Photo: CBS News
Moms are essential. As the pandemic ravaged the nation, mothers were forced out of the workforce as school transitioned online and childcare disappeared. More than three million women have left the workforce during the COVID crisis, a result of being laid off or dropping out to care for children. While businesses received bailouts, moms were mostly hung out to dry in state and federal relief, which is not surprising given that moms with school-aged children make up just 6% of Congress.
For families to thrive, we need more moms in elected office. To get more moms in office, we need to remove sexist and outdated stereotypes of who can govern, ensure parents who run for office can pay for childcare, and remove archaic rules that exclude to young moms from running. It’s important we take these steps, electing more moms in every level of office – from school board to U.S. Senate – because once elected, moms do the work to make the path easier for the moms behind them. This Mother’s Day, support mothers who are running for office – or ask a mom in your life to step up and run.
Barriers to Equal Representation
Women running for public office are subjected to sexist stereotypes and tropes, and mothers face additional scrutiny about their qualifications and ability to parent and serve in public office. Research from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation found that voters acknowledge that questioning a woman’s ability to parent and govern is a double standard, but actively participate in questioning a woman’s capacity to do both.
Moms can begin to overcome this barrier by speaking openly about their families and personal lives, which is vastly different than most have approached campaigning in the past. Women previously shied away from speaking about their personal lives but in 2018 and 2020, women began to center family and normalize motherhood in elected office to great success. In 2018, two gubernatorial candidates, Kelda Roys of Wisconsin and Krish Vignarajah of Maryland, breastfed in campaign ads. Virginia Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger delivered her 2018 victory speech with her 4-year-old between her feet. Vice President Kamala Harris embraced the nickname “Momala” during her 2020 campaign and spoke about her role as a stepmom.
Case Study – Nikema Williams
Moms are often scrutinized for their parenting ability and face criticism from voters about their personal lives. Congresswoman Nikema Williams, a mom of one who was elected to the late John Lewis’s seat in 2020, served in the Georgia State Senate prior to running for Congress and faced skepticism about her capacity. Speaking about the public perception challenges she faced while serving in office, Williams said:
“I currently work in multiple roles for different organizations, and people underestimate my ability to effectively fulfill all of them. I am a mom, a Senator, a wife, and [Democratic Party of Georgia] Chair. I love all of these roles, and work hard to make sure that I effectively can do all at once. We all live intersectional lives and I can’t separate or segment any part of who I am.”
Running for office is time consuming and can be expensive. Many candidates must take time off from work to run their campaigns or leave their jobs entirely. For moms, the burden is even more severe. On top of lost wages, mothers must pay for additional childcare when they are on the campaign trail.
In 2018, New York Congressional candidate Liuba Grechen Shirley petitioned the Federal Election Commission (FEC) for permission to use campaign funds to pay for childcare. The FEC granted Grechen Shirley’s historic request, creating a precedent that allowed all candidates for federal office to use campaign funds to pay for childcare. Since the request, 51 federal candidates, including men, women, Democrats, and Republicans, have used campaign funds to pay for childcare.
While Grechen Shirley ultimately did not win her election, she launched Vote Mama and the Vote Mama Foundation to support other moms in their journey to public office. The Vote Mama Foundation, an Ascend Fund partner, is doing crucial work to change the laws in all 50 states to permit state and local candidates running for office to use campaign funds to pay for childcare. To date, 24 states permit the use of campaign funds for childcare and dozens of moms have been able to run for office without the burden of additional childcare.
Case Study – Katie Porter
Moms face numerous challenges when running for office and it is even more challenging for single moms and mothers without familial support. Congresswoman Katie Porter, a mom of three and one of five single moms in Congress, used campaign funds to pay for childcare on the campaign trail and is fighting to ensure that no parent is ever barred from running for office because of childcare responsibilities. Rep. Porter, who first ran for office in 2018, has spoken extensively about the need for more representation in Washington:
“Half of all the moms in America are single moms, and there should be more of us in Congress.”
Porter introduced the Help America Run Act, which passed the U.S. House with bipartisan support in 2019 and would allow candidates running for federal office to use their campaign funds to pay for childcare, dependent care, and elder care while on the campaign trail. Despite the bipartisan support, the bill did not pass the Senate.
