Would We Have Paid Parental Leave if More Moms Were in Congress?

In “Electable: Why America Hasn’t Put a Woman in the White House … Yet,” the NBC News Capitol Hill correspondent Ali Vitali describes Amy Klobuchar’s well-honed political origin story. In her book, out this month, Vitali explains that Klobuchar, the Minnesota senator, was kicked out of the hospital just a day after giving birth to her daughter. This was a not-uncommon cost-cutting measure for insurance companies in the past, and Klobuchar was sent home even though her baby had to stay because of complications.

“It was the match to Klobuchar’s political fire,” Vitali writes, and it inspired her, as a private citizen, to lobby for a guaranteed 48 hours in the hospital together for moms and their newborns (a requirement later enshrined by the Newborns’ and Mothers’ Health Protection Act). This maternal activism kick-started Klobuchar’s legislative career, and ultimately led her to run for office.

She wasn’t the only candidate to tie her maternal identity to her “political fire” during the 2020 presidential election, Vitali points out. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York “centered her candidacy on womanhood: framing policy proposals around how they’d impact families, promising that ‘as a mom, I’ll fight for your family as hard as I fight for my own.’”

While I was reading Vitali’s book last week, news broke that some of the climate and tax provisions of Democrats’ original Build Back Better Plan, left for dead a few weeks ago, were being brought back to life as part of a pared-down bill called the Inflation Reduction Act. This is good news for anyone who cares about climate change and its impact on our children’s futures, but it’s still disappointing that several proposed investments from earlier drafts of Democrats’ plan for child care, universal preschool, child tax credits and elder care support have been dropped like a hot rock.

And I couldn’t help but notice that the senators mentioned in The Times’s coverage as having helped to resurrect the package — Joe Manchin, Chuck Schumer, Mark Warner, John Hickenlooper and Chris Coons — were all men who are ostensibly past needing parental leave, preschool or child care for their immediate families. In October, when The Washington Post reported on the “last-ditch effort by Democratic women to pressure Manchin and salvage paid family and medical leave,” it was moms leading that good fight, including Gillibrand and Senator Patty Murray of Washington.

Ideally, legislators who aren’t caretakers of young children would still see the profound value of things such as paid leave and child tax credits, which are also essential for the health of the next generation and society in general. Hopefully, they would also acknowledge that nearly half of Americans, including 41 percent of Republicans, think our country doesn’t do enough for parents, according to Pew Research. In my dreams, paid leave, which is available in nearly every other country, would not just be tacked onto enormous budget bills only to be sacrificed in the horse-trading process.

Since mothers are out in front fighting for these supports, we probably need more of them in positions of true power in our legislative and executive bodies. (I asked dads to start shouting about paid leave back in November, but they seem to have lost their voices.) As the midterms approach, I thought it would be a good moment to take a temperature check on how voters perceive candidates who are mothers. The overarching feeling, as Vitali put it to me when we spoke, is that mothers running for office are much better off than they once were, “but still with a lot of progress left to make.”

A particular bright spot is that more women are starting their political careers younger than their predecessors did, which may set them up to be in more powerful positions later on. Another is that motherhood is increasingly in the foreground of campaigns. In The Atlantic in 2018, Annika Neklason explained that “moms are not only seeking political seats, but seeking them explicitly, and proudly, as moms; in this year’s election cycle, motherhood has become an asset to be flaunted in progressive campaigns, resolving a decades-old tension for women seeking to enter electoral politics.”

It’s not just Democratic women, either. Elise Stefanik, the third-ranking Republican in the House, is also a new mom. In March, The Times’s Annie Karni reported on a House Republican retreat where Stefanik “was running the show, working the room with her 7-month-old son on her hip.” In 2019, Stefanik was part of a bipartisan group that introduced paid leave legislation that would allow families to receive advance child tax credits up to $5,000 during the first year of a child’s life or the first year after a child’s adoption — not as generous as I’d like to see at the federal level, but better than what we have now, which is nothing. And though paid leave is often framed as a Democratic priority, according to a Morning Consult poll from September: “Consistently, more than half of Republican women support paid family and medical leave, even when it’s framed as a Democratic proposal. Republican men, meanwhile, haven’t always been on board but are coming around on the idea.”

Politicians bringing their newborns to work and taking parental leave while in office is something new. It used to be that mothers mostly ran for office when their kids were older, said Corrine McConnaughy, a political scientist at Princeton University. “Nancy Pelosi is famously a mother of five, but also — as was not atypical of women navigating politics in her generation — waited until her kids were grown and then entered politics,” McConnaughy said.

It matters that women are starting earlier, because unlike male politicians — Pete Buttigieg, who ran for president after a mere two terms as mayor of a small city, comes to mind — they “feel they need to be more qualified to succeed,” said Jennifer Lawless, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia. “They’re not going to throw their hat into the ring when they’ve been in the Senate for two years.”

In previous generations, there was criticism of women who aimed for high office while their kids were still at home. In her excellent book, “The Political Consequences of Motherhood,” Jill Greenlee, an associate professor of politics at Brandeis University, describes the way Geraldine Ferraro, the three-term New York congresswoman, faced a “chorus of criticism” while running for vice president in 1984, along the lines of: “I’m not voting for her because she belongs in the home, she belongs back with her kids, what the hell is she doing this for?”

“Ferraro and her family were the subject of public scrutiny, as was (and is) often the case when women step into new political roles,” Greenlee writes. “This forced Ferraro and her defenders to demonstrate her devotion as a mother while also promoting her professional credentials.”

By the time Sarah Palin, who was then Alaska’s Republican governor, ran for vice president in 2008, there was less cultural resistance to the idea of a mother in that role, though there was still intense, at times unfair, scrutiny of Palin’s family. Palin, who embraced a “hockey mom” image, herself declared “that she was part of a generation of women who have become used to juggling work and family and would not shy away from a political challenge,” Greenlee notes.

In the intervening 14 years, we keep moving forward, but a full acceptance of mothers as political powerhouses will take more time. Last year, Stefanik had to rebut a news report that suggested she might struggle to handle her legislative responsibilities as a new mom. According to a 2017 research paper from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, voters still have concerns about women being able to balance family and political responsibilities.

The foundation presented survey respondents with four fictional candidates with no partisan identifiers: a married man with young children, a married woman with a young child, a single mother of young children and a never-married woman without children. Then, voters were presented with critiques “which focused on their ability to manage their family life and at the same time be effective office holders.” When the candidates pushed back, voters found the male candidate to be the most “convincing.” Though voters recognized “a double standard for moms,” they still participated in enforcing the double standard.

Still, “a more diverse array of women are putting themselves forward as candidates,” said Lawless, and the more different kinds of mothers who prove that they can govern, the more it will become a nonissue. Vitali mentioned Katie Porter of California and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, both Democrats, as members of the House who are mothers of school-age children and part of the national conversation. “Women are taking up this space as mothers and power brokers,” that they didn’t used to, Vitali said. Maybe that will eventually lead to building back something that won’t topple.

Want More?

  • Last year, for The Washington Post, the historian Anya Jabour wrote about the fascinating history of mothers pushing for social change in the United States.

  • For The New York Times Magazine, Maureen Dowd wrote a rollicking post-mortem of Ferraro’s vice-presidential run. Summing up the gender dynamics among voters of the day, a political analyst told Dowd: “The ideal Republican candidate is a woman. The ideal Democratic candidate is a general.” I’m not sure how much has changed.

  • “Why is it so much harder — right now, seemingly impossible — for our country to enact new programs that are customary in much of the rest of the world?” In Times Opinion, Bryce Covert explains why we can’t have nice things.

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