Family Circle is holding a cookie-baking recipe contest between Michelle Obama and Ann Romney. Why, you might wonder, are they cooperating with the presumption that the role of a wife is to bake cookies (and, of course, that their spouses have no recipes of their own)? The political valence of this drearily demeaning ritual lies in the 1992 hazing of Hillary Clinton.
At the outset of the campaign, Clinton replied to a question about Whitewater by snapping, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas.” This was widely held to be a major gaffe. Clinton, as conservative columnist William Safire put it, was “appearing to show contempt for women who work at home.”
Clinton worked feverishly to rebuild her shrewish image. She participated in the cookie contest, announcing her lifelong love of baking, and casting herself as a more traditional first lady who would concern herself primarily with children’s issues. The lesson has stuck that a candidate’s wife must participate in the cookie contest on pain of being declared Out of Touch With Middle America.
Now, I happen to do all the cooking in my household, and I have never baked homemade cookies in my life. My kids have been raised to think of “baking cookies” as squeezing Toll House cookie dough onto a pan and putting that in the oven. There may be candidates whose wives do not bake cookies from scratch, or even candidates who do the cookie-baking themselves rather than delegate the task to the little woman. But they could never admit as much because it would now be held as a slap against millions of American women. And so the cookie contest goes on and on.