Norm Influencers Move The Dial On Who Cares

I remember the 1984 vice presidential campaign in the states. I was 22 years old and just becoming interested in politics. I recall being excited that a woman was running for vice president. That excitement was tempered when during a campaign tour, Agriculture & Commerce Commissioner, Jim Buck Ross, publicly asked VP candidate Geraldine Ferraro, “Can you bake a blueberry muffin?” Apparently the audience, as well as presidential candidate Walter Mondale and even Geraldine Ferraro herself, laughed. ”I sure can,” she replied, but ”can you?”  This is reported to have caused even further laughter from those attending to listen to the candidates.

All of this reminds me now of a popular song from my grandparent’s era and hit song for The Candy Mountain Girls, called “Can She Bake A Cherry Pie?” Jim Buck Ross is next reported to have stated to Ferraro that ”Down here in Mississippi, the men don’t cook.” He added ”Let me tell you something else too while we’re on the subject. Do you know in Mississippi we have three Miss Americas. We have the prettiest women not just south of the Mason-Dixon line, but in the whole country.” Then he finished by saying ”with the exception of New York.” If you find reading this brief exchange surprises you, that is largely as a result of changed societal norms. No one notices anymore that men are cooking in kitchens at home or that women are leaders of nations.

The upshot is that some private norms have changed, and so too have some public norms. Norm changers are themselves often outliers. Geraldine Ferraro for example, was the first member of her family to go to college, having been told by a family member that since she was pretty, it was unnecessary for her to get a higher education. From there she went on and earned her law degree (with honors) from Fordham University School of Law – this she obtained while working nights as well as teaching at a school. She was moreover only one of two women in her graduating class. The rest is history. She practiced civil law, she became a prosecutor and she became a mother of three. Oh, and a vice presidential candidate.

Ferraro is her mother’s surname, which she proudly retained. The reason she gave is that her mother supported the family after her father had died. Keeping the name Ferraro was to honor her mother. That too was a norm-influencing act. I’m still interested in the late candidate for vice president of the United States. In large part for her very willingness to participate in norm changing activities that put her directly in the cross hairs of many who wanted societal norms to stay just as they were.

Well, that was then and this is now. Some things have changed somewhat and some things have changed a great deal. Social media is ever present in this day and age. That’s a big change and in particular because social media has a role to play in changing norms. By way of example, many of us have Twitter accounts now. Recently the Federal government of Canada sent around a survey asking how we access our information about the COVID19 pandemic, and Twitter was the item that I clicked. Twitter interests me for a variety of reasons. One is that it allows me to communicate with …well anyone, including some celebrities, famous authors and scientists and some well-known politicians. This aspect makes Twitter exciting. Twitter also de-distances us from those were were previously very distant from. It makes the world smaller. At least digitally so. Twitter has also proven an effective tool for communication of course.

I follow Prime Minister Trudeau on Twitter. His Twitter account describes him as: Father, Husband, 23rd Prime Minister of Canada. Why is his Twitter handle description interesting to me?  Well because we see someone who is in the highest public office in the nation, noting his relationship to his children first, before noting that he is, also, by the way, the Prime Minister of Canada. This ordering matters, and it matters a great deal. It matters because it is a signifier of a change in social norms. Not only for men – but for all those in public office, too.

For Geraldine Ferraro it was clearly problematic that she sought to be in high public office as a national leader because she was a woman. As a woman she was socially assigned certain tasks by society and these tasks were to be kept out of the political domain. Jim Buck Ross, referred to above, kept drawing attention to such tasks and roles, in order to discredit Ferraro. His questions implied that she had stepped out of her lane and moreover that she should get back in it. Ferraro’s response was that she could be in both lanes – but asked the Commissioner if he was likewise able to do so. A new norm was in formation.

In the case of the Twitter account, we see that what was once a private matter, such as that our Prime Minister is a parent, is publicly touted as a key life role while he is in office. This sends a message not so much of “family” man but of a man who ‘cares’. Similarly Canada’s highly skilled Federal Foreign Affairs Minister, Chrystia Freeland, has this notation with her Twitter handle: Deputy Prime Minister of Canada, Liberal MP for University—Rosedale. Proud mother of three. Being a woman in this important political role she may have good reason for placing her status as a mother at the end, rather than at the beginning of her information. But, we do see it. And she states that she is proud of her status in motherhood. That this Federal cabinet minister is engaged in mothering is relevant to who she is personally and politically and who you will know her to be. That relationship counts as much as the other where the public is concerned. It makes her more relatable too, in this day and age. Ditto for Mr. Trudeau.

To provide another example of what I mean when I say social norms are changing and in particular around care we can turn back to another example from the Prime Minister of Canada. Reporting recently on the COVID19 pandemic, The Globe and Mail mentioned Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as “holding cabinet meetings by phone and talking to G7 leaders by video, with occasional breaks for Star Wars-themed Lego and to give his youngest son a bath.” In 2020 we can see for ourselves that a country can be run from the home, where the leader is also playing with or bathing his young child.

Well perhaps I overstate my case. Those of us who tried be “super Moms” in the 1990’s know that to be so. That does not take away from my point however. Which is this. Care and all that it is made up of  -be it baking muffins for folks you love and/or support, bathing young kiddos or elders and its many other features – is being shaped and reshaped socially as you read this. I feel particularly so in the pandemic.

I was inspired to write Blog post this after listening to a recent interview on CBC. In it a middle-aged son spoke about being hired to work at the care home where his elderly mother lives in Toronto. His mother has MS and he was particularly worried about her in the COVID19 setting as she resides in a care home. Now he provides her with her personal care, just as she once did for him. Listening to this interview brought tears to my eyes and an image to my mind. It is the last image in the famous children’s book by Robert Much entitled “Love You Forever”. At the end of the book, artist Sheila McGraw has painted an image of the boy, now a man, sitting in the chair rocking his now aged Mum. Life as a full circle – of care. The link to this interview is below. It is an interesting listen, and it is certainly a heartwarming one.

The actions of the man interviewed are part of an evolving norm-in-motion. And given that we are in a care-crisis right now, as well as in a medical treatment crisis with the pandemic, I find it comforting to know that care is not immutable. It is not the natural biological female aptitude as we once thought it to be. It is bigger than that. It is a human aptitude, like playing and baking and bathing.


Robert Munsch. Art by Sheila McGraw. Love You Forever.1986. (image)

Sons Extraordinary Mission to look after his mothers to care for his mother. CBC News · Apr 10, 2020

Politicians Continue to Lead From Isolation. Politicians continue to lead from isolation amid COVID-19 pandemic. Laura Stone March 20 2020

Mississippi Farm Topic. Does She Bake Muffins? New York Times August 1984 by Bernard Weinraub

Can She Bake A Cherry Pie? The Candy Mountain Girls. 1953

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