Whether a person has children or not has nothing to do with her qualifications for political office. Yet for women, motherhood is too often used as an indicator of a candidate’s compassion and concern for the future. While these are laudable qualities, motherhood is not a necessary condition for inhabiting them. When we assume that it is, everybody loses.
British Prime Minister contender Andrea Leadsom was recently quoted as saying “that being a mum means you have a real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake.” U.S. Green Party Presidential candidate Jill Stein seems to agree; on Mother’s Day, she wrote that she wants our next President “to reflect the values that are part of being a mom,” defining those values as “taking care of others and being compassionate, starting with our children.” While Leadsom later claimed that her words were taken out of context, the implied conclusion from both sets of remarks is obvious: women who are not mothers or do not embody a “maternal” nature are less qualified to lead nations.
This isn’t the first time woman candidates without kids have been suspect simply because they don’t happen to be mothers. During the 2013 New York City Mayoral race, Chirlane McCray claimed that her husband Bill de Blasio’s rival, Christine Quinn, would be unable to effectively advocate for child-care issues because she wasn’t a mother herself. Quinn responded:
…to criticize me as not understanding what young families go through because I might not have children, is over the line … I know that young families struggle every day to provide for their kids, make sure they have a good education, and can afford to give them everything they need.
If we take Quinn at her word, it would seem there are mechanisms alternative to motherhood—like reading, talking with constituents, or conducting research—that help political candidates understand their constituents’ needs.
Leaders throughout history easily demonstrate that the capacity for compassion is not limited by parental status. Susan B. Anthony and Alice Paul were both childless and did work undoubtedly with a vision for a better future for women in mind, for example.
One also doesn’t need to have had a specific set of experiences in order to consider the lives of those who do. President Barack Obama surely doesn’t face hardship paying for medical care, but that hasn’t stopped him from pushing for health care reform. Dr. George Tiller’s gender did not prevent him from advocating for women’s reproductive rights. As a cisgender woman, Professor Melissa Harris-Perry is still an effective ally to the trans community.
There are countless examples of major movement leaders and tireless advocates who have done and still do work motivated not by their own self-interest, but by the desire to leave the world a better place than it was when they inherited it.
The notion that women without children lack compassion and concern for the future isn’t just offensive, though—it is inconsistent with what we know from research on childfree women. In fact, the choice not to have children is often made out of concern for our collective future. In my own study of the childfree, many women cited concern about our population’s wellbeing as an important factor in their decision not to have kids. “I think about stuff like acceptable population levels,”April, a social worker in her late thirties, explained to me. Kate, a partnered woman in her thirties, said she is not having children because “I’m just really concerned about our world.” These and other women note the dangers of overpopulation and say that one reason they’ve chosen not to have kids is to avoid contributing to an already overburdened planet.
The rhetoric employed by Leadsom, Stein, McCray, and others relies on outdated and limiting ways of thinking about gender. It supposes, wrongly, that the capacity to care about others is innately linked not only to being a woman but specifically to being a woman with children. While a person may learn compassion by raising children, parenthood certainly isn’t the only experience that can teach it. We all have an innate capacity for compassion, whether we’re parents or not. We can also learn it from sharing a home with someone, befriending a person whose circumstances differ from our own, facing hardship, or any other number of life experiences.
Criticizing women for not being mothers or not having qualities that we misunderstand to be limited to mothers comes off as an attempt to put us “in our place” at the very time when women in politics are breaking glass ceilings that have been around for decades. Rather than limiting women’s roles and asserting a very narrow vision of how they can or should live their lives, we should celebrate that women have more choices than ever before for the kinds of families they create and the public roles they take on as they advocate for a better future for us all.