In early March, Elizabeth Beck was happy.
The 37-year-old attorney had just scored a resounding victory in her Democratic primary campaign for the Texas House of Representatives. She celebrated by taking her daughters, then 10 and 12, on a vacation to San Antonio, several hours from their home in Fort Worth, where they visited SeaWorld and the Alamo.
“I gave myself a week that I wasn’t going to do call time,” Beck said, referencing outreach to donors. “I wasn’t going to do anything campaign related. I was going to give my daughters some time back.”
A few weeks later, Beck’s plans for her general election campaign were hampered when the pandemic took hold and her home life became hectic. The single mother recalled one day in particular, where she had a work project open on her laptop while helping her oldest with an online program that had replaced in-person schooling.
How in the world am I going to do this? she remembered thinking.
June Yang Cutter, a 42-year-old Republican attorney running for the California State Assembly, said everything changed when COVID-19 closed school for her two children, ages 8 and 11.
“I had to completely restructure my life,” she said. “I had to create a schedule where I had to set aside certain hours to make sure that my kids got their schoolwork done, and I had to pause every so often to make sure that I was feeding my kids and my family, and I had just the constant buzz of children at home, kind of looming over all the work that needs to be done.”
There’s been a recent surge in the number of moms with children at home who have run for elected office. But though the long-term ramifications of the pandemic on political campaigns are still unclear, there are signs that mothers — now balancing virtual campaigning with 24/7 family life — will be hit particularly hard. Interviews with more than a dozen mothers around the country who are running for office show the pandemic’s effect on their campaigns has ranged from a halt on critical fundraising to a hard-to-quantify exhaustion.
The full scope of the virus’ impact on their campaigns may not be evident until after the 2020 election. Many of the women whose names are on ballots this year probably filed to run before the pandemic hit, said Janine Parry, a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas.
Parry worries most about the next election cycle. Preliminary data show that during the pandemic, women have shouldered the bulk of child care responsibilities in their households. With a resurgence of coronavirus cases looming, the continued closure of child care centers and in-person schooling could force parents — mostly mothers — to rethink their careers and other plans.
“If the window was already narrow for women with minor children in particular to run, it just seems like it will virtually have closed for a lot of those women in this environment,” she said.
Liuba Grechen Shirley, a former Democratic congressional candidate in New York, cites an often quoted figure in American politics: A woman has to be asked seven times to run for office before she will consider it. For mothers with kids at home, she said, “it takes 25 or 30 asks before you really consider it.”
“Now that COVID is exacerbating the child care problem, both for people running for office and for everybody at this point, it’s even more difficult,” she said.
Before Grechen Shirley could finish her thought, her 4-year-old son interrupted her.
The golden year
Mothers have always been involved in politics through advocacy work on issues like the environment, gun violence and nuclear proliferation. But their prominence as elected office holders has accelerated only recently.
In 1993, Patty Murray of Washington was sworn into her U.S. Senate seat as a self-described “mom in tennis shoes.” But the mom momentum wouldn’t fully take hold until nearly three decades later.
In 2018, U.S. Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth became the first senator to give birth while serving in office; when U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia won her congressional seat, the Democrat delivered her victory speech while her 4-year-old daughter crawled around her feet; at least two Democrats — Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate Kelda Roys and Krish Vignarajah, a Maryland gubernatorial candidate — breastfed children in their campaign ads.
The number of female members of Congress with children under 18 years old almost doubled after the midterm election and helped lead to the creation of the Moms in the House caucus, as a support network. Twenty-seven congressional mothers, from both major parties and from both chambers, are currently members, according to congressional staff.
“We have an ongoing text chain so that we can keep in touch with one another,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat and mom of three who started the group.
But stereotypes still exist for mothers who aspire to run.
When JoAnna Mendoza, a candidate running for the Arizona Senate, launched her campaign last year, the 43-year-old was surprised to receive several questions from potential supporters about how she would take care of her 4-year-old son if she was elected.
“I even got told, ‘You can’t run for office. You have a little one. You’re a mom. You’re a single mom. There’s no way you can do it. You have to work full-time. You’re setting yourself up for failure,’” she recalled. “And, of course, I said, ‘OK, watch me.’”
