Beto O’Rourke continues to live his best Generation X life. The former punk rocker and still current skateboarder’s Thursday presidential announcement video featured his wife, Amy Hoover Sanders, sitting silently by his side and smiling at him lovingly while he pontificated for more than three minutes. He was rewarded for this straight-out-of-1959 performance by crowds who came to gawk at the charismatic candidate in Iowa, where he told a group in a coffee shop that his wife is raising their children “sometimes with my help.” He was so pleased with the line, he repeated it the next day.
More than a few of his female peers responded to this with a collective gag. “The idea that a woman could EVER, even in self-deprecating conscious acknowledgment, joke about how she’s “helping” to raise her kids, is inconceivable,” feminist journalist Rebecca Traister immediately tweeted out. Others piled on and by Friday night, O’Rourke apologized. “Not only will I not say that again, but I will be much more thoughtful in the ways that I talk about my marriage," he said. “I hope as I have been in some instances part of the problem, I can be part of the solution.”
It all didn’t seem to matter much — O’Rourke raised $6.1 million in the first 24 hours after he made his announcement. But it’s still worth taking a moment to explore the situation. A moment of virtue-signaling — I am aware I should do more as a father! — revealed a fault line that runs through O’Rourke’s own age cohort.
Generation X, once so hip and so cool, grew up to become born-again traditionalists. The group, which ranges in age roughly from those just shy of 40 to those in their mid-50s, was never as liberated as advertised. From early on, many women of Generation X refused to define themselves as feminists even as they supported feminist goals, and told pollsters and demographers they would devote more time to their families than their own parents. They pretty much kept to that. By the mid-aughts, a working mother spent more time with her children than a homemaker of a few decades earlier. Yes, Generation X men put more hours in with their sons and daughters than their fathers before them, but don’t mistake that for equal parenting. The same is true of all forms of housekeeping, from cleaning to cooking. At the same time, the standards for what makes a good parent have increased enormously — a burden that has mostly fallen on mothers, not fathers. Men are celebrated for simply remembering it is actually a child’s birthday, or taking them to a playground once a week. Women often feel judged if the tiniest thing is amiss.
There’s quite a bit of anger over this situation, but until recently it was all but suppressed from the commons, mostly confined to the mommy blogosphere, social media confessionals and novels with pink covers where women wrestle with the demands of children, work and less-than-available husbands. It took Hillary Clinton’s surprise loss to the supremely unqualified Donald Trump to both bring much of this simmering resentment into the open and connect the dots to our politics, where women, even after the 2018 congressional wave, remain underrepresented.
You can compare O’Rourke with his fellow female Generation X contender Kirsten Gillibrand — who formalized her own presidential run this weekend — to see how this plays out in our lives and our civic life. Gillibrand, who moved from conservative positions to more liberal ones over the years, is branded as an opportunist Tracy Flick (something of a Gen X stereotype, by the way). She’s openly and repeatedly discussed how she adjusts her schedule so that she can spend time with her children, with little to no credit. Despite the fact she has been outspoken for the better part of a decade on what would come to be called #MeToo issues, when she demanded that then-Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) resign in the wake of allegations he groped a number of women, many portrayed it as an operator looking to ace out a possible 2020 rival.
Meantime, O’Rourke, who spoke out against the Affordable Care Act before he voted to defend it, and enjoyed significant financial support from Republicans when he ran for Congress in 2012, is allowed to present himself as a progressive champion. Few seem to recall that O’Rourke declined to endorse Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones when she ran for election last year against one of his friends, Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.). His action quite possibly cost Jones the election — she lost by fewer than 1,000 votes. But instead of getting branded as a disloyal political shape-shifter, O’Rourke is touted by many as a charming unifier.
Our sexist reality really does bite. But O’Rourke says he has seen the light. By Saturday night, he was proclaiming he would likely choose a female vice president if he’s lucky enough to get the Democratic nod. ”It would be very difficult not to select a woman with so many extraordinary women who are running right now,” he said. Hopefully he won’t expect her to gaze adoringly at him.