What Moms in Politics Really Want This Mother’s Day: Campaign-Funded Childcare

U.S. women are more likely to become moms now than they were a decade ago, Pew Research shows—which means we are seeing an increase of moms running for office. Just last week, Minnesota state Senate candidate Erin Maye Quade actually gave a campaign speech while in labor, where we can see her literally breathing through contractions at the podium. She eventually had to withdraw from the debate and her opponent won the party’s endorsement. What is it like to be a mother running for office?

A quick note before we dive in: The fact that campaign-funded childcare conversations are centered exclusively around moms (and not dads) points directly to the inequality women face in carrying the double-burden of paid work and unpaid care work in the home. Working mothers in the United States spent an average of 25 hours per week on housework and childcare, compared to working fathers’ 16 hours. That’s an average 12-hour work day, which leaves women in major time poverty. Since childcare in the U.S. is some of the most expensive among wealthy nations, most women don’t have an option but to carry this burden.

Melinda Gates summarizes it perfectly: “Our economy is built on the backs of women’s unpaid labor. That is just the truth in this country and in all countries. But we don’t recognize that unpaid labor.” This deep-seated cultural reality needs to change—but in the meantime there are things we can do to support women candidates to be in a position to make the changes that shift this dynamic.

Moms on the Run

Liuba Grechen Shirley, mom of two kids under 5 years old at the time, ran for New York’s 2nd congressional district in 2018. When asked about what that was like, she told CNBC Make It, “It’s a different experience. Donors don’t take us seriously; voters often don’t take us seriously and neither does the press. When you run with young children, the first question you’re asked always is, ‘Who will watch your kids while you’re campaigning?’​​”

“For the first five, six months of the campaign, I was campaigning with a baby strapped to my chest and a toddler by my side,” she continued. “And I realized it wasn’t sustainable. But, neither was picking up the cost of childcare after having given up my salary to run.”

Left with no other option, Shirley became the first woman to get federal permission to use campaign funds for childcare needs.

Inspired by her lived experience, Liuba Grechen Shirley founded Vote Mama the very next year, and their important work has revealed that Shirley’s experience is not unique. Vote Mama’s research has pointed to several obstacles moms face when entering politics, a big one being the lack of universal, affordable childcare.

For the first five, six months of the campaign, I was campaigning with a baby strapped to my chest and a toddler by my side. I realized it wasn’t sustainable. But, neither was picking up the cost of childcare after having given up my salary to run.

Liuba Grechen Shirley

Affordable Childcare Is Not Radical

Many countries around the world understand the reality of the care economy and don’t run from the ever-evolving needs of our workforce and family dynamics. Considering the fact that parents make up 72 percent of our labor force, it seems a wise economic decision for governments to make it easier for parents, particularly moms, to juggle the demands of both paid jobs and childcare responsibilities. 

Among the world’s wealthiest countries, 25 offer unconditional free access to childcare, at least part-time, for all children 3 years or older. Even here at home, New Mexico’s Governor Michelle Lujan Grishman recently launched a package of initiatives aimed at eliminating the cost of childcare for most New Mexico families. No other state has moved to enact such a comprehensive childcare support program to such a broad economic demographic.

Is it a coincidence that she’s a woman governor? I’d argue no. Three of the top five countries for family-friendly policies in the OECD also rank in the top 15 globally for gender balance in politics.

Childcare Levels the Political Playing Field and Can Lead to Better Policies

For moms entering a political career at any level, allowing campaign funds to be used for childcare expenses is a critical first step to leveling the playing field for women candidates to run and win. Campaign-funded childcare means that both men and women candidates would no longer need to factor in childcare costs when deciding to run, which would blow open the doors for more and diverse women candidates to get their names on the ballot.

The need to support working parents doesn’t end once the campaign is over. Even after overcoming barriers to run and win, women elected officials face barriers that prevent them from serving effectively, from county-level politics up to national. Erratic work schedules, low pay rates, geographic distance and unfair leadership selection processes make serving a challenge for many women—especially those caring for children and managing households.

These challenges are so evident that members of Congress who are mothers recently formed the first-ever Moms in the House caucus to raise a collective voice against these issues. RepresentWomen also advocates for legislative rule changes that modernize governmental workplaces so women office holders can thrive. Let’s not forget that men have children, too! So these upgrades will, in fact, benefit all elected officials.

The positive impacts of campaign-funded childcare don’t stop at seeing more women run. Since we know that there is a clear relationship between women legislators and gender-conscious policy making, getting more women in office could mean important policies like paid leave and universal affordable childcare could actually be a reality in the US. Packaging this with reforms like fair representation voting (a combination of ranked-choice voting and multi-winner districts) means these women will be even more likely to run and win. 

You see, diverse gender balance in political representation is actually a structural catalyst to addressing the upstream inequalities that plague the United States. Organizations and individuals fighting for things like equal pay, paid leave, affordable childcare, etc. must also fight for structural reform that removes barriers for women to run, win, serve and lead in U.S. politics. If we can all join together under the knowledge and understanding that gender balance equals better policies, and that gender balance requires structural reforms, we will see these victories in our lifetimes.

New Mexico is an exciting first and I know that, with more women in office, it won’t be the last.

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About

Katie Usalis is the outreach coordinator at RepresentWomen, a research and advocacy hub dedicated to strengthening our democracy by advancing reforms that break down barriers, ensuring more women can run, win, serve and lead.