Jamil Scott, an assistant professor at Georgetown University whose research includes gender politics, said that though women associate strongly with their identity as mothers, they haven’t always leaned into those roles when campaigning for the very reasons that people like Mendoza face sexist questions over their ability to juggle elected office and motherhood. That mentality, however, has largely shifted, she said — especially after President Donald Trump’s election.
“There was a push to really say, ‘If not now, when?’” Scott said. “To think about, ‘Not just my future, but my kids’ future.’”
But that doesn’t mean the path will be easy. Grechen Shirley, the former congressional candidate from New York, thinks a lot about the additional barriers to mothers running for office. As a candidate, she effectively changed the future of campaigning as a parent.
In 2018 — a banner year for many — Grechen Shirley petitioned the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to use campaign funds for child care for her two small children. Her husband worked long hours, and her mother’s help would not offset the relentless campaign schedule.
The FEC approved the request, and though Grechen Shirley narrowly lost her election, she used the experience to launch the Vote Mama Foundation and Vote Mama PAC, with the goal of electing more moms into all levels of office, allowing candidates running for non-federal office to use campaign funds for child care and supporting universal child care. Since Grechen Shirley’s FEC ruling, 46 federal candidates — 27 women and 19 men — have used their campaign funds to pay for child care. The FEC ruling doesn’t extend to mothers running for state or local office, so Grechen Shirley is working to change laws and rules in every state by 2023. As of July, 17 states now allow such use of campaign funds.
“If we support more moms in their runs, and we normalize what it looks like to run as a mom, to have multiple kids in the background in phone calls and have that be okay, you’ll start to change the conversation at the table,” she said. ”You’ll start to prioritize legislation that will actually help working families.”
In 2019, U.S. Democratic Rep. Katie Porter of California, a single mother of three young children, introduced legislation to codify the FEC ruling and also allow candidates to use campaign funds for elder care, dependent care and health care premiums. The bill has advanced out of the Democratic-controlled House.
But COVID-19 has complicated this milestone. Mendoza, a retired Marine with several deployments to combat environments in Iraq and Afghanistan, briefly paid for child care as an in-kind contribution in her campaign. Now she is hosting campaign events via Zoom from home with her son periodically appearing on the screen.
Despite the pandemic’s unexpected consequences, Mendoza is committed to running a competitive campaign. She’s more than OK with her son on her lap as she calls potential donors, and her campaign manager occasionally helps with child care. Mendoza feels strongly that her candidacy is changing the perception of who can run for office, which she believes in her home state has typically helped wealthy White men.
“It shouldn’t be limited; it can be anyone, and it can be people like me,” she said. “Women who are single moms, who are holding it down for their families every day, who want to make their communities better.”
Fundraising could be affected
When Randi Reed ran for a congressional seat in Nevada this year, the 40-year-old Republican soon became the point-person for overseeing her 8-year-old son’s schoolwork. Reed and her husband run a small manufacturing company together, but the couple decided that she would stay home.
“I was the only mom in the campaign,” Reed said of her eight-way primary. “Now all of a sudden, I became a homeschool teacher to my second grader. And so part of my day was not doing the calls to the district like I should have been, just being in touch. It was helping my son navigate.”
In the spring, Reed decided to effectively stop fundraising for her campaign. She attributed the decision on the virus, and her belief that it would not be right to ask people for money at a time of potential hardship. She also limited some events if they conflicted with her son’s school assignments and other extracurricular activities.
“That’s really difficult to get your concentration back … you’re in the middle of a call, and then it’s like, ‘Mommy!’” Reed said. “And what are you supposed to say? This call is more important than my son? No. So it just becomes this real juxtaposition to juggle.”
In politics, the ability to raise money is viewed as a key metric to potential success. While research has shown that women can raise the same amount of money as male candidates, they do so in smaller amounts, Kelly Dittmar explained in a 2019 report on women running for office. That means they must raise a larger number of smaller individual contributions. Dittmar, a political science professor and scholar, also noted in the report that women may need to raise more money to achieve comparable success to male candidates.
Jean Sinzdak, associate director at the Center for American Women and Politics, said the potential impact of COVID-19 on women candidates, including mothers, is “the million-dollar question” during a cycle in which a record number of Democratic and Republican women have filed to run for both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate.
“In a normal year, it’s hard for women with children, particularly younger children, to run for office,” she said. “… It’s harder logistically. It’s a challenge. Women still overwhelmingly bear the burden for child care.”
