“‘My life explains my fight’ has been the argument of every American political biography for a long time”

My life explains my fight has been the argument of every American political biography for a long time. When you’re grafting a life story onto a political argument, there will always be places where the grain runs in different directions. (An argument that the system is rigged tends to be somewhat undermined, for instance, by the success of the person pointing that out.) And, particularly for women with children, campaign biography can be a snare. When Wendy Davis decided to run for governor of Texas, her consultants advised her to tell the story of how she started out as a single mother before becoming a lawyer; conservatives accused her of having abandoned her children. This snare exists because political biography as a genre follows conventions whose origins lie with Andrew Jackson, in the early nineteenth century, long before women gained the right to vote or to hold office. Discrimination is the afterlife of discredited ideas. By the standards applied to Davis, who left her two young daughters with their father so that she could go to law school, most candidates elected to office in the United States in the past two centuries abandoned their children.

But there’s another snare here: the danger of adopting, in place of the conventions of the Andrew Jackson’s-bootstraps political biography, the newer conventions of diaper-pin Girl Jacksonianism. Political consultants appear to be eager to advise their female candidates to include, when telling the story of their lives, gauzy intimacies, silly-little-me confessions of domestic ineptitude, stagy performances of maternal devotion, and the shameless trotting out of twinkle-eyed tots.

Jill Lepore, “The Warren Brief”, The New Yorker (21 April 2014), 101.