The U.S. Electoral System Is Not Set Up for Moms Who Want To Run for Public Office

We desperately need more moms with young children in office who will address the policies and warped priorities that are harming our families—but those same problems are the ones that are keeping us from running.

The U.S. Electoral System Is Not Set Up for Moms Who Want To Run for Public Office
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Only 6 percent of U.S. Congress members are moms with school-aged children. Pictured: Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) with her daughter before a television interview. (@repkatieporter / Instagram)

In 2018, I ran for Congress with two children under 3. I believed then, and believe now, that the economic issues that matter most to working families—from universal child care to paid family leave—have been detrimentally siloed as “women’s issues.” I understood then that one way to fix our broken infrastructure is to have more working moms in public office, women whose own life experiences can help shape policies that meaningfully improve the lives of all Americans. 

But I soon realized that our electoral system is not set up for moms like me who want to run. I would make calls to donors while nursing my son and playing with my daughter. My mother was able to watch my babies every day after 3:30 p.m., which allowed me to head out the door and meet constituents. My schedule was unsustainable. But after giving up my salary to campaign full-time, I couldn’t afford child care. 

For moms considering a run for office, this story is not unique. We face cultural and structural pressures, like getting questions from donors such as, “Who will watch your children?” and having to overcome the inability to afford child care while campaigning full-time without a salary. This is why only 6 percent of U.S. Congress members are moms with school-aged children, and why policies like universal child care and paid family leave have not advanced. These barriers keep moms from running until their children are grown, and trap us in an endless cycle—we desperately need more moms with young children in office who will address the policies and warped priorities that are harming our families, but those same problems are the ones that are keeping us from running.

We need to revolutionize the way moms run for office. 

After my campaign ended in 2019, I founded Vote Mama PAC and Vote Mama Foundation, two organizations which seek to do just that. We are working to break down barriers moms face while running for office, normalize moms running for office with young children, and enable legislators to pass family-friendly legislation. It’s not enough to just help moms run—we need to build a pipeline of new, diverse young leaders who will legislate based on their own lived experiences and advance policies like universal child care and paid family leave that America’s working families need now. 

A critical step toward achieving this vision is expanding and normalizing the use of campaign funds for child care by candidates nationwide. 

During my congressional campaign, I petitioned the Federal Election Commission and became the first woman in history to receive federal approval to spend campaign funds on child care. Since then, 51 federal candidates have used their campaign funds to pay for child care. But this decision does not apply to state and local candidates. 

Allowing candidates to use campaign funds for child care is a game-changer for moms who are considering a run for public office. Vote Mama Foundation recently released a first-of-its-kind report examining the impact of campaign funds for child care in the U.S. We spoke to parents who have run for office up and down the ballot all across the country and found, unsurprisingly, that access to child care is a major hurdle for moms running for office and that the ability to use campaign funds for child care helps parents run.

But more than that, we found that allowing the use of campaign funds for child care shifts the make-up of candidates who run, and therefore, the policies they choose to advocate for—first-time legislators who relied on funds from their campaign for child care have broken glass ceilings and used their platforms to fight for policies that American families need the most. 

For example, Representative Katie Porter (D-Calif.) is the first single mom to serve in Congress, and has wielded her formidable whiteboard to fight for a living wage for all Americans and speak truth to corporate power. In 2019, she introduced the Family Savings for Kids and Seniors Act, which would more than double the pretax amount families can set aside for child and elder care in flexible spending accounts. Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) is the first Somali American and one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. She has taken on a Washington establishment that values profits over people, and has already championed bills supporting affordable housing, lowering student debt, universal school meals, and police accountability this year.

Imagine if we could have more women like Reps. Porter and Omar representing us—not just in Washington, but in our own communities, up and down the ballot, from the local school board to the governor. Imagine if not one potential candidate at any level of our government had to consider the cost of child care when weighing whether to run for office. By removing this key barrier, we have the potential to transform the political landscape and elect leaders who address the challenges America’s families face, because they have lived them personally. This is how we can advance critical priorities like universal child care and paid family leave.

We already have the momentum we need to make this vision a reality, but we need to push our state legislatures to act quickly. Vote Mama Foundation is on a mission to pass campaign funds for child care legislation in all 50 states by 2023. To date, 11 states have enacted legislation. This legislative session, 14 states have introduced bills, four of which have become law.

Right now, we are missing the critical voices of moms in our government—at all levels. And it matters because lived experience affects how policy is approached. We want more working parents, particularly mothers with young children, to run for office—and win. There are many institutional barriers that are holding us back: The first is paying for child care. When we remove that hurdle, we can build a pipeline of talent to shape policies that meaningfully improve the lives of all Americans.

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About

Liuba Grechen Shirley ran for Congress in 2018 and is the founder and chief executive of Vote Mama, Vote Mama Foundation, and Vote Mama Action Fund.