Soon after Donald Trump was elected president, Jennifer Carroll Foy, a 36-year old public defender from Woodbridge, made a life-changing decision to run for the Virginia House of Delegates. Three weeks after she launched her campaign, she found out she was due for another life change. She was pregnant with twins.
The news did not shake her decision to run for office.
“I don’t question blessings,” she said. “I take things as they come.”
Traditionally, women have waited until their children are older to run for office, if they choose to run at all. In a country with few social supports for working families, having young families is seen as a barrier to political ambition for many women, who still manage the lion’s share of responsibilities at home.
But a growing number of women with young children are waging campaigns amid the surge of Democratic female candidates running in the wake of Trump’s election.
Amanda Litman, co-founder of the Run for Something organization that supports first-time candidates, said that two-thirds of the 11,000 prospective candidates who have expressed interest since the election are women, many of whom have children. A Slack channel run by her group for candidates with young families hosts conversations about how to handle breast-feeding and canvassing, door knocking with toddlers, and posting pictures of their children online.
“It’s a new landscape for them without a lot of precedent,” Litman said.
Andrea Dew Steele, president of Emerge America, another training program fielding an influx of female candidates, said Trump’s election also has prompted women to consider running for higher offices than they have traditionally sought. Their children are often motivators.
“It’s not enough to just focus on their local schools anymore; now they are more concerned about North Korea and climate change. They want to know what they can do to help save the world for their children.”
In Virginia’s closely watched off-year election, there are a record 43 Democratic female candidates running for the House of Delegates. There are nine Republican women running, and one independent.
In Northern Virginia, home to some of the most competitive races, several Democratic women candidates have young children. Elizabeth Guzman, running in Prince William County, has four children. Karrie Delaney, running in Fairfax, has two. Kathy Tran, also running in Fairfax, has four children. And Danica Roem, a transgender candidate running in Prince William, has an elementary-aged stepdaughter.
They are vying to bring their voices to a House of Delegates where women are just 17 of the 100 sitting delegates. Currently, only one has young children: Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg).
Advocates hope that having more mothers in the legislature will bring more insight into the myriad issues that affect women and working families.
Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond), who serves in the state Senate, made history in 2010 as the first delegate to be pregnant in office. She offered a pregnant woman's view when opposing a controversial bill, that gained national attention, to require every woman considering an abortion to have an ultrasound. She also sponsored a bill that says women have a right to breast-feed anywhere they have a legal right to be. Virginia was among the last states to codify this protection.
Research shows that women are just as likely as men to win elections, but they have to contend with higher standards — and more difficult questions — during the campaign when it comes to their families.
“For men, voters view families as a support system. For women, they are seen as an additional responsibility,” said Susan J. Carroll, professor and scholar with the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. As a result, some female candidates downplay their family lives, Carroll said.
Fighting for children’s future
For Kathy Tran, who is vying for the seat held by retiring Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), her children and her family's story have been central to her campaign.
Tran is a refugee from Vietnam who came to the United States with her parents when she was not yet 2.
Her fourth child was born shortly after Trump’s inauguration. Concerned about the new president’s anti-illegal-immigration platform, she and her husband, Matthew Reisman, chose the name Elise, inspired by Ellis Island, through which Reisman’s family immigrated to escape anti-Semitism. The middle name, “Minh Khanh,” is Vietnamese for “bright bell,” inspired by the Liberty Bell.
Within a few weeks of her daughter’s birth, Tran decided she wanted to live up to her daughter’s aspirational name. So she became a candidate.
Since February, she has knocked on more than 3,000 doors, many of them with her infant daughter at her side.
On a late October afternoon, Tran, a 39-year-old workforce policy expert, put on her well-worn tennis shoes and strapped her 9-month-old daughter into a baby carrier to canvass the winding, suburban streets of Springfield.
As she talked to neighbors about traffic congestion and education, her daughter coo’ed and kicked her legs.
“We moved here for the schools,” she told voter after voter, explaining that she wants to increase state funding for local schools. To a voter who said his biggest concern is climate change, she said: “We have no ‘Planet B, and this munchkin’s going to be alive into the next century.’ ”
When Tran arrived home, her other children were already in pajamas and dinner was waiting with help from her parents visiting from Southern California.
Over pizza purchased to support their school fundraiser, Tran told the older children, in Vietnamese, how Elise had scooted for the first time that morning. The children talked about 4-year-old Quinn’s upcoming birthday.
Sometimes on weekends, the family goes canvassing together, Tran said.
“We want our children to know that as our country is facing this moment of crisis, we are doing absolutely everything we can,” she said.
From trail to neonatal unit
Carroll Foy entered a competitive primary against a Democratic opponent who had been campaigning for more than a year. Without much money or political capital, she said, her campaign relied simply on introducing herself, an African American who became one of the first women to graduate from the Virginia Military Institute, to as many voters as she could.
During her first trimester, she managed morning sickness with a full-time job, long commutes and evenings spent door-knocking in her district, which spans parts of Prince William and Stafford counties.
As an older mother carrying multiples, her pregnancy was considered “high risk,” and by her second trimester she needed to limit some of the physical work of canvassing because she was vulnerable to early labor.
Her field director or her husband, Jeffrey Foy, rode in a car nearby so she did not have to walk too far between houses or neighborhoods.
Two days before the primary she was put on bed rest. On Election Day, she handled logistics from home, while her husband and volunteers went from polling station to polling station. It was excruciating, she said. “But I had something bigger in that moment going on.”
In the end, when the votes had been counted and recounted, she had won by 14 votes.
Three weeks later, on July 5, she went into early labor. Her sons — Alex and Xander — were born at 22 weeks, weighing a pound and a half each.
In the first days and weeks, they were in critical condition, but they made steady progress.
As she and her husband moved their home base to a neonatal intensive care unit, so did her campaign. She conducted campaign meetings via conference call to set fundraising goals and plan the schedule for each week.
Carroll Foy said her determination to break barriers for women started at VMI.
Raised by her grandparents in Petersburg, she was in high school when the Supreme Court decreed that the state-supported school must go co-ed. There was a backlash, and Carroll Foy decided she would go and prove that women could succeed there, too.
In the first days, she was given a male uniform, put in a barber chair and had all her hair shaved off, just like every other first-year cadet.
“I literally felt a tear form in my eye,” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ ”
She kept on through constant military training, sleep deprivation and 4 a.m. wake-ups. “I learned what it’s like to be on a campus surrounded by 1,400 men who know your name and who don’t want you there.
“I took those things and incorporated them into who I am,” she said. She graduated four years later.
She went on to earn an English degree, and then a law degree. She became a magistrate judge and then a public defender in Arlington County. Three years ago she married Foy, a man she first met at VMI.
Her husband, who manages a homeless shelter and coaches track at Potomac High School in Dumfries, has been her primary support during the campaign.
“ ‘What do you need from me?’ That’s his favorite thing to say,” she said.
The babies are still new and not yet home, and so her family is a lesser-known part of her story. On the campaign trail, she talks to voters about expanding Medicaid, increasing teacher pay and her past experiences as a foster parent.
But on a recent October evening, she closed her long day, as she always does, at Inova Fairfax hospital. Her husband met her there and they turned off their phones and reconnected with their sons. At nearly 4 months, the babies weigh seven pounds and are expected to be discharged from the hospital soon.
“I smell the top of their heads and they relax me,” Carroll Foy said. “I think about their future and I remember why I’m working so hard.”