Other data shows that in mid-March and early April, when the pandemic initially hit, political fundraising for the presidential race and congressional seats dropped off, according to an OpenSecrets analysis of campaign contributions, that includes the campaigns of men. Different fundraising filing deadlines for state-level races means more comprehensive data is not yet available.
Sinzdak said female candidates who are newcomers often excel with in-person campaigning, which helps bring in money. With that traditional practice taking a backseat, first-time female candidates could be at a disadvantage when all the numbers come in. This could hurt efforts to change the lopsided representation of men in elected office — women represent just 23.7 percent of members in Congress, and 29 percent in statehouses.
“Incumbents always have an advantage,” Sinzdak said. “It may work even more to their advantage in this moment, because they didn’t have to build the recognition that a challenger might have to build.”
Reed, herself a first-time candidate, lost her primary in June. She said the virus changed the trajectory of her campaign.
“Absolutely,” Reed said on whether the coronavirus impacted her candidacy. “What was I going to do? Abandon my kid?”
Policy implications and future activism
Research has shown that, when they’re elected, mothers push legislation that helps children and families. So if COVID-19 sidelines mothers from running for office in the future, they would miss out on a critical time to shape legislation.
In 2018, researchers Julia Hellwege, from the University of South Dakota, and Lisa Bryant, from California State University, Fresno, examined the introduction of bills in Congress over a 40-year period and concluded that congressional mothers with children under 18 are more likely to draft legislation that addresses issues that impact children and families, such as family medical leave, health insurance and school, compared to women with adult children and women without children.
Wasserman Schultz, who was elected to Congress in 2004 when her three children were young, said the growing number of elected mothers is critical to what policy moves forward. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, a mother of five adult children and nine grandchildren as of 2019, has helped advance COVID-19 relief legislation that includes financial help for child care centers.
“It makes it much more likely that that type of priority is added to the top of the legislative agenda,” said Wasserman Schultz. “You know, our voices can influence … in ways that you didn’t see 30 years ago in Congress when there were hardly any mothers with young children.”
And it’s possible that the renewed policy questions over issues like child care, school accessibility and racial inequities could actually lead to a new generation of mothers in office.
“All this makes women think about, like … ‘How come the school board or my city or the statehouse isn’t doing more? If I were there I would do more,’” said Hellwege, who also serves on her local city council and often breastfeeds her baby during the group’s Zoom meetings. “This can also be a motivating factor.”
“We need moms now more than ever,” added Grechen Shirley. “I’ve been screaming forever that child care is an economic issue, and I feel like this is the first time that people are finally starting to realize that.”
Scott, the Georgetown assistant professor, said she would not be surprised if more mothers run for local school boards, a space that has always been a path to higher office.
“A mother running for the school board now, and pushing these issues now, and how things aren’t good for her kids right now, might mean that a couple years down the road somebody’s going to push her to run for the statehouse, or push her to run for Congress,” she said. “Starting at some of the local offices that do involve their kids might be the impetus to see a whole group of women be part of the pipeline to move up.”
Parry, the professor in Arkansas, said women candidates will undoubtedly lean on their support networks in the months ahead, and that will be critical. She also believes people will need to donate more money to women candidates, whether or not they’ve asked for the financial support, to increase those candidates’ chances for success in November.
“If you have money, send it to the woman candidate of your choice, because it’s going to matter now more than ever,” she said.
Whitney Armstrong, an independent in Dayton, Ohio, applied for a candidate training program in the spring after COVID-19 hit. The 29-year-old mother of a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old plans to run for local office in 2021.
Armstrong, whose husband was deployed overseas around the time she formally applied for the training, felt moved to forge ahead as she tried to explain emerging problems from the virus to her son.
“He asked me, ‘Well, mommy, why can’t you go save the world?’” she said. “And that question is something that I feel like moms hear all the time, because they are heroes to their children … and it really made me think, ‘Well, why can’t I?’”
Beck, the Texas candidate, is now in full campaign mode. She plans to stay that way, even as her children’s school district announced recently that online learning will remain until at least September. She turned her home isolation into a viral TikTok featuring several female candidates, said it’s been liberating to peel away the facade of a female candidate.
“There’s this pressure for women candidates, mothers specifically, to be successful in your professional life and your personal life. To be that perfect mom. One thing that COVID has done is invited the voters into our homes in a way that they would not have experienced us before,” she said. “My hope is that that perfection, that need for perfection, is whittled away.”