Politicians passing down political DNA to daughters isn’t new: Prominent female lawmakers with a political lineage include House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). But as women enter politics in greater numbers, it’s becoming more common for a daughter to be the one to take up the family mantle. The current boomlet of political daughters may be a signal that politics is an increasingly gender-neutral family business.
It used to be that a woman got into politics “over her husband’s dead body,” a morbid joke reflecting how common it was for a woman to launch her public career only by filling the seat left by a deceased spouse. Dozens of women took that path, and many — like Margaret Chase Smith, who filled the seat left vacant when her husband, Rep. Clyde Smith (R-Maine), fell ill — went on to have distinguished careers in their own right. Chase Smith eventually won a Senate seat and became the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for the presidency by a major political party.
Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, sees the rise of political daughters as “part of an evolutionary trend” in how women come to power. “You’ve always seen children going into the family business, whether that’s a grocery store or politics,” she says. “It’s a situation where women hadn’t been as welcomed into the business or political world, and that’s changing.”
The same advantages that have long applied to the sons of politicians seeking office themselves apply to women, of course. Name recognition is a big benefit. If a political race is a 100-yard dash, having a well-known name can put a candidate at the 10-yard marker just to start.
Access to a ready-made political network and potential donors also doesn’t hurt.
But Matt Canter, the deputy executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, says names are only part of the equation. Family stories, he says, are important for any candidate, whether their surname is well-known, like Kennedy, or unfamiliar, like Obama.
“If a candidate does come from a family that has a strong tradition, that has done remarkable things, and a voter already has information about that, it can be helpful,” Canter said. And he notes that though candidates with political family connections may well have networks they can tap to raise a campaign war chest, so might other candidates with deep roots in her home state or district.
For some, the biggest advantage might be learning the nuts and bolts of politics at the dinner table.
Pelosi, the highest-ranking political daughter right now, didn’t have the benefit of strong name recognition, and she ran 3,000 miles from the district represented by her father, Tommy D’Alesandro, the legendary Democratic congressman and Baltimore mayor. But she learned some job skills early on. As a little girl, she was in charge of the book her father kept that tallied favors owed and paid.