Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Fix | Analysis

Want to run for office as a mom? Be prepared to address voters' concerns about it.

By Amber Phillips

March 16, 2017 at 11:15 AM

Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) addresses a nuclear protest in 1978. Colorado's first female member of Congress said she was so frustrated by gender stereotypes that she'd go home and "scream at the wall." (Raimundo Borea/AP)

Concerned about balancing motherhood and your career? If you're a female politician, voters are concerned for you. And they desperately want to be reassured you can do both, a reassurance they don't necessarily need from a male politician. That's according to new research from the nonpartisan Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which studies women in politics.

Of all the double standards a woman faces in politics — how she looks, whether she's likable enough, what she's wearing — this one may be the most intractable and the most important for female candidates to address.

Since the presidential election, a surge of women across the country are suddenly interested in running for office. But voters' perceptions of a woman's role in society haven't shifted nearly as much as reality has.

Today, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation says, babies are nearly as likely to be born to single or unmarried-but-partnered women as they are to married parents. And yet voters still value a family model more reminiscent of the 1960s. "Many people still assume motherhood is a central role for women," the foundation's report says.

Related: [Hillary Clinton: 'It's especially tricky for women' to come across as both serious and likable]

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In her concession speech on Nov. 9, Hillary Clinton took a minute to address young women and little girls. (The Washington Post)

The good news? Despite all these hurdles, research also shows that women can win elections at the same rate as men. But if you're a woman who wants to run for office, the research suggests you need to work voters' perception about motherhood and family into your campaign strategy rather than try to force voters into your reality.

First, some of the report's hard truths about female politicians and their families:

Dealing with all that is, of course, not fun. Patricia Schroeder, a Democrat who in 1973 became the first woman from Colorado to be elected to Congress, recently told me that she was so frustrated when people asked where her husband was or who was taking care of her two young children that she would "go home and scream at the wall."

Related: [Why can't women just be themselves when they run for office?]

But fair or not, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation says that female candidates should address voters' concerns about their families if they want to try to move past it: "Voters want a response from the candidate, even if they think the critique is unfair."

The foundation spent the next half of its research analyzing the best way to do just that, which I've listed in a series of do's and dont's.

DON'T be negative, and DON'T point out your weaknesses or failings. Saying something like this, the report says, sticks with voters: "While I would love to say I am able to 'have it all' and be the perfect mother in addition to running for office, I must admit it is hard to juggle work and family."

DON'T use excuses: Excuses won't help reassure voters you have your family and public life under control.

DO give credit: To your support system, like your spouse or partner.

DON'T give too much credit: It could make you sound uninvolved.

DO share examples: Of how you balance your family life.

DON'T share too many examples: Voters want to know you're focused on them.

DO make it about the voters: Show how your family experiences will contribute to them.

DO be confident: In all the research of women I've been reading, this term keeps coming up. In this case, I interpret confidence to mean coming across to voters as confident that you can be both a mother and their elected official.

DO wrap it all up by talking about public policy that affects families: Like paid family leave. But avoid overly partisan issues — say, minimum wage — which this research finds voters have a very low tolerance for.

DO be extremely careful about having your child in a campaign photo: The foundation tested more than a dozen candidate photos of various families and found candidates need to strike a balance with a professional yet casual photo that acknowledges the children but doesn't place too much emphasis on the kids. "Without being prompted, voters notice if it seems like a candidate is paying too much attention" or is "too distracted" from the child."

The foundation says these strike the right balance between authenticity and interaction between child and candidate. (Barbara Lee Family Foundation)
The foundation says these look too staged, center the child too much, or seem like the candidate is ignoring the child. (Barbara Lee Family Foundation)

DO embrace your non-traditional family life: Divorced? Dating? A lesbian? Some of these situations might play to your advantage. For example, the foundation found that voters "deeply resent" a female candidate being critiqued based on her divorce. And voters' attitudes about lesbians have evolved faster than their attitudes about mothers. If you have a child, just follow the steps above like any other mom. (The exception comes if you're a dating woman: "They believe that candidates should not have any time to date while running for or holding office.")

DO take this with a grain of salt: Some researchers of female officeholders caution against reading too much into reports like this. Double standards for mothers and fathers may exist, but the bigger societal concern is not how voters will interpret motherhood but whether potential female candidates will read this and then opt out of running for office altogether.

Women are vastly underrepresented in politics: They make up about 50 percent of the population but only 20 percent of Congress. They represent just a fraction of the more than 7,300 state legislative seats. Two states have never sent a woman to Congress. There's a lot of ground to cover, and women can't necessarily wait for society to treat men and women equally to make a run for it, especially when research shows women win at the same rate as men, this argument goes.

But getting there is still much more complicated than many female candidates would like.

Related: [Nevada is about to become the first state in more than three decades to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment]


Amber Phillips writes about politics for The Fix. She was previously the one-woman D.C. bureau for the Las Vegas Sun and has reported from Boston and Taiwan.

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