‘Mom’ legislators see their numbers, influence grow but barriers to elected office remain

Child care, money, time keep many women from running for office, experts say

By: - May 12, 2024 5:35 am

Nevada Senate Majority Leader Nicole Nicole Cannizzaro. (Photo: Trevor Bexon / Nevada Current)

For the second time while serving in the Nevada Legislature, Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro gave birth last year. And again, she publicly pledged to continue full participation in her duties.

As the nation’s groundbreaker when it comes to working moms in a state capital, Nevada made history in 2019 as the only female-majority legislative body in the U.S. Still, legislators like Cannizzaro acknowledge uncertainty before deciding to grow their families while serving.

The Mother LoadMom lawmakers grow in visibility but their proportional representation is still lacking
“What does that look like? What does it mean to be in this building and pregnant? What does it mean if I have a 1½-year-old and have to leave a meeting to pick him up at daycare? Does that make me less able to fulfill my duties? There were questions that I had as I announced my first and second pregnancy,” Cannizzaro told the Current last year.

The number of women serving in state legislatures has more than quintupled since 1971, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University (CAWP). Nearly 33% of the 7,386 state legislative seats are occupied by 2,432 women, the center reported. Meanwhile, Vote Mama Foundation estimates 23% of lawmakers are moms.

“Things within the political ecosystem have changed to be more open to women,” said Kelly Dittmar, director of research at CAWP. “Having more women also begets more women.”

And there are visible signs of progress at statehouses across the country as the number of mom lawmakers grow.

In Georgia, where women state representatives did not have a bathroom near the House chamber until the 1970s, there is now a lactation pod on the first floor of the Capitol. And a freshman Republican lawmaker has brought her baby to the floor daily, but more notably, the baby was given an official House name tag — labeling him the “baby of the House’’ — so he would have floor privileges. Just two decades ago, such a move was frowned on by House leadership.

“We talk a lot up here about how representation matters, and I believe that to be true,” Georgia state Rep. Lauren Daniel, a Republican, said to her colleagues late last year.

“I hope as I stand here today, and every day, as the youngest female member of this body, that it shows any young girl in this state who may find herself pregnant that her life does not end when a new one begins,” said Daniel, who first became pregnant when she was 17 and is now mother to four.

Still, moms are struggling to get elected and remain in office. Beyond child care, there are myriad impediments. It takes money and an organized campaign infrastructure. As candidates, they are confronted with gender stereotypes that they often consider in executing their campaign strategy. And the time away from young children can be daunting.

Having run for office herself, Liuba Grechen Shirley said she sees why moms, especially moms of small children, are often missing from elected office. Grechen Shirley is the founder of Vote Mama, a political organization that seeks to increase the number of moms in office.

“If you are a mother with young children and you decide to step up and run, the first question you get asked is always ‘but who will watch your kids while you campaign?’” said Grechen Shirley, who ran for Congress in 2018 in New York’s 2nd Congressional District while wrangling her 1- and 3-year-old children on the campaign trail.

A run for the money

When it comes to fundraising, men dominate. A 2021 OpenSecrets report analyzing fundraising during open-seat House primary races in 2020 found white men candidates led the money race, though white women candidates maintained a significant advantage over women of color, raising three times as much as Black women in open-seat primaries, according to the report.  

Women donors also give less money overall than men, comprising around one-third of money contributed to state general office and legislative races nationwide from 2019 to 2022, according to a 2023 report by CAWP. At the individual state level, financial support from women donors ranged from 14% of donations in Nebraska state races, to 46% of contributions in Colorado.

That doesn’t sit right for Grechen Shirley.

Data from the Pew Research Center shows 85% of women will give birth and become mothers by the time they’re 45 years old. Vote Mama’s research arm, the Vote Mama Foundation, found that in 2022, 23% of state legislators were moms, and 5% had children under the age of 18.

On Capitol Hill, 37 of 541 lawmakers in 2022 were moms with children under 18, equal to 6.8% of the 118th Congress, according to Vote Mama Foundation. Put another way, there were three times as many men named John or Jon as there were moms of minor children serving.

