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American Supermoms and the Struggle for Elected Office

When Senator Kirsten Gillibrand vowed to, “fight for your children as hard as I would fight for my own,” in her signature campaign speech, she distinguished herself in the Democratic primary field as both a competitive politician and an adept supermom. Her campaign strategy highlights her legislative accomplishments as well as her involved domestic life, using her dual role as a successful politician and devoted mother to strengthen her candidacy. If she can be both a New York Senator and full-time mother, Gillibrand’s argument follows, she is certainly capable of getting her agenda passed as president.

Gillibrand’s strategy is not uncommon in the United States, where a candidate’s family life holds especial weight in political rhetoric. References to the family in party platforms, speeches, and election coverage have increased significantly since the 1980s and, as compared to European democracies, Americans care more about the family lives of their elected officials. Yet Gillibrand’s embrace of the do-it-all supermom figure underscores how much more domestic involvement is expected of female candidates than of their male counterparts. Compare Gillibrand to Democratic hopeful, Beto O’Rourke, who stated that his wife raises their children only, “sometimes with my help.” Gillibrand and O’Rourke are roughly the same age, and Gillibrand is arguably more accomplished, yet their political branding when it comes to family involvement is markedly different.

Clearly, there are uneven societal expectations for women and men’s domestic involvement that pressure women like Gillibrand to play the supermom role, yet allow men like O’Rourke to make statements that would be politically costly for his female opponents. Consider the example of 2014 Texas gubernatorial candidate, Wendy Davis, who faced strong criticism for her choice to attend Harvard Law School while her husband cared for their children. Painted as a bad mother, Davis became one of the most disliked Texas democrats and ultimately lost her race by a 20-point margin. Davis’s run shows that it can be politically fatal for women to demonstrate professional ambition at the cost of domestic involvement, and Gillibrand’s political rhetoric is evidence of this unique societal pressure on female American politicians. Even more troubling, the supermom rhetoric championed by Gillibrand upholds the expectations that make it disproportionately more difficult for women than men to achieve elected office in the United States.

The unequal representation of men and women in American politics has perennially plagued political scientists. Despite the record number of female representatives serving in the 116th Congress, American women are far from achieving parity in their legislative representation: as of 2019, women hold fewer than a quarter of the seats in Congress. According to recent research from the University of Pennsylvania, Berkeley, and Yale, this discrepancy may lie not in implicit biases against female candidates as many have previously believed. The researchers found that voters hold little outright hostility against women that make a female candidate inherently less desirable than her male competitors. In fact, between hypothetically identical male and female candidates holding the same qualities and qualifications, voters show a slight preference for the female over the male candidate.

How to account for the glaring disparities in the genders of our elected officials, then? The researchers conclude that even though voters prefer female to male candidates in the abstract, those traits that American voters desire in their politicians are disproportionately harder for women than men to achieve in American society. This is particularly apparent with regard to a politician’s domestic role: being married and having children is highly significant in a candidate’s likelihood of winning elected office. Male candidates’ likelihood of being elected increases by 14 percentage points simply by marrying and having children, a payoff comparable to having one or more years of experience as an elected official. In accordance with dominant political rhetoric emanating from both parties that praises candidates’ family involvement, male and female politicians alike benefit greatly by demonstrating traditional gender roles in their domestic lives.

Doing so, however, places unequal burdens on male and female candidates. In a country where women are disproportionately responsible for the domestic sphere – roughly 30 percent of American women with children under 18 do not participate in the labor force, as compared to just 7 percent of fathers – being an “involved parent” looks decidedly different for men and women. To be good mothers, women must wholeheartedly engage in all aspects of their children’s upbringing; men, in contrast, may only “sometimes” help and still be heralded as involved fathers, family men, and perhaps even progressive champions, as is Beto O’Rourke. Displaying the traditional values of family involvement that American voters desire, then, places a significantly greater burden on female than on male politicians. Female candidates must find the time to be involved mothers and caregivers, as well as successful politicians; in effect, “female candidates have to be superwomen while male candidates enjoy the luxury of delegating family work to others.”

Gillibrand’s do-it-all rhetoric, therefore, reveals the problem that makes attaining elected office so difficult for female candidates and simultaneously reinforces it. When Gillibrand characterizes herself as, “the most overscheduled working parent,” her deliberate political branding evidences the unique pressure on female candidates to be devoted mothers as well as successful politicians and communicates to younger women that they must be both in order to be electorally desirable. The impact is visible in the lower numbers of women seeking elected office compared to men. The lower degree of political ambition among women is likely due in part to pervasive narratives that discourage all but the most driven women, prepared to prove their political and domestic aptitude, from seeking elected office.

What might be done to halt these harmful political narratives and expectations for women? Fundamentally reshaping the standards that American voters hold for female politicians’ domestic roles would be difficult at best. In light of Democrats’ ideological commitment to diversity and the growing numbers of minority legislators following the 2018 midterms, however, Democrats should take bold rhetorical steps prior to 2020 in hopes of promoting gender parity in their party. The DNC and prominent Democrats could make statements acknowledging the disproportionate barriers that women face to winning elected office and downplay the emphasis on traditional family roles in framing male and female candidates alike. This strategy would admittedly place Democrats at a disadvantage to Republicans, who champion the traditional family roles that resonate with American voters. At the same time, a rhetorical move from the more liberal of the two major parties is in order to phase political rhetoric away from unquestioned narratives of involved family life that disproportionately favor male over female candidates.

Photo: “Schumer, Gillibrand, and Menendez