Mothers Making History in the Midterms

cartoon images of women that say mayor, senator, and leader

On November 9th 2016, I cried in my cereal in front of my two-year-old son; and then I contemplated running for political office. 

More than a year later, when Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) returned from her maternity leave in April 2018, she dominated the news cycle with a simple request: to allow her infant daughter on the Senate floor. The vote was overwhelmingly bipartisan, and history was made. The optics of the moment – new mother and baby together, dressed in their Sunday best, voting on the Senate floor – were certainly uplifting.

This time, I cried tears of happiness into my breakfast.

But deeper issues remain as mothers in the United States continue to be chronically underrepresented in political office. Women represent 31% of House Democrats, and 10% of House Republicans – a stark contrast to the fact that women make up over 50% of the population. A record 255 women are on the ballot as major party congressional candidates in the midterm general election, and if races trend toward the women candidates as expected, this might be the first time in U.S. history that more than a quarter of congressional seats will be controlled by women.

Why the uptick in women running for office? Many popular articles, books, and social media campaigns have carefully documented American women embracing their anger, harnessing it to create political momentum. But beneath that rage and the gains that have been made, there lurks a deep and persistent barrier.

Until very recently, motherhood was seen as a fundamental hindrance to political participation. In contrast, fatherhood built credibility for men. Taking care of families was our highest calling, and ours alone. It was the best way for us to serve society and create space for men, and we were discouraged from venturing into public service outside of that narrow role. Sometimes that discouragement was implicit, other times overt. I know, because I experienced it myself; in floating the idea that I might run for political office, some in my social circle expressed shock that I would abandon my maternal duties. I quickly learned to stop talking about it.

But in the wake of this anger bubbling through the cultural landscape, some women are wielding their maternal identity as a weapon against the sexism that has historically held them back. These women are not hiding their young children away – many are proudly claiming their dual identities as mothers and politicians.

“Female candidates breastfeeding in campaign ads, or transparently championing being a mother alongside or even before her career, send critical and powerful messages to female voters,” writes Cara Hume of NYU Law Women, a group that champions the advancement of women in the legal field. “Now, we are seeing that women don’t have to wait until after their children are all grown up to run for office, or delicately skirt around their motherhood as a weakness.”

These new political voices come from mothers of many different backgrounds. Massachusetts will send its first woman of color and a devoted stepmother to Congress this year, and two other mothers are likely to be the first Muslim-American women elected to congress. Research suggests that highly visible political role models for young women of color can lead to greater political representation for these communities in elections to come, even when the candidates don’t win.

Moreover, these politicians are turning the barriers to participation into pillars of their policy platform. It is no coincidence that those struggles expressed by mothers entering the political sphere are the same struggles faced by the majority of working mothers in the United States today, and especially by working mothers of color: issues like the lack of quality, affordable childcare, access to paid leave, or stigma against utilizing lactation accommodations or breastfeeding in public.

Hume expressed optimism about what this intersectional representation means for our democracy. “Candidates who are both women of color and mothers offer unprecedented hope in combating pervasive racism,” she writes, especially in battling issues like bias in our maternity care system. Nikta Daijavad, also of NYU Law Women, feels similarly. “[I]t shapes our thinking about the role that women can and should play in societal decision-making,” she writes. In other words, says Daijavad, representation matters. It can alter the legislative agenda, and codify cultural change.

But is this necessarily so? The United States is currently one of the least mother-friendly nations in the world. Will the mere presence of more mothers precipitate a shift to more mother-friendly policies? There is some evidence that women running for political office have different policy priorities than do men, and are more likely to support pro-motherhood laws like equal pay protections and parental leave. Even Senator Duckworth’s photogenic splash in the Senate could potentially trickle down to more mothers demanding equality in other employment contexts. After all, if we can change a procedural rule for one mother, why not a national law for many?

The outcomes of the 2018 midterms will no doubt be a bellwether for future political participation for women and mothers. I know that I will be watching closely, taking a long, hard second look at whether I – political outsider, mother of a young child – could successfully run for political office. I know I’m not the only one.

Mackenzie Whipps is a 5th year doctoral student in the Psychology and Social Intervention program in the department of Applied Psychology.