I published this essay in Huffington Post last February. I think it is still relevant in September 2016–maybe more so than ever. A companion piece is Trump’s Big Daddy Lie. Both posts refer to the unconscious processes that effect a politician’s popularity and how these can be overcome or positively deployed.
That pesky mother issue keeps cropping up in our collective political life—and will always dog Hillary Clinton’s heels, as well as those of any woman who dares to seek a position of political power. Doesn’t it seem that Hillary Clinton can’t catch a break? Years ago she got in trouble for saying she was going to work and not stay home and bake cookies (too tough). Then she gets in trouble for tolerating Bill’s behavior—shouldn’t she have thrown him out on his ear (not tough enough)? Her interest in children’s welfare was seen, some years ago, as not sufficiently weighty (not tough enough). Now she is considered too much a part of the (male-ish) power establishment (too tough).
You can’t understand why Hillary Clinton always seems to be, well, dissatisfying to many voters without understanding a fundamental psychoanalytic concept-a phenomenon called transference, and particularly the biggie, the mother transference.
I’ve been watching Hillary for years, and she is always accused of one of two sins—being too strong or not strong enough. This happens to all women leaders. The more power you have, the more visible you are, the higher the pitch of criticism. Understanding how the mother transference works in politics can provide lessons for the Clinton campaign and generations of women leaders to come.
Transference refers to very strong feelings, hopes, fantasies and fears we have in relation to the important adults of our childhood that carry forward, unconsciously, into present day relationships.
Doctors, professors, lawyers, clergy and politicians – male and female – are the recipients of strong transferences.
Female teachers, caretakers and leaders are likely targets for what we call “mother transferences.”
At the point where power politics and the psychic world of transference intersect, men have a distinct advantage. We like idealizing a powerful man and fantasize that by attaching our fates to his, we are somehow safer, wiser and more powerful ourselves.
Communicating a positive, evocative image about leadership and power is far more complicated when it comes to women leaders. Here’s one reason why: the most profound experience of power any of us have in our lives is the infinitely powerful mother of early childhood. The dirty secret in our psyches is that if you dig deep enough you discover a hidden feeling that women are actually not soft, nurturing and emotional, but all-powerful and not so nice.
The universal “omnipotent mother” of early childhood had power and control over every aspect of our lives: whether or not our needs are met, whether our communications are understood, whether our development is supported or thwarted.
As a result, we humans are deeply ambivalent towards women in power. A powerful woman tends not to exert an automatic pull of attraction like a powerful man, but rather wariness at best or even repulsion.
We are reluctant to move toward a powerful woman who reminds us of the negative side of a mother experienced as nagging, restricting, shaming or controlling.
Even without personally exhibiting these traits, a woman in power is at risk of being repellant merely by her power itself evoking these negative expectations.
Back in 2008, during the Ohio primary campaign, Hillary said, in one of her speeches, “Shame on you, Barack Obama,” It didn’t come across as tough and assertive. Instead, she elicited echoes of the shaming, mocking parent we may have had, or feared having. You can’t win adherents by reminding them of their mother’s ability to make them feel bad. No one is going to feel attracted to the maternal figure in active shaming, criticizing mode.
Here’s another problem a woman candidate for high office faces—some images of power that evoke strong positive associations when it comes to a male leader just don’t work so well for a woman.
Everyone loves a fighter, right? Especially if they’re fighting for me? A powerful man is going to fight for us — that carries promise and excites loyalty. A powerful woman fighting for us is an image that simply doesn’t resonate. Our hearts just don’t thrum to the image of a woman fighting. It’s not fair. It’s sexist. But it is true.
“Fighting For Us” is one of the Clinton campaign’s key slogans. “I will stand up and fight for you. I will get up every single day and keep fighting for the kind of America we want,” Clinton said during the Iowa campaign. And after the New Hampshire defeat, she posted on Twitter: “It’s not whether you get knocked down that matters, it’s whether you get back up.”
I think Hillary the Fighter leaves people cold—or a little out of sorts. Because she’s a woman. As I said it’s not fair.
What messages would work better? In addition to avoiding negative echoes of a nagging or controlling mother, Clinton and her campaign have to search for positive images of female power that don’t carry that frisson of unease that a Female Fighter does.
I’ll protect you. I’ll keep you safe. I’ll make sure you have what you need. I’ll look out for you when no one else does. The mother bear, the mother lion. These themes and images evoke a positive feeling and no dissonance.
Speaking in Flint on February 7, Clinton said, “Do not grow weary doing good. Do not get discouraged. Do not give up”. And speaking about his wife on February 1, Bill Clinton said, “She always makes good things happen.” Wow. These messages work. Support, encouragement, belief in us, inspiration, making good things happen. That’s female power at its best.
At other times in her career, Mrs. Clinton has demonstrated a remarkable power to evoke images of positive female power. Her book It Takes a Village is one example. What does that title convey, psychologically? We women take care of our people; we will protect and nurture you so you can live a good life.
Another image she deployed in 2008 magnificently captured positive and distinctly female power. In a speech on the night of the Super Tuesday primaries, she evoked the image of the Statue of Liberty, quoting Emma Lazarus’ poem, and then inviting the people to come to her with their problems and needs. It was perfect. She nailed the transference problem. She found a way to be both a powerful woman and infinitely appealing.
Lady Liberty is the perfect image for an enormously strong and powerful woman that is at the same time positively maternal and nurturing.
Fair or not, women in leadership have to be particularly smart in understanding and managing the transferences that will inevitably come their way.
Women with power must be careful to avoid evoking in the voter (or their subordinates in a company) the buried experience of the nagging, shaming, disappointed and entitled mother.
They must look for images like the Statue of Liberty or the village of women that protects and nurtures, evoking positive and distinctly female power. These images and themes will touch the voters in a way only a woman can.