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Can motherhood help Hillary Clinton win the presidency?

- October 21, 2015
Grandparents Hillary Rodham Clinton and former president Bill Clinton hold their grandchild Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky at Lenox Hill Hospital on Sept. 27, 2014 in New York City. (Jon Davidson/Office of President Clinton via Getty Images)

Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Twitter bio declares that, among other things, she is a “mom” and “grandma.” And her early political ads have drawn attention to her experiences as a mother and grandmother, as well as her own mother’s hardships and experiences. Despite the speculation about whether “motherhood” helps Clinton in some fashion, we know very little about this.

So I reached out to Jill Greenlee, a political scientist at Brandeis University and the author of “The Political Consequences of Motherhood.” (I previously discussed her research here). Along with Grace Deason and Carrie Langner, she wrote recent article “Mothers on the campaign trail: implications of Politicized Motherhood for women in politics.” In this article, they review academic literature on gender, motherhood, and politics and discuss hypotheses about the possible implications of “politicized motherhood” for political candidates. Greenlee kindly answered some questions via e-mail.

Q: You argue that motherhood is an increasingly politicized concept in the United States. How has it become more politicized, and why?

Several dynamics inform this. First, there has been an increased focus on the family in American politics since the 1980s, and that family-focused rhetoric has highlighted and politicized women’s domestic roles. Second, during this same time frame, a public discussion has emerged about how women can and should navigate their personal and private lives; this debate is mainly about work and motherhood. Finally, we’ve seen a recent increase in the number of highly visible female candidates, and these women have either been subjected to, and/or have promoted on their own, a heightened focus on their roles as mothers.

Q: What are some examples of how politicized motherhood has manifested itself?

A: Politicized motherhood emerges from both political and non-political discourse. Examples from the latter can be found in debates on the work and family-based challenges that women face. Women such as the former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter, who wrote a 2012 cover story in the Atlantic on “why women still can’t have it all,” and Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, who told women in her 2013 book that they need to “lean in” to work life, have reignited debates about the place of motherhood in women’s lives. We’ve also seen an explosion of “mommy blogs” created by ordinary women and by major media outlets (for example, the Motherlode blog in the New York Times).

In the political world, we see high-profile women such as Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Wendy Davis and Michelle Bachman, whose political candidacies have all been marked by debates over their role as a mother. Some of these candidates have also emphasized motherhood in their own political efforts. Patty Murray first did this in 1992 when she ran for the Senate as just a “mom in tennis shoes.” Sarah Palin famously called herself a “hockey mom” in the 2008 presidential election and in 2010 declared a number of conservative female candidate “mama grizzlies” when offering her endorsements.

Finally, pundits and campaigns created a long list of “mom voters” – soccer moms, security moms, Walmart moms, waitress moms – during the past six presidential elections.

Q: A key reason for women’s under-representation in politics is the “ambition gap” — women are less likely than men to consider running in the first place. How might “politicized motherhood” maintain or even worsen that gap?

It’s possible that “politicized motherhood,” the term that we use to refer to the contemporary focus on motherhood in popular and political discourse, will exacerbate the tension between work life and family life for women. If women feel additional societal pressure to be the “perfect mother,” then running for political office may seem unrealistic.

Of course, some women want to run for office even if they are saddled with responsibilities at home. However, women are less likely than men to be recruited to run for office by party gatekeepers, in part because they are seen as less electable than men and in part because stereotypes of women are not always compatible with the traits we tend to value in elected leaders. Politicized motherhood may exacerbate those tendencies, leading party gatekeepers to recruit even fewer women.

Q: But you also discuss the opposite possibility: that motherhood may inspire some women to run.

Yes, it’s possible that this focus on women who “have it all” – a family and political office – will encourage other women to enter the political sphere. With high-profile women such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) offering a model of how to balance – or even integrate – motherhood with public office, other women may feel that they can do it too. Or, women who have been politicized because of their role as mother (for example, activists in the gun control movement) could feel empowered to run for office precisely because of the contemporary emphasis on motherhood.

Q: What about voters? Do they evaluate female candidates differently if they are mothers? Does motherhood play into stereotypes about female candidates?

There is mixed evidence on how voters respond to female candidates to who are mothers versus those who are not. On the one hand, being a mother fulfills one of the strongest social mandates placed upon a woman, and that appeals to voters.

On the other hand, having children may undercut voters’ assessments of a woman’s capabilities, time and leadership skills. Voters may question whether a woman can hold public office and still be a “good mother.” We saw this when Sarah Palin ran on the Republican presidential ticket in 2008. As a mother of five children children, including an infant with Down syndrome, there was a great deal of public debate about Palin’s ability to serve in office while still fulfilling her obligations as a mother. When news emerged that her teen-aged daughter was pregnant, questions about whether Palin was a “good mother” became part of the discussion.

We also know that gender stereotypes can contribute to negative evaluations of female candidates by voters. Women are seen as more communal, warmer and more compassionate than men, while men are seen as assertive, masterful and more competitive. These stereotypes of women are often at odds with the traits needed to be a strong leader. So if an emphasis on motherhood highlights the incongruity between stereotypes of women and leadership traits, women could be at a disadvantage.

Q: But, to be clear, women candidates aren’t necessarily more likely to lose because they are women, or mothers.

That’s right. When women run for office, they win at the same rate as men – although it’s safe to say they face additional obstacles.

Q: Could motherhood even help female candidates in the eyes of voters?

Yes, the current emphasis on motherhood could be advantageous to women with kids running for office. When political discourse links motherhood to policy and politics, then voters may weight stereotypically feminine traits and issues more heavily when evaluating candidates. That means the focus on mothers could actually alter how compatible we see feminine traits with the traits of a strong leader.

It’s worth noting that in 2008, Hillary Clinton struggled to find a balance between presenting herself as a tough, strong, competent leader and to also display the feminine characteristics that we expect to see from women. By focusing on her experiences as a mother and grandmother, she can very naturally invoke those feminine characteristics in a way that is comfortable for most voters.

Q: Do female candidates have to be mothers? What about female candidates who aren’t? You talk about the possibility of a “motherhood mandate.”

In a political context where family and motherhood are emphasized, women who are not mothers may be penalized. These women may be seen as not fitting with societal expectations of what it means to be a woman. They may be seen as less warm and compassionate in an electoral context that could evolve to really value these traits.

Q: It sounds as if there’s no real consensus here as to whether motherhood will help or hurt candidates — Hillary Clinton included.

At the end of the day, we still have a lot to learn about how motherhood shapes women’s paths to elected office. In a time when we simultaneously have more women than ever running for office and an increasing focus on family and motherhood in politics, it’s more important than ever to explore these issues.