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.


This one:

Photo by Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images.

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...

Well, he tried. Photo by Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images.

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.

Jackson campaigning in 1829. Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images

"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.)

Dick. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

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.

Photo courtesy of George W. Bush Presidential Library.

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.

Mitt Romney tried to overcome his "elite" status in 2012 by taking off his tie, rolling up his sleeves, and campaigning more with people on the ground. It wasn't enough. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

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.

You might want to put her down, Hil. Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images.

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."

Need I say more? Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

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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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

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This article originally appeared on 03.19.15


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