Speaking with Authority (2001)

Family Matters

Who Comes First? Your Family or the Public

“I wondered if she was married, and I felt guilty that it was one of my qualifications.”
– Focus Group Participant

Voters Assume Candidates’ Families Are Like Their Own

Voters are both curious and make assumptions about a woman candidate and her family. When considering candidates for governor, focus group participants wondered: Is the candidate a wife? A mother? Are her children grown, or still in school?

Voters want to connect with candidates in a personal way. Does this person have life experiences like mine? Does she understand the issues that are most important to me? Voters look to see how a candidate connects with her family – parent, sibling, spouse or child – for reassurance that she understands voters’ lives.

Moreover, while women candidates have a natural advantage when voters are looking for compassion, this advantage is muted when a candidate is childless or unmarried. Some voters expressed concern that a candidate who has never been married is “too ambitious.” Women, particularly, were interested in whether a candidate was married and/or was a parent when considering whether to support her.

“If she became governor and her kid got run over by a car and was in a wheelchair, she would be done.”
– Focus Group Participant

Voter concerns that a non-married, non-parent woman candidate is too ambitious may be off-set by crafting a biography that highlights community service, core values and formative relationships with parents or extended family.

While most voters say a candidate’s marital status is irrelevant, voters who do care about a candidate’s marital status prefer married candidates to single candidates. For male candidates, voters prefer a married man to an unmarried man by 32 percentage points. Voters prefer a married female candidate to one who is single by 25 percentage points.

Voters also worried that a woman candidate with small children could be hindered by torn loyalties, particularly in the case of a family emergency. Voters assume a male candidate has someone else to care for his family, and that a female candidate is the primary caregiver in her family. Women candidates with children should be open about childcare arrangements and time set aside for family.

Your Kids Vs. Their Kids

When it comes to children, more than one-fifth of voters prefer candidates who are parents. Voters are most comfortable with a man who has teenage kids, while they prefer a woman running for governor to have adult children.

The focus groups illuminated voters’ marital and family preferences for candidates. Participants said that having a spouse and children sends a strong message about the candidate’s values, personality and strength. When both male and female voters imagine a woman with children as the executive leader of their state, they also express some anxieties. How will she balance the needs of her family with the responsibilities she has at work? If she really had to choose between managing a family emergency and a statewide crisis, would she choose her state? Moreover, should she choose her state?

One of the biggest challenges women face in running for governor is honoring their family responsibilities and being clear about the ways in which family is – or is not – relevant to their gubernatorial aspirations.

Show Them You Value Families – Yours and Theirs

Women with children who are considering running for office should not be discouraged. Women who have successfully earned the keys to the governor’s office have had a wide range of family profiles. Former Governor Christine Todd Whitman (D-N.J.) and Governor Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) had school-aged children during their campaigns, while Governor Jane Dee Hull’s (R-Ariz.) son was an adult who worked as her campaign manager. When Democrat Ann Richards claimed the governorship of Texas, she was divorced with grown children. Former Governor Barbara Roberts (D-Ore.) was married with grown children at the time of her election.

For Candidates

  1. Make a conscious decision about the role your family will play in your political life. Are they participating in a way that is comfortable, authentic, respectful and helpful? Are they visibly supportive?
  2. Absent spouse or children, show your respect for family by accentuating another aspect of your relationship to family – as an aunt, a daughter, a sister, a grandparent. Many candidates have used one of these relationships in direct mail and TV commercials to answer voter concerns.
  3. Support families by recognizing their diverse needs. Working on issues such as flextime, education or pension security demonstrates that you understand the challenges of modern family life and will do something about them.
  4. Have a life. While politicians who aspire to be governor necessarily devote a disproportionate amount of time to do the work of elected office and politics, it is the human dimension that ultimately connects with voters. Whether it’s biking, reading or spending time with your family, it gives you a dimension people can relate to.