It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman running for office is going to have to explain herself if she doesn’t have a spouse and children – and she’ll certainly have to explain herself if she does.
In 2017, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation released the results of a study that were not surprising at all to any woman who has ever run for office, or considered running for office, or supported a woman candidate. Women candidates – Dems and GOP – know that there’s a higher bar to hurdle if you want to win, and they also know that if they want to have any chance electoral of success, they need to do several things to prove that they are ready for office (I am not making these up; this is science):
- Women candidates are judged by their appearance. When voters gauge a candidate’s “likability,” they will hone in on her makeup, her hair, her size, her voice – heck, one time, a constituent criticized my choice of nail polish.
- About that whole concept of “likability” – it doesn’t really apply to male candidates. Research on the subject clearly indicates that voters will happily support a male candidate who they don’t like, as long as they think he’s generally qualified and competent. If that candidate is a lady? She’d better be qualified and competent, she’d better be able to give specific examples of her experience and competency, and she’d better do all that in heels, sporting a well-cut sheath dress, and with a smile on her face. There is a reason St. Ann of Austin always traveled with her own hairdresser.
Which leads us to women candidates who are mothers. I ran for my first municipal race while pregnant with my second child, so this lady knows of what she speaks. According to the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, when it comes to a woman candidate’s personal and family life:
- Voters will raise questions about a candidate’s role as a mother as part of campaign discussions. They recognize a double standard for moms, who will get the most questions, but actively participate in it and are conscious of doing so. [Emphasis mine.]
- Some voters also worry that a candidate or elected official who has never married and does not have children will not be able to truly understand the concerns of families.
If you’re a woman running for office, you’ll be second-guessed if you are a mother.
If you’re a woman running for office, you’ll be second-guessed if you are not a mother.
When Jason Carter ran for Governor of Georgia in 2014, his sons were six and eight years old. When Barak Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, his daughters were four and seven years old. When George W. Bush was elected Governor of Texas in 1994, his twin daughters were 13 years old. Each man certainly had his critics, but no one questioned their ability to govern while also parenting young children – and by all indications, these men were absolutely very active parents during their campaigns and during their terms in office (if elected). They may not have been the lead parent, but they were there, they were present – and they were regularly commended for their involvement in their children’s lives. All of the current GOP candidates for Governor of Georgia are fathers; their children range in age from young adults to elementary schoolers.
This is why it was incredibly disheartening to read an article where a woman candidate for Governor of Georgia said that because she has neither a spouse nor children, she’d have “plenty of time to focus on the job.” It may have been “a friend” who said it to her, but the candidate certainly agreed with the statement enough to share it with a journalist from a national publication.
I believe that if you are at the point where, in your public life, you are running for statewide office while also parenting young children, you are very likely at the point where, in your private life, your spouse is okay with covering lead parent duties for the foreseeable duration.
We know that male candidates are never questioned on their ability to govern while parenting. I know many fathers who also hold public office while also parenting newborn babies, toddlers, school-aged kids, kids with special needs, and if anything – and again, there is science to back me up, here – they are viewed as better candidates for having that particular bit of life experience.
Do voters absolutely hold bias towards women candidates who are also mothers of young children? Yes. Does this bias hurt competent and qualified women candidates, and discourage women from running? Yes. Should other women candidates share, disseminate, and exploit this bias? Never.