher and the mother and the mayor that’s gonna get it done.” And in her concession speech, she congratulated Wu, saying she was proud that a fellow mother would be Boston’s top official, adding that she wants Wu “to show the city how mothers get it done.”
In commending and advocating for the kind of visible motherhood that Wu presents, I am not arguing about some “natural” connection between females and mothering, where motherhood is the most important basis of female identity. Rather than being instinctive, rooted in biology or innate skill, I am suggesting that Wu is modeling and making her mothering visible as one of the key, but not most important, ways that she is a leader.
In doing so, I believe Wu is modeling a motherhood driven by intelligence and the motherwork entailed in caring for others. When using the term motherwork in my reading of Wu, in fact, I am also thinking about, and drawing on, the work of motherhood scholar Andrea O’Reilly, who argues that any individual or person who engages in motherwork, which is not limited to cisgender women or only privileged mothers, must include “anyone who takes upon the work of mothering as a central part of their life.” My celebration of Wu is a celebration of this kind of visible motherhood and motherwork rather than a celebration of motherhood rooted in cisgendered, biological, or essentialist views of motherhood.
I am advocating for a particular kind of maternal “getting it done” modeled by Wu and celebrated by Essaibi-George, one that leads to advocating for the family support that families, most especially mothers, continue to need. As Wu also noted in her CNN editorial: “I know that many parents do not have the options I do. It motivates me further to fight for better solutions especially for moms who don’t have the option of bringing their babies to work or the resources to make other arrangements.”
In other words, Wu argues that her lived experiences motivate her to fight for, and find better solutions for, others, most especially others who do not share her privilege and resources. Wu’s maternal embrace is unlike the kind of maternal embrace that Representative Lauren Boebert recently modeled on her YouTube channel, Bullet Points with Lauren Boebert, ironically, the day before Wu’s election. In the video, Boebert insisted that the fact that she gave birth in a truck was somehow also an argument against supporting parental leave, against providing the family support that caregivers need. Indeed, after leveling a critique of Pete Buttigieg for taking a two-and-a-half month paternity leave after Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten, welcomed two babies, Boebert said: “I am a mother of four. I delivered one of my children in the front seat of my truck. Because as a mom of four, we got things to do. Ain’t nobody got time for two and a half months of maternity leave. We have a world to save here.”
There are so many problematic assumptions here that deserve another editorial. But I will simply use Boebert’s “argument” as a cautionary tale of what not to do and to point out that Boebert’s uber-mom, neoliberal maternal embrace and suggestion that “good-mother politicians” get things done on their own, based on their own determination and individual will, is not the kind of maternal embrace I see in Wu, nor that I am encouraging us to recognize is also important to Wu’s historic win.
Rather, I see and support a maternal “getting it done” rooted in a visible maternal embrace that motivates political leaders to be community-focused, rather than individually focused, and to fight for the family supports that the United States continues to so desperately need.
Lynn O’Brien Hallstein is a College of General Studies professor of rhetoric, associate dean for faculty research and development, and director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning; she is a motherhood scholar and a mother.
Disclaimer: O’Brien Hallstein does not live in Boston and did not vote in the Boston mayoral election, nor has she ever met Michelle Wu.
Interesting. Reading this article it seems like kids can only have an even number of fathers. Perhaps we can say more about the changing expectations in families which are open about having an odd number of fathers?
The woke-left rhetoric of this essay is truly painful and sad. Also, the lengths that the writer goes to to avoid even mentioning Conor Pewarski, Mayor Wu’s husband of nine years and father of her children. As though he doesn’t even exist and is not a participant in Mayor Wu’s family creation initiative that is clearly important and even central to her life. Perhaps it’s because he’s one of those dreaded “White Males”? (Apologies for the capital letters.)
This was a very interesting article to read! As a woman myself who for a long time wanted to go into academia, I discovered many people within my prospective field without a family or children. With female representation in politics, we tend to see women act more masculine in order to be taken seriously, and a consequence of that is choosing not to have children. I’m currently writing an Op-Ed in my WR415 class on the Child Care industry, and why many parents are choosing to have fewer children or even none at all. I feel as though Motherhood is constantly critiqued and debated- like should mothers have help raising children? Many of these questions and debates are used to simplify the difficult roles that mothers have to take on. I fully agree with your message, recognizing Michelle Wu’s motherhood is an important part of the change. Mothers should be able to hold positions of power as well as raise their children, they should not have to sacrifice one for the other.
This article is fascinating to read and very well explained. The vivid depiction of Mayor Wu bringing her children to work resonates with my real-life impression of her. Last Sunday, I coincidentally walked by her public speech in front of a peaceful demonstration for Ukraine. She started her address by thanking the presence of her husband and her two sons, who stood by her side as she delivered the talk. I was surprised, as the article suggests, by the visibility of her children and family in front of the public. I agree with the author that Wu is fully embracing her motherhood, and maybe educating her children with the example of her advocacy, strength, and care for the community.
Standing at the park, I couldn’t help but wonder what Wu’s sons would feel to see their mother giving a public speech on a Sunday: will they resent that they are brought to a political event instead of an amusement park, or will they feel empowered by their mother’s actions and words? This Op-Ed gives an answer: Wu’s “mother-get-it-done” attitude might serve as an inspiration for not only her own kids but also for mothers in the crowd. Personally, I’ve heard stories of successful women having to choose only one from career and childbirth. This article illuminates that there is no need for compromise: with a fierce determination to “get it done,” mothers can truly have it all.