US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

When Hillary Clinton made her official campaign announcement on Saturday, one word cropped up again and again in her 40-minute speech: family. She not only traced her family tree — her grandfather's job in a lace mill, her father's fabric printing business, her mother's work cleaning houses — but also made it clear that the idea of family will be central to her campaign. As she said in one of the announcement's dozens of references to family: "[W]hen our families are strong, America is strong."

Clinton's speech shows how liberals are reclaiming the rhetoric of family. This reclamation project is especially striking given how thoroughly conservatives cornered the language of family in the 1980s and 1990s — and how insistently they wielded it against the Clintons when they were last in the White House.

Family has been a central political value for activists in the 20th century, and not just activists on the right. Progressive-era reformers in the early 20th century, particularly women, structured their activism along family lines. Seen as guardians of family life, women regularly framed political issues in terms of family, creating a space for themselves in politics well before universal women's suffrage was secured in 1920.

Jane Addams, a founder of the settlement house movement in America, acceded to the common view of women's domestic role. "A woman's simplest duty, one would say, is to keep her house clean and wholesome and to feed her children properly," she wrote in 1915. Yet no individual mother could safeguard her family in America's urban tenements. That required street cleaners, public health officials, park developers and sanitation.

More than ever before, protecting families became a political issue during the Progressive era. It became a predominantly conservative political issue in the 1980s. Rebranding the concept as "family values," conservative populists claimed exclusive authority over issues of family. They sought to restrict access to divorce and abortion, to block feminism and gay rights, to curb depictions of sex and violence, all in the name of family values.

The Clintons bore the brunt of this exclusionary use of family values rhetoric. This was evident in Pat Buchanan's famous "culture war" speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention. Calling Hillary Clinton's views "radical feminism," he said of the Clintons, "The agenda that Clinton & Clinton would impose on America — abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat units — that's change, all right. But it is not the kind of change America needs." Buchanan set the template for the next eight years, during which conservatives regularly presented the Clintons as a danger to traditional families.

So what changed? Attitudes toward marriage equality, for one. In the 1990s and 2000s, the right doubled down on its opposition to same-sex marriage. But as Americans began to view same-sex marriage not as a threat to families but as a safeguard for them, the conservative position increasingly sounded anti-family. The Obamacare battles took their toll as well, as conservatives seemed to suggest businesses and religious organizations were the fundamental unit of society, to be protected regardless of the cost to American families.

While these shifts have not robbed the right of the language of family values — Mike Huckabee'sannouncement speech references family about a dozen times — they have given liberals a chance to reframe their agenda in family values terms. As Hillary Clinton said about issues like equal pay and family leave, "This isn't a women's issue. It's a family issue" — just like minimum wage, childcare, immigration and incarceration. By recasting her agenda in terms of family, Clinton is signaling she believes that when it comes to family values, Democrats now have the upper hand.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report