On Wednesday night, four days after being shot through the head, Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords opened her eyes. Along with her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, she was surrounded by a group of women whom she considers both friends and mentors, including New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. As Pelosi put it, “We saw a little girl power too.”
In a post on Jezebel, Irin Carmon writes about how the women became friends, how it still remains a rarity to be a woman, particularly a young woman, in American government, and how they found in each other support and guidance for how to be good legislators as well as good mothers. As for seeing Gabby open her eyes,
Wasserman Schultz said, “The only way I could describe the feeling that we had, that I had, was other than the birth of my kids, this was the most incredible feeling, to see literally your — one of your closest friends just struggle to come back to you, to come back to her family, to come back to her friends. I mean, we know how strong Gabby is and you could see all the strength pouring out of her to touch her husband.”
Many are calling Giffords “a strong woman,” and we agree. (Another strong woman, for the record, is Patricia Maisch, the 61-year-old who wrenched the gun clip away from Loughner and prevented him from reloading and killing more people.) But does her gender matter?
It’s hard to say definitively whether Giffords being a woman had anything to do with why she was shot, but it’s impossible to say that it didn’t. Giffords’ gender may well have been behind Jared Loughner’s lengthy obsession with her, which seems to go back to a meeting between the two in 2007. Giffords’ gender was certainly behind the note that said “Die bitch,” which was found in Loughner’s home. And Giffords’ gender would have made her the first female American politician to be assassinated had Loughner’s plan gone as intended.
As Americans, we’re somewhat used to (as “used to” as we can be) the image of the grieving yet elegant widow — Jackie Kennedy comes to mind — standing beside her slain political husband’s coffin. And we’re quite used to the image of the woman who stands (or sits) by her husband’s hospital bed, holding his hand, patiently nursing him, hoping and praying for his recovery.
What we haven’t seen in America is the image of the powerful political wife, compromised by a would-be assassin and confined to her hospital bed, with her (equally powerful) astronaut husband clutching her hand, patiently nursing her, hoping and praying for her recovery.
Assassinations are always emotional, horrifying, cutting deep into the public psyche. But the attempted assassination of a political woman cuts even deeper, as it goes against the core of what we, even in our “post-feminist” society in which women can and do “do men’s work,” believe of womanhood. A man who is killed in the line of duty is a hero. A woman is still a woman, her heroism combined in our minds with a sense of her victimhood, her personal life and those left behind. It’s hard to shake that. And that may be another reason why the shooting of Giffords has impacted so many of us, all around the country, so deeply, even as we’re not quite sure or ready to acknowledge why this particular shooting of a politician (and, of course, others) is different, somehow.
That may be also be why, quickly following the news of Giffords’ shooting, her wedding announcement to Mark Kelly, a moving piece in the New York Times, began to circulate. It’s why people read it and thought, “Oh, she just got married!” and then, “She has a small child!”* How truly awful! (Would we say this if she was a man? Perhaps — but not in the same way.)
Or why CNN today has a piece titled “The congresswoman and the astronaut: A love story,” featuring this quote, among others, that would never be said about a man:
“He’s very protective of her, but he allows her to have her space,” West said. “She’s such a rock star, and I’ve been at dinner parties with the two of them and she eats like a bird. She’ll be off talking to people and Mark is the one directing the waiters that it’s OK to take away that big plate of food, just leave her salad.”
In Wednesday night’s speech at the University of Arizona, President Obama called out Giffords’ political role rather than her role as a wife or mom or woman:
In Gabby, we see a reflection of our public spiritedness, that desire to participate in that sometimes frustrating, sometimes contentious, but always necessary and never-ending process to form a more perfect union.
And it’s fair to say that we do see that. But we also see more than that, because Giffords is not just a reflection of our public spiritedness. What many of us have in common with her is not that, actually: It’s that she is a woman, a wife, a mother. The fact that she is a woman — and how we feel about that — is part of her, and our, story. Let’s embrace, not hide from it.
*UPDATED: Amid the chaotic reporting that followed the shooting on Saturday, we heard this “small child” comment. Since, we’ve learned that Giffords and Kelly have two children (per his NASA bio) but that they are his children from a previous marriage. Nonetheless, she’s still a mom.