Moments after Kirsten Gillibrand announced her candidacy for president, the Democratic senator demonstrated burping a baby doll on national television. Asked by late-night host Stephen Colbert why she was running, she billed herself as a “young mom,” willing to “fight for other people’s kids as hard as I would fight for my own.”
In her own stump speech, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) talked about potty-training her daughter in five days to meet the requirements of a daycare — with the help of three bags of M&Ms. And in a CNN town hall, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) recounted how she was forced to leave a hospital just 24 hours after giving birth to her daughter, an experience that motivated the now-presidential candidate to advocate for a state law guaranteeing a 48-hour hospital stay for new moms.
As an unprecedented number of women launch their campaigns for the presidency, the female Democratic 2020 candidates are putting their experiences as mothers front and center, speaking candidly about juggling parenting and work. And in doing so, experts say, they are breaking with long-held perceptions of the past that discouraged women in politics from talking about their roles in the home.
“Usually mentioning that you are a mother was a death sentence in the workforce,” said Caitlyn Collins, an assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis and author of a new book, “Making Motherhood Work.” Now, far from being seen as a hindrance to a political career, motherhood is being used as an asset.
“That’s an enormous cultural shift,” Collins said.
Experts say the shift is part of a broader groundswell of support for women’s issues, building on the women’s marches, the #MeToo movement and particularly the record number of women elected to Congress.
Some of the most memorable images from the midterm elections included women leaders with their children or grandchildren, such as Rep. Abigail Spanberger’s (D-Va.) daughter peeking between her legs during her victory speech or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi being sworn in surrounded by children, said Erin C. Cassese, an associate professor of political science at the University of Delaware.
The midterm campaigns “created a sense that women candidates don’t need to fit into a particular box in order to win,” Cassese said. “Instead they’re running as themselves, running authentic campaigns. .”
By choosing to speak candidly about balancing work and family, these female candidates are also normalizing motherhood, Cassese said. Studies have shown that mothers in the workplace are perceived as less competent and committed than non-mothers and men, and suffer lower pay as a result. Mothers in public office have too often been asked how they’re going to juggle being both a mom and an elected official -- a question rarely asked of fathers in office, Cassese said.
“It’s a way of confronting that double standard, instead of shirking away from it,” Cassese said.
‘It’s who I am’
Gillibrand and Warren in particular have made their experiences as mothers defining themes in the first few weeks of their campaigns, working to connect with a vast segment of voters and push for policies like paid leave, affordable child care and universal pre-k. But they’re also using their stump speeches to make the case that motherhood has shaped their work ethic and who they are as politicians — that potty training a toddler in five days is proof that nothing is “too hard,” as Warren has said.
“You ask a busy parent to do something, they’re going to get it done for you, because that’s how they manage their lives,” Gillibrand said in an interview with The Washington Post. “It is who I am.”
Opening up about the challenges of being a working mom in politics is nothing new for Gillibrand, who served her first term in the Senate with an infant and a toddler. She told the story of how, as a freshman senator in 2009, she was asked to preside over the Senate from 5 to 7 p.m. She tried to explain to a male staffer that the hours would be impossible for her, because they were when she needed to nurse her infant son. After the staffer refused to accommodate her, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) agreed to switch slots with her.
“I don’t back away from my life experience, because it’s what makes me effective,” said Gillibrand, whose two sons, Theo and Henry, are now 15 and 10. “A mother will go through fire to protect her child... That ferocity and that fearlessness is something we desperately need in government today.”
Last week, in unveiling her proposed plan for universal child care, Warren talked about her own struggle to find child care for her two young children while she was teaching at a law school — a story she repeated in a speech at a fundraising event in New Hampshire on Saturday. She recounted juggling work with Sunday school, bake sales, laundry and bathing children and “falling into bed somewhere in the early hours of the morning.”
“It was hard, but I could do hard,” Warren said. “It was exhausting, but I could do exhausting. The thing that eventually sank me? Yup. Child care.” She almost quit her job, she said, until her 78-year-old Aunt Bee from Oklahoma offered to help take care of the children.
Warren is far from the first candidate to highlight the importance of affordable child care. Her plan has also already faced intense criticism in some quarters, but it’s rare — and notable — to see a candidate focus on child care as a signature issue in the first few weeks of a campaign, said Kelly Dittmar, an assistant professor of political science and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
“In the past we’ve looked at our presidential candidates as something separate and different...as not being tasked with the day-to-day caregiving responsibilities,” Dittmar said. “We’re finally having that conversation at the presidential level.”
Striking a balance
During her 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton also brought up her experiences raising her daughter Chelsea to push for better maternity leave policies. But the way she spoke about motherhood was “less overt” than the way Gillibrand and Warren are now, said Tammy R. Vigil, an assistant professor of communication at Boston University who researches women’s political campaign rhetoric. Clinton’s approach in 2016 also came after years of walking a fine line in the public sphere between focusing on her role as a mother and pushing back against expectations of women in the home.
She famously faced outrage in 1992 for saying she “could have stayed home and baked cookies” but decided to fulfill her profession, and was forced to more publicly embrace her role as a mother as she campaigned alongside her husband.
Just before the election in 2016, Clinton chose to reclaim the cookies line — flashing it on the screen during a Beyoncé performance at a campaign rally in Cleveland.
In some ways, Vigil suspects that the 2020 candidates will continue to face opposing pressures to leverage their experiences as mothers without making motherhood a defining trait of their campaigns, particularly because not all women will relate to those experiences.
Vigil says she cringed when Gillibrand told Stephen Colbert she was running for president because she is a “young mom” willing to fight for families.
“I thought, really? Is that it? That’s where you’re coming from, just as a young mother?” Vigil said. “I’m not saying don’t talk about being a mother but also talk about the other aspects of who you are.”
As they vie for the White House, the female candidates will have to strike a balance between “trying to represent women but also trying to be their own person,” that male candidates don’t have to face, Vigil said.
And with the female contenders focusing so heavily on issues such as child care and paid leave, Dittmar said she hopes men will also begin talking about parenthood in new ways , allowing them to connect with a newer generation that increasingly values shared caregiving responsibilities in the home.
In the past, male candidates for president have talked about their children and families, but in a “head of household” kind of way, reflecting the paternal and masculine traits historically associated with the presidency, Dittmar said.
“We’ve risen up this single male leader as the hero, father figure of the nation,” Dittmar. “We impose on him the perception that he’s the Commander in Chief...in charge, tough, strong, all these traits and attributes that are most often associated with masculinity.”
President Obama did wade into issues around work-family balance, such as in a 2008 campaign speech in which he talked about watching Michelle Obama juggle a job and parenting. But even that story left the then-presidential candidate on the sidelines.
“Part of this story is to think not only about how women use motherhood,” Dittmar said. “How are men talking about or using their fatherhood?”