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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

soccer mom

(1990’s | journalese (polling))

Cast your minds back to 1995, those of you who go back that far. An unheralded candidate in a race for a seat on the Denver City Council, Susan Casey called herself a “soccer mom” and won the election. A year later, the phrase was heard round the world during the presidential campaign, with both parties wooing soccer moms aggressively. That was when the expression impressed itself on the national lexicon, within the span of a month or two during that singularly undramatic presidential contest. But Casey’s use of “soccer mom” gained her minor national attention; I remember learning the phrase at that time. Before Casey, the phrase, when used at all, connoted no more than boosterism or helping out with kids’ soccer leagues. Despite its political path to prominence and occasional use as a code word (see below), the lowest-common-denominator meaning of the expression — “suburban mother” — emerged quickly and decisively. We form the hackneyed image of a well-off white woman ferrying the kids to various extracurricular activities in the family minivan. The so-called “Soccer Mom Madam” — the suburban mother convicted in 2012 of running a prostitution ring in New York — was so called simply because she had kids and lived outside the city; it didn’t have to do with her party affiliation, employment status, driving habits, or anything else.

The suburbs had formed the object of intense political strategizing for a generation by 1995, but soccer moms energized the bloc and influenced the 1996 election. Early sightings that summer offered definitions: “overburdened, middle income working mothers” (E.J. Dionne quoting Bob Dole’s campaign strategist Alex Castellanos, Washington Post, July 21) or “working mothers, in the suburbs, stressed out and stretched thin” (CBS News, August 29). While only one source mentions the suburbs, both include “working” in the description; I think that is not an essential component of the phrase today. By 2000, “soccer mom” had acquired a left-wing tinge. It was assumed, at least in political discourse, that soccer moms were environmental do-gooders or health nuts or something that made them objects of contempt in right-wing eyes (imagine caring about the health and well-being of your children!). Terms popularized by political consultants are subject to these sorts of shifts, because strategists live by dividing the electorate into ever-narrower slices, defined precisely enough that a certain kind of direct appeal has a good chance of reaping votes, so they try to pile on as many traits as possible to create the narrowest possible definition. Have soccer moms held onto their political clout? Political types no longer use the expression much, or make much effort to reel in their votes, not in any obvious way.

“Soccer mom” (also “hockey mom”) had no precise pre-1990 equivalent, I believe, even though the practice of driving carloads of children to this practice or that class or those lessons was widespread in my childhood. (Back then, we rode in station wagons, kids! Ah, those battleships of the road, some of ’em twenty feet long, slatternly yet majestic with or without the fake wood paneling.) There just doesn’t seem to have been a word for it, much less a socioeconomic category. Soccer hadn’t entered its boom phase in the U.S. yet, although it was closer than any of us knew. (I don’t recall that we had little-league soccer in my reasonably affluent suburb in the seventies.) “Mom” as a common noun didn’t roll off the tongue quite as easily back then, and that’s part of it, too. Then there’s the possibility that most kids didn’t have as many after-school activities that required being driven somewhere. The point is, we could have had baseball moms or ballet moms, and we didn’t. Suburban mothers were not on anyone’s radar as a political force in the seventies, and it didn’t occur to anyone that they might need a special name. When the time came, the word sprang forth to enfold (or obfuscate) a new set of assumptions about power, gender, and family.

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