“Vote Mama exists because of my personal experience running for Congress with two small toddlers,” Grechen Shirley said. “I immediately understood why there were not more moms serving at the federal level when I was running because it is really difficult. It’s unsustainable for somebody who’s a working parent, somebody who’s not independently wealthy, somebody who is a primary caregiver. This system was designed for wealthy older white men.”

Vote Mama PAC has helped over 500 Democrats who are moms run for office. Grechen Shirley pressed the Federal Election Commission to rule in her favor to allow use of campaign funds to cover the cost of her child care so she could run in 2018. And since then, at the federal level, parents started using funds similarly.

Between 2018 and 2022, 68 federal candidates spent $717,706 in campaign funds on child care, according to a report released by Vote Mama at the beginning of the year. About half those funds were spent by women. Grechen Shirley wants people to know that efforts to help moms run for office also help dads.

Women of color represent 77% of total Republican campaign funds spent on child care, the report says.

“This is a complete game changer and it will help diversify both parties,” Grechen Shirley said.

A major barrier to running

At the state level, 70% of campaign funds spent on child care between 2018 and 2022 were spent by candidates of color, according to the same report.

Thirty-two states authorize candidates to use campaign funds for child care, but according to Vote Mama, in at least six of them, the option had never been touched. In Indiana, elections officials issued an advisory opinion allowing their use, and the South Carolina House approved legislation last month over the objections of the chamber’s hardline Freedom Caucus. But the bill died with session’s end Thursday after never getting a vote in the Senate.

A bipartisan pair of moms pushed for the change in Georgia by asking the state ethics commission to weigh in. The commission approved the change last summer through an advisory opinion.

Georgia Republican state Rep. Beth Camp said she thought it was odd that federal candidates could use campaign funds for child care expenses but state candidates could not. And she says she hopes the change will encourage more parents with young children to run for office.

“It is not a partisan issue. It is a nonpartisan issue because it impacts everyone,” said Camp, whose children are now adults.

Camp said she was surprised when she heard negative feedback from some colleagues who questioned why the change was needed when candidates had not used campaign funds for child care in the past.

“Well, honestly, we probably would have had more parents — not going to say women or men but more parents — enter into elected office if they’d had the opportunity,” Camp said. “When you start looking at how expensive it is to provide child care, there are some people who make the decision not to take that out of their family household budget.”

Rhode Island passed a law in 2021 letting state and local candidates spend campaign funds on child care. It has yet to be used by any candidate with child care burdens, man or woman.

Sen. Sandra Cano, a third-term Democratic state senator who has given birth to two children since she was elected in 2018, said she opted not to dip into her campaign war chest for child care partly due to public perception.

“I do feel I would put myself through more criticism if I did, even though it is legal,” she said.

Also a factor: her family members provide most of the care for her children, Arianna, 4, and Alessandro, 1. And her parents refuse to accept her offers to pay them for it.

Lack of access to child care is a major barrier moms face when running for office and that problem continues if they win the election, Dittmar said.

“(Women) are still more likely than their male counterparts to be the caregivers,” said Dittmar of the Center for American Women and Politics.

Ohio has not authorized political candidates to use campaign funds for child care.

Ohio House Minority Leader Allison Russo, a Democrat, spent thousands of dollars in extra child care costs when she first campaigned in 2018. Her daughter was a 1-year-old and her two sons were in elementary school at that time.

“It was a big, expensive part of my first campaign that we paid out of pocket,” she said. “I am privileged to have the circumstance that I have with family nearby and the support network, but not everybody has that and I think if we want more parents with young children, especially women to run for office, we have to think about how do we create this support at work.”

And in Indiana, Ragen Hatcher, a representative from Gary, noted that childcare access and expenses continued to pose challenges even after she was elected. The mom of four moved her family hours away from their home in northwest Indiana so she could continue to care for them while she served in the legislature. Hatcher said she’d like to see free childcare offered at the statehouse, as well as the option to enroll her kids in schools closer to the state capital.

