How Running For Office Is Different For Mothers
Women can and do run for office, but their path to politics differs from the one most men follow. Women are generally asked to run and likely to have been recruited. Men tend to initiate their own candidacy, and worry less about if they are qualified or not. Women tend to feel under qualified, regardless of their background and experience. Women are far more likely to become involved politically because of a certain issue they are passionate about, like gun control, or education, or the need for public libraries. Men frame it as more of a career move. It is not surprising, then, that male candidates are usually younger than women, who may wait until their children are older, or until they feel their resumés have more heft. According to the Center for American Women in Politics, women legislators had an average age of 50 when running for their current office.
In short, a mother with young children is not your typical contender. But that could be changing.
A number of women running for congressional office in the 2014 mid-term elections have their school age kids with them in campaign photos. Some even use the word "mother" to describe themselves. One of them has six - count 'em, six! - children. This could be a paradigm shift for American politics. So much depends on what happens next.
Women's emergence into political circles saw an increase in sexist language and commentary. Offensive, vulgar and mean-spirited name-calling seems to accompany a female candidate regardless of how she behaves, looks or speaks. It degrades the candidate, discourages others from participating, and erodes the democratic process and quality of serious political discussion. Some groups are determined to stop the normalization of sexism, identify it and call it out, like Name It. Change It. and #NotBuyingIt.
Sexism is always a barrier, but a huge one when it comes to bringing desperately needed diversification to our elected leadership. A wider range of problems can be addressed, more potential solutions considered, and better policy crafted when people of different backgrounds and experiences work together. Not to mention that women are 51 percent of the U.S. population, but occupy only 18 percent of seats in the U.S. Congress!
So I'm bracing myself. Which candidate will first hear, "Who is going to take care of your kids?"
"Is that your real hair color?"
"What if your husband disagrees with your position?"
"Shouldn't you be driving a car pool somewhere?"
"How can you be a fit mother and fully represent your constituents?"
I'm prepared to be discouraged all over again with the sneers and the put-downs and the snide condescension.
It's possible that motherhood could be presented as an asset in a candidate. Caring for others, juggling competing interests, fulfilling multiple missions with limited energy, money and sleep is what mothers do all day long. Running a household with school-age children is a constant challenge to allocate available resources in a way that maximizes the potential of every individual who lives there. It's a graduate-level course in management, leadership and interpersonal relations. It's an endurance test of Olympian proportions. Motherhood requires split-second decision making with the potential for life and death consequences. It's a fiscal, physical, mental and spiritual challenge of the highest order. It's the ultimate exercise in responsibility and a willingness to serve. Obviously, such training would give any candidate a huge advantage in political office.
If a candidate's motherhood cannot be viewed in a positive light, perhaps it could just be omitted from the discussion, along with her hemlines, hairstyle and the shape of her legs. I'd settle for that.
But if it could be presented boldly by the candidate, and included in a serious discussion of her qualifications and political fitness, that would just be ... fantastic.
It probably won't happen. Women are still seen as interlopers into the male territory of power and influence. Sexism saturates all our discourse, and will of course shape the mid-term elections. Mommy-shaming will likely be all too much in evidence.
But please, please, prove me wrong.
'Til next time,
Your (Wo)Man in Washington