Mothers and Others: Understanding the Relationship between Parenthood and Politics
By Amanda Bittner & Melanee Thomas
Amanda Bittner is an Associate Professor in the Political Science Department at Memorial University. She specializes in elections, voting, and public opinion, focusing much of her work on gender and politics. You can follow her on twitter @amandabittner.
Melanee Thomas is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Calgary. Her research focuses on gender, political engagement, and political careers. You can follow her on twitter @MelaneeLThomas.
When a politician gets elected, who looks after their kids? How often do we assume that the politician in question simply has someone at home to tend the fires, so to speak, without questioning whether that is the case or the way it should be?
Politicians’ experiences suggest these assumptions do not fit with reality. Catherine McKenna, Canada’s Federal Environment Minister, made headlines (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/catherine-mckenna-turns-off-phone-1.3404071) for intending to turn off her cellphone for a few hours each evening to eat supper with her family and spend time with her kids.
Only a few years ago, Anne-Marie Slaughter publicly mused that “women can’t have it all” when she resigned from her post as the first woman director of policy planning at the US State Department. Slaughter candidly stated that the schedule required in politics prevented her from being “both the parent and professional I wanted to be” (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-cant-have-it-all/309020/?single_page=true). Interestingly, her high-profile full time job as a University Professor and Dean at Princeton University was not a barrier for her family priorities in the same way.
In Alberta, Stephanie McLean is the first MLA to be pregnant in that legislature’s history, highlighting how that legislature has no procedures for dealing with a pregnant member http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/mla-stephanie-mclean-is-pregnant-in-a-first-for-alberta-1.3302148). But even if there were rules in place to assist elected representatives who were pregnant or nursing mothers, their colleagues may not bother to make themselves aware of these procedures. In Australia, an MP with a newborn was inappropriately told to “express more breast milk” to avoid missing votes, despite the fact that provisions for proxy votes for nursing mothers have been present for years (http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/liberal-mp-and-new-mum-kelly-odwyer-told-to-express-more-breast-milk-to-avoid-missing-votes-in-the-chamber-20150916-gjnwwh.html).
The common thread across all these stories is that they are about mothers in politics. Each example highlights how difficult it is to combine motherhood and politics, not only because of the nature of political careers, but because of differences (still!) in what it means to be a mother compared to a father.
It is certainly true that “modern men” play a much more active role in parenting their children and managing households in comparison to their fathers and grandfathers, but having children still affects mothers and fathers differently, both on on a day-to-day basis and with respect to career decisions. Having kids and working as an MP or MHA, for example, is a different experience for women than it is for men.
Often, it is taken for granted that men with political careers have a wife at home to stay with their kids, so that the public doesn’t need to think about accommodating them as parents. Even though we suspect many fathers in politics crave more balance in their work and home lives, this assumption about political men is one key reason why it jars us when mothers require routine workplace accommodations in politics.
We take for granted that women and men, mothers and fathers, will both work—indeed recent data comparing OECD countries shows that about 70% of mothers are in the workforce (https://www.uclouvain.be/cps/ucl/doc/demo/documents/Thevenon_Base_OCDE.pdf). So—women entering the workforce is a normal thing, mothers entering the workforce is a normal thing, but when we mix mothers and politics specifically, the same rules don’t seem to apply. Really, a political career is a special kind of work with special kinds of challenges, but it is still work. So while the idea of a working mother is so routine as to hardly draw attention, the idea of a politician who is a mother leads to many unknowns.
This may be one reason why women have political careers at lower levels than “regular” careers: between 1950 and 1998, women’s labour force participation in the United States, for example, rose dramatically from 34% to 60% (http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL30261.pdf), while their participation in Congress rose from a paltry 2% to a measly 12%. Only 26% of Canada’s House of Commons are currently women, and there are only ten women out of 40 MHAs sitting in the House of Assembly in Newfoundland and Labrador (25%). It is not at all clear how many of these women are mothers, as many deliberately opt to avoid putting their families in the public eye. What is known is that many women who want political careers hold off on having them until their children are fully grown, or they hold off on having children entirely to accommodate their political careers. What we do know is that many men don’t face the same kinds of trade-offs between parenting and their political careers.
Recently, we have completed a book that brings together researchers from around the world to investigate gender, parenthood and politics. So little is known about the relationships between a) parenthood and political careers; b) parenthood on the campaign trail and in the media; and c) parenthood and political attitudes and political engagement. Our book really just starts the conversation on these important topics, and yet a number of interesting and important findings emerged:
• Political careers and parenthood are a tough mix, but it is especially difficult for mothers. In addition to rigid legislative schedules, there are rules in some legislatures that prohibit infants from being present (because they are “strangers”) or that permit infants but prohibit breastfeeding (because it is “refreshment.” Honestly, we cannot make this sort of thing up!). Importantly, not all legislatures have these rules, so in some places, it is far easier for parents (especially mothers) of young children to have political careers. Elsewhere, though, the rules are used deliberately to discourage political careers for those with small children or who live far from the capital region.
• Politicians present their family life in different ways. Fathers and grandfathers can and do trot out their kids into the public eye as a deliberate political strategy (e.g. in promotional flyers and holiday cards, on websites). Mothers, by contrast, showcase their children the least, in part because they fear for their children’s safety, and in part because they fear the backlash of being painted as a “bad” mother for having a political career.
• The media portrays women and mothers differently than it does men and fathers. Because the media highlights’ women’s parental status, they employ different strategies to deal with it. Hillary Clinton, for example, downplayed her family life in 2008, while Sarah Palin highlighted both her young family and “Mamma Grizzly” status on a regular basis.
• Having children affects political attitudes and political participation: women with school-aged children tend to be heavily involved in their communities, compared both to fathers with school-aged children and with other women. Similarly, parents think more about the environment and engage in consumerism as activism. And, having children affects the basic political attitudes of women and men: moms become a bit more left-leaning on some issues, while dads become a bit more conservative on some issues once they have kids.
Another key result we found was that government programs like maternity leave, paternity leave, and childcare increase both women’s labour force and political participation. Countries that do these programs well have higher rates of labour force participation and more women in legislatures. Countries that don’t lag behind. What we do not know (yet) is which came first: did women enter the legislature and then pass laws creating more generous family programs, or did the more generous family programs lead to higher levels of gender equality and greater levels of political participation among women?
On a basic level, being a parent in politics is challenging, all the more so when the parent is a mother rather than a father. As citizens, we need to think seriously about what it means to be a parent in politics, and specifically what it means to be a mother with a political career. If we want a diverse set of voices in legislatures (and we think this is a no-brainer), then we need to consider all of the challenges and barriers that prevent some segments of society from taking on this important public role. Including Mothers.