“Being a state representative or state senator, for young parents, is difficult. And I think it may be a barrier to why many younger people, and moms, don’t run for these offices,” Hatcher said. “There are some things that the legislature can do to accommodate people better with younger children, and I just hope that we start doing that instead of leaving that age group out — those who may have the younger children but don’t want to necessarily have to leave them at home.”

The X factor

From scheduling breast pumping, dropping kids off at school, securing child care and performing the full spectrum of duties expected of women as primary caretakers for their children, campaigning as a mom is a challenge and that’s before a person faces all the hurdles of serving in office as a mom, Grechen Shirley said.

“You campaign and you’re working full time for up to two years with no salary … the reality is no one talks about these things. Unless you know somebody personally who has run for office or served in office, there’s really no way to know what it will be like. It’s like childbirth, unless you know someone who’s gone through it, you really don’t know what it’ll be like,” Grechen Shirley said.

And no one questions why dads run for office because having kids is viewed as an asset for men in elections, and they’re good dads for taking a picture with their kids, Grechen Shirley said. But if a woman on the campaign trail or in elected office takes a picture with her kids, they’re “using” their kids.

Increased representation of moms in office doesn’t mean the behind-the-scenes burdens have lessened, said Jennifer Lawless, the Leone Reaves and George W. Spicer Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia and chair of its politics department.

Lawless highlighted U.S. Rep. Grace Meng, a New York Democrat, as an example. Meng has talked about the continued stress of finding child care in New York while she sits through marathon sessions on Capitol Hill.

“It seems normatively wrong that women are being asked to manage this additional aspect of serving or running,” Lawless said. “We should have a political system where they should not be asked to manage something extra. Because women have been doing this for so long they’ve somehow figured it out.”

Said Dittmar: “In holding office you’re at the whims of leadership and deadlines and timelines. You can’t just say, ‘I’m sorry, I have to take off tomorrow because my kid is sick’ if you have a major vote.”

Lawless, who challenged U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin in the 2006 Democratic primary for Rhode Island’s 2nd Congressional District, said the experience was “incredibly taxing,” even as a single woman without children.

“I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have that third component of child care factored in,” Lawless said.

Because of that, some moms wait until their children are older or out of the house before running for office, but Dittmar said she thinks that’s changing.

“A lot of the women who have young kids feel like there’s a lot going on in the world and in their states that they need to speak up on and so you’re seeing that translate into candidacy and office holding,” she said.

It’s those life experiences that drive moms into running for office. Without people in positions of power who have experienced the challenges of raising children, things like child care aren’t prioritized issues, Grechen Shirley said.

“When you talk to men about why they ran, they say ‘I thought I would be good at this job’. When you talk to a woman, a mom with young kids in particular, there’s usually one particular issue that they reached out to their local representative to get help with and either never heard back from their representative or didn’t get the help that they needed and they said ‘you know what, I can do this job better,’” Grechen Shirley said.

For example, the female-majority in Nevada has advocated for policies such as the “pregnancy fairness act” that strengthens protections beyond federal law for pregnant and postpartum workers and endorsed a maternal mortality review committee to improve health outcomes, the Current has reported. In January, eight weeks of paid family leave for state employees after the birth or adoption of a child or to care for a family member with a serious illness took effect. Other issues, including pay equity, remain on the agenda.

Lawless didn’t think achieving parity between mothers in the population and in elected office was necessary, though. More important to Lawless was working toward equal representation of women in political office and campaigns, regardless of their family status.

“Right now if we continue at the rate we are currently electing women in Congress, it won’t be until 2108 that we reach parity for women,” she said.

April Corbin Girnus of Nevada Current, Megan Henry of Ohio Capital Journal, Nancy Lavin of Rhode Island Current, Anna Liz Nichols of Michigan Advance, Jill Nolin of Georgia Recorder and Casey Smith of Indiana Capital Chronicle contributed to this report.

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