In 1992, the public voted for Hilary Clinton’s cookies.
How this cookie election came about is a little convoluted. To oversimplify: Clinton’s successful career in law became fodder for political opponents who wished to locate or at least imply a conflict of interest between her legal work and presidential hopeful Bill Clinton’s career in state politics. Clinton responded that the same questions would be raised by any candidate in a dual career marriage, and added: “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was pursue my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.”
This statement was taken to be a derogatory comment about wives who do stay home, and became an easy grab to sum up bipartisan attitudes toward women in public life. Clinton’s comment was as much about class as it was about gender: “having teas” definitely gestured toward a genteel performance of femininity that is expected of the wives of political aristocracy–the antithesis of the down-home image both Clintons cultivated for that election–and indeed, staying home had become a luxury and a rarity during the economically rocky 70s and 80s. But “baking cookies” struck too close to the heart of the American imagination of motherhood and domesticity. Clinton found herself compelled to backpedal and conjure up homey images of Christmas baking at the family hearth and mother-daughter kitchen cooperation. Family Circle seized the opportunity and challenged Clinton and Barbara Bush to a bake-off, for which they offered nearly identical chocolate chip cookie recipes. Voters on the campaign trail were invited to taste; everyone else was invited to bake at home.
It may never be known whether Hilary Clinton’s cookies won the bake-off by virtue of the recipe’s use of vegetable shortening (rather than butter, as in Bush’s recipe) or because the Clintons had already won over popular opinion. But it’s worth pointing out that Family Circle has continued to hold a bake-off for every presidential election year and that the winning cookie nearly always predicts the winning candidate.
No commentary I have to offer on this bit of political theater could be more perfect than Season 7 Episode 9 of Parks and Recreation: “The Pie-Mary.”
In this episode, Pawnee city manager Ben Wyatt is running for Congress, and his wife Leslie Knope–head of the Midwest Parks Service, former City Councilwoman, and star of the show–is invited to participate in the Pie-Mary, a pie baking competition for the wives of congressional hopefuls. Leslie ends up dropping the Pie-Mary from her impossibly packed schedule of public appearances with Ben, and Ben and Leslie’s political opponents immediately seize the opportunity to interpret Leslie’s busy schedule as an attack stay-at-home motherhood. Just as Leslie decides to enter the Pie-Mary just to keep the media at bay, she is approached by the Indiana Organization of Women, who plan to protest Ben’s candidacy if Leslie does participate in the “retrogressive and misogynistic” Pie-Mary. Presented with this lose-lose situation, Ben volunteers to enter the contest instead–and then they get protested by a group of men’s rights activists called the Male Men.
The result of all this mayhem is that Leslie (with a few supporting remarks from Ben) drops the mic on the ridiculous no-win expectations for women in public service:
Leslie: Hello everyone, thank you, wow. How about this weather we’ve having? Very temperate. Okay, recently I made an attempt to–
Ben: Actually, hang on. Stop. I’m sorry. This whole thing just makes me queasy. I love how independent my wife is, and because of that, I will not let her speak. That came out wrong. The point is Leslie is a great mother, public servant, all-around person, and I am tired of everybody constantly telling her that she’s making the wrong choice. So you can say whatever you want. I couldn’t care less about the political consequences.
Leslie: Thank you, Ben. Well, the first thing I’m gonna do is say sorry. I’m sorry that the spotlight is on me and not on Ben, because he is going to make a great congressman. Second, the Male Men. Where are you? Ah! You’re ridiculous, and men’s rights is nothing. Third, I’m now gonna give you permanent answers to all the silly questions that you’re gonna end up asking me and every other woman in this election over the next few months. Why did I change my hairstyle? Well, I don’t know, I just thought it would look better. Or my kids got gum in it. Are you trying to have it all? That question makes no sense. It’s a stupid question. Stop asking it. Don’t ask it. Do you miss your kids while you’re at work? Yes, of course I do. Everybody does. And then, you know, sometimes I don’t.
Ben: Yeah, and by the way, no one’s ever asked me that question. No one asks me, “Where are your kids?” Or “Who’s taking care of them?” By the way, who is taking care of the kids right now?
Leslie: My mom, babe. Everything’s fine.
Ben: Right. So maybe Leslie doesn’t fit your personal idea of what a candidate’s wife should be. So what? That’s good, because there shouldn’t be just one idea anyway.
Leslie: That’s right. If you want to bake a pie, that’s great. If you want to have a career, that’s great too. Do both or neither. It doesn’t matter. Just don’t judge what someone else has decided to do. I mean, we’re all just trying to find the right path for us as individuals on this Earth. [exasperated sigh]
Transcript by Springfield! Springfield!
Okay, just a little commentary. I’ve always loved the Leslie and Ben relationship on this show: they are both complete nerds for politics but in slightly different ways, and they mutually admire and support each other for their respective strengths. But just by existing, their marriage challenges traditions like the Pie-Mary, which rely on a narrow definition of wifehood that few women have the leisure (let alone the interest) to fulfill. It doesn’t take much, on that episode, to break the archaic institution completely apart.
Things get a little more complicated on the real-time and nation-wide political stage, but the presidential cookie bake-off began as a poor fit for the candidates involved and has only become weirder, as women with law degrees and successful businesses and medals and numerous other accomplishments confer with their formidable PR staffs to select a cookie recipe that best expresses the qualities that we think we want in a FLOTUS. It’s neat example of the trivial but impossible little tests that are set up for women in politics, which are continually challenged by the professionally active women who take those roles and which will eventually break apart when equal political representation makes the narrowly defined role of “politician’s wife” irrelevant.