Ever wonder why politicians kiss babies? The answer is weirder than you think.
Political campaigns are wrought with cliché.
From the red, white, and blue banners to stump speeches in local coffee houses and coal plants to ceremonial balloon drops triggered by victory announcements. (What happens to the balloons if they lose though?)
But one image has survived longer than any other as the reigning champion of pander-y political campaign PR.
The hero politician gleefully planting a smooch on the head of a baby who has been offered sacrificially by a nearby parent. The baby stares listlessly or crankily into the distance, wondering perhaps if this kind puckering stranger is their new dad.
Really, every politician does it. Republicans ... Democrats ... Russians...
If you're running for elected office, or trying to keep your current post, kissing babies is the name of the game.
Kissing tiny humans for political gain actually goes back quite a ways.
No one knows for sure who the first politician to do it was, but the act is believed to have originated with an incident involving Andrew Jackson. While touring the Eastern states in 1833, he was approached by a woman with a baby in her arm.
"Ah! There is a fine specimen of American childhood," said Jackson. "I think, madam, your boy will make a fine man some day." He then handed the boy to nearby secretary of war saying, "Eaton, kiss him?"
That boy's name? Barack Obama.
(Just kidding. Even if the timelines worked, Jackson would never be seen with baby Obama because he was a racist genocidal maniac who profited off slave labor and kicked 46,000 Native Americans out of their homes.)
Anyway, by 1886 the act had become so widespread that "Babyhood," a 19th century magazine for mothers, covered it in one of their columns:
"History fails to record the name of the politician who first adopted the above method of gaining the favor of mothers. Henry Clay, Tom Corwin, and Van Buren did a good deal in that line; and I believe it was Davy Crockett who boasted that he had kissed every baby in his district."
Since then, it's been the go-to act for politicians looking to earn the favor of their constituents.
The George W. Bush Presidential Library's "Path to the Presidency" exhibit even has a section on the political history of baby kissing from Jackson to Hubert Humphrey.
Why do they do it? After all, it's not like babies can vote.
And don't forget, before 1920, neither could their mothers. So who exactly are they pandering to?
The fact is, what we look for in a leader is ... complicated.
A president or any other elected official has to have many qualities and represent many values at the same time. You have to convey strength, leadership, and modesty in different and often contradictory ways.
On the campaign trail, you can score political points by touting yourself as the strongest, toughest, not-gonna-take-this-bullshit-anymore-est candidate in the race. But you score votes by being relatable, by shaking hands, and by being a candidate of the people.
The "perfect candidate" is strong enough to take on our enemies, but gentle and caring enough to pick up a baby and hold it. The perfect candidate is ... apparently ... a man.
Or at least society's image of a man. You know: a strong, upright, broad-shouldered gentleman with a sensitive side. A down-home guy with perfect teeth who's willing to lay down his life to protect yours but still enjoys long walks on the beach.
Admit it, America. It's not just a dating site trope. It's who we've elected pretty much every single time.
Needless to say, that macho-man-with-a-soft-spot-for-infants image makes the entire electoral process significantly harder to navigate if you're a woman running for office.
When voters see displays of stereotypical femininity from a female candidate (like kissing babies), they don't register it positively.
According to research from Nichole Bauer at the University of Alabama,voters associate those "feminine" actions with all kinds of negative, outdated, and backward female stereotypes, like being overly emotional, sensitive, and weak. Which, in turn, hurts their campaigns.
"Attributing stereotypical feminine characteristics to women candidates does tend to activate gendered concepts that reduce people’s support for women running for office," writes Bauer.
So while men can steal a quick political boost off every infant's forehead, this gendered double standard means women running for the same office risk hurting their political careers.
It's a phenomenon sometimes referred to as the "motherhood penalty."
If you haven't noticed, one of the current frontrunners in the 2016 president race is a woman.
A woman who has spoken time and time again about the particular complications and unique double standards women face when navigating the political landscape.
It's absurd that next time a female candidate is handed a baby on the campaign trail, unlike her male opponents, she'd be better off handing it back without a kiss (just imagine how that would play out in the press). There's no way for a female candidate to "win" when it comes to this bizarre tradition of kissing babies. She kisses the baby and she's too weak; she hands it back and she's too cold.
Please, folks, stop giving presidential candidates your babies. And let's leave this gendered double standard in history, where it belongs. For everyone's sake.
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