Institutional Barriers While Serving in Office
Serving in elected office is challenging for parents as they must be away from their families for periods of time. State and federal elected officials must travel to capitols to vote and votes often continue into the night. The burden is especially challenging for moms, who perform the vast majority of unpaid labor and childcare duties. Following the record number of moms elected in 2018, Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz launched an informal “Moms in the House” Caucus to create a supportive community for elected moms.
Speaking about the challenges for moms in office and the “Moms in the House” Caucus, political scientist Jennifer Lawless said:
"The issue here is that the rules don't change until someone needs them to. The good news is that we now have the kind of diversity that requires these rule changes. It really highlights how archaic some of these rules are and how long it's taken to generate the beginnings of the diversity we would expect from the US Congress.”
With a record number of moms serving in Congress, change has already started to be realized. Senator Tammy Duckworth made history in 2018 when she worked to pass a rule change to allow her to bring her infant daughter on the Senate floor and the “Moms in the House” Caucus provides an invaluable community. More formal and informal changes must be made to make serving in elected office more family friendly. Changing the rules to end voting earlier in the day and allowing lawmakers to spend more time in their districts and less time in Washington and state capitols would allow more women to hold elected office.
Case Study – Senator Tammy Duckworth
Congress wasn’t built for mothers and structural changes are needed to make public office more accessible to mothers. In 2018, Senator Tammy Duckworth, a mom of two, became the first senator to give birth while in office. The Senate had to change Senate rules to allow her to bring her 10-day old daughter, Maile, on the floor so Sen. Duckworth could vote. Some senators wanted to pass an exception that would allow just Duckworth to bring her baby to the floor, but Duckworth fought for the rule change to send the message that the Senate is a mom-friendly work place.
"By ensuring that no Senator will be prevented from performing their constitutional responsibilities simply because they have a young child, the Senate is leading by example and sending the important message that working parents everywhere deserve family-friendly workplace policies.”
Moms leverage their personal experience to pass legislation that will better the lives of families – focusing on issues such as childcare, healthcare, education, and paid leave in Congress. Additionally, moms write more bills in their time in office that focus on children and family issues than women without children. Moms also actively work to break down the barriers that they faced to make the pathway to elected office more accessible to the moms behind them. More moms in office will ensure that all moms and children are more supported and able to thrive.
However, many moms wait until their children are grown to run for office and, on average, women are 20 years older than men when they run for office for the first time, making it difficult for them to reach high levels of leadership in legislative offices that require seniority and years of experience. Given that 86% of women are moms by age 44, electing moms is crucial to ensuring that women reach gender parity in U.S. politics.
Case Study – Jaime Herrera Beutler
Moms and women govern differently, taking their lived experiences and changing policy to improve the lives of all families. After Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler’s newborn daughter required out of state lifesaving medical treatment, Herrera Beutler sponsored legislation to allow children on Medicaid to receive complex procedures out of state. She has also been a bipartisan champion for lowering the cost of childcare, an issue she personally understands as the mother of three young children.
“As a working mom myself, I understand that working parents face a multitude of responsibilities, tasks and pressures — and I will continue to lead this effort in Congress to ease the burden of finding and paying for quality childcare.”
We need more moms in elected office. Moms do the work to create a country that works for everyone and reach behind them to elevate other women. We must do the imperative work to break down the barriers mothers face when running for office and support them when they are running. This year, celebrate Mother’s Day by supporting moms running and asking the moms in your life to run.
 CBS News – Nearly 3 million U.S. women have dropped out of the labor force in the past year  Barbara Lee Family Foundation – Modern Family: How Woman Candidates Can Talk About Politics, Parenting, and Their Person Lives  The Atlanta Voice – In Her Own Words- Senator Nikema Williams  Huffington Post – Katie Porter Survived Domestic Abuse, Only to Have it Used Against Her in Her Campaign  Vice – Incoming Congresswomen Are Forming a ‘Moms in the House’ Caucus  Vice – Incoming Congresswomen Are Forming a ‘Moms in the House’ Caucus  Leg Branch – More Moms in Congress Could Mean More Attention on Children and Families  Thomas et. al - The Personal Is the Political: Antecedents of Gendered Choices of Elected Representatives  Pew Research - They’re Waiting Longer, but U.S. Women Today More Likely to Have Children Than a Decade Ago  The Columbian – Representative Herrera Beutler Leads Childcare Effort