The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A candidate was asked if she can juggle politics and kids. That doesn’t happen to men, experts say.

A progressive Democrat group asked the question twice of New York state Senate candidate Françoise Olivas

(Francoise Olivas for NY/Washington Post illustration)
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When Françoise Olivas sat down for her first candidate endorsement interview on Feb. 28, she was expecting questions about the issues.

A first-time candidate for New York state Senate, Olivas, 47, set up for the Zoom meeting in her living room while her 4-year-old daughter colored in her room. The virtual meeting with approximately 20 members of North Brooklyn Progressive Democrats (NBPD), a Greenpoint-based political club she had worked with in the past, was one of her first campaign events. Olivas had prepared a short script.

She introduced herself as a small-business owner, a working mom and an environmentalist. Then she walked through the issues she was most passionate about: passing universal child care so New York parents could return to work; helping local retailers; investing in education; cleaning up air and waterways and creating sustainable “green” jobs.

When the floor opened for questions, Olivas was ready to talk about her background and the advocacy she had done in her Brooklyn neighborhood. But the first question she received floored her: How did she plan to juggle being a mom and running for a Senate seat?

Minutes later, she was asked whether she could balance motherhood and politics a second time.

This time, the questioner pressed her: “Especially if the child is a certain age … that child needs a parent, a mother or father, most of the time.”

“I was in such a state of shock,” Olivas said. “It’s an absurd question to be asked in 2022, especially by a club that has ‘progressive’ in the name.”

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

Both exchanges in the remote, closed meeting were recorded by Monique Erickson, a friend of Olivas, on her cellphone and shared with The Washington Post. Olivas’s campaign also shared the recording with the political action committee Vote Mama, which supports Democratic mothers running for office. The group posted an excerpt of the exchange on Twitter.

In a statement shared to Twitter on Tuesday night, NBPD said the members’ comments “do not reflect the opinion of the Executive Committee.” The organization said it did not have any additional comment at this time.

In recent years, women in politics have become much more public about their roles as parents than in the past, with prominent female candidates and elected officials increasingly bringing their children on the campaign trail. In 2018, Liuba Grechen Shirley, a candidate running for a U.S. House seat, became the first woman to be given permission by the Federal Election Commission to use campaign money to pay for child care. (Shirley is also founder and chief executive of Vote Mama and Vote Mama Foundation.)

Motherhood was once a campaign liability. The 2020 female candidates are making it an asset

While there have been significant gains for moms seeking public office, the questions Olivas faced on Monday demonstrate that these candidates still face persistent bias, said Kelly Dittmar, an associate professor at the University of Rutgers-Camden and director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP).

“This is the type of question that women on the campaign trail and as officeholders have heard throughout history. It’s not unique to this moment, but it is unique that we have a tape of it,” Dittmar said.

When these questions come up, Dittmar added, are typically raised by voters, who can come from a wide range of backgrounds and hold differing opinions about gender roles. But, she said, it’s unclear how much these concerns are raised behind closed doors: “If the questions are raised in public, are they also raised in private, influential places?”

The first person to ask Olivas about her ability to balance motherhood and campaigning was a woman member of the volunteer organization.

“How do you plan to juggle being a mom and running for a seat when sometimes you have issues coming to some of the meetings and doing Zoom because you have a child, and this is more of a responsibility?” she asked.

Olivas said she was taken aback by the question, but instinctively launched into “likable mode” in her response.

“It takes a village,” said Olivas, who added that she sometimes brings her child to events with her. “To be frank, I am doing this for her future, for the future of our planet,” Olivas told the group. “We have to have more mothers in office because it’s a lived perspective that’s not there.”

Although the question and answer portion was only five minutes long, Olivas was asked another question about parenting, this time by a male member of NBPD.

“As a senator, there are certain responsibilities that you have … you have to go to Washington, D.C., I guess, you have to go up to Albany and things of that nature and travel around,” the member said. “How do you plan to do that and have a child at the same time?”

Reflecting on the question after the event, Olivas said that it was “so sexist”: “I just don’t understand how anyone in this day and age in New York City could not just have that thought, but have that thought and ask the question out loud.”

But what rattled Olivas most was the silence from everyone else on the Zoom, particularly from the group’s executive committee, she said. (The other voices heard on the recording shared to Twitter were those of Olivas’s friend and her family, and were not heard by other members of the meeting.) The quiet of the room “stung” and led her to question herself, she said: “Was it okay to ask these questions?”

Stuart Sherman, a legal aide attorney and member of NBPD’s executive board at the time, didn’t think so. He was “shocked” that the question would come up twice over the course of five minutes.

During his own campaign for city council last year, he was never questioned about his ability to parent and run for office, despite the fact that he was raising a newborn, Sherman said.

Although Sherman said he called the questions “inappropriate” in the group’s chat, he didn’t speak up on the Zoom. He feared that doing so would have led to an argument and taken away from Olivas’s time to speak to the group, he added.

Sherman noted that as part of a volunteer organization, he didn’t think it was fair to ask Olivas about her ability to attend NBPD meetings. Generally, meetings were not well-attended, he said.

Sherman resigned from the organization on Wednesday night, in part because he was disappointed with what he considered a lackluster response form the group, he said. The questions do not reflect all the members of NBPD, he added, but he believes they show how pervasive sexism is, "in all workplaces and political affiliations.”

CAWP’s Dittmar said the impact of having to repeatedly answer these questions is hard to quantify. Women don’t necessarily lose votes because of concerns about their capacity to parent and hold office, but they do lose other things, she said.

“You could look at questions around electability in a similar way,” Dittmar said. “You can answer this question effectively and really push down some of the doubts … but that is time spent and energy spent that could have been spent elsewhere on the campaign, and that their male counterparts often don’t have to expend.”

That doesn’t mean parenthood shouldn’t come up at all for candidates, Dittmar added, but it matters how it’s framed and to whom it’s asked. Particularly during the pandemic, women still bear the brunt of caregiving and household responsibilities, said Dittmar, and those experiences do shape the kind of policies candidates champion when they take office.

And reporters are becoming savvier about leveling the field: Dittmar pointed to a 2019 Vox article in which reporter Anna North asked dads running for president what they would do for child care as one such example.

But ultimately, this recent exchange is part of a long history of questioning whether women ought to take on political power, said Dittmar: “Are they asking whether a woman can do it? Or is it really a question about whether she should do it?”

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