Families in America have evolved since the 1960s, when two parent households were the norm, most adults were married, and less than a quarter of married women with children worked outside the home. Despite sweeping societal changes, traditional gender roles remain powerful, influencing what voters perceive to be acceptable and appropriate behavior for men and women. As more women run for office and are elected, voters question how women can serve constituents and take care of family responsibilities at the same time. Women candidates wonder whether they should talk about their families and personal lives and how to do so without alienating voters. Fortunately, there are clear ways to navigate the terrain of talking about family life. Voters recognize a double standard for moms, but actively and consciously participate in it. They express anxiety about a woman’s job in office taking a backseat to her role at home and wonder who is taking care of the children, especially if they are young. If a candidate doesn’t have children, voters worry that she may not be able to truly understand the concerns of families.
So how do women candidates reconcile these facts with the reality of their own lives?
Women have the opportunity to be 360-degree candidates, using all of their expertise, background, and personal experiences to connect with voters. Managing a family— whether that includes a partner, children, parents, siblings, or any combination thereof—is certainly a facet of that full-life experience.
It is important for women candidates, no matter what their family situation is, to talk to voters about their personal lives. When questions arise about a woman’s ability to manage personal and professional responsibilities, she must respond. If voters’ doubts and concerns go unaddressed, it negatively impacts the candidate’s perceived likeability and effectiveness, both of which are essential to electability for women.
Women can successfully navigate these complexities by:
- Addressing questions about their family lives directly and confidently;
- Showing how their experiences contribute to their work on behalf of voters; and
- Getting back to the issues that matter to their constituents.
According to interviews with candidates, their staff, media consultants, and other political players, embracing one’s family as part of the campaign can reveal a positive and warm dimension to a serious candidate. It is also a chance to share the role family has played in motivating a candidate to pursue public office.
You can be tough and policy-minded and still talk to people about your kids.