During Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings this week, Republican senators, one after another, marveled at a role that doesn’t appear on her résumé: mother of seven. They described her mothering as “tireless” and “remarkable,” clear evidence that she was a “superstar.” Senator Josh Hawley asked her for parenting advice.
Judge Barrett has embraced the image. News cameras were there to watch her load her large family into her car before her official nomination. “While I am a judge, I’m better known back home as a room parent, car-pool driver and birthday party planner,” she said the day she was nominated.
One of her sharpest questioners, Senator Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, has, in other settings, repeatedly emphasized her role as stepmother, which she took on when she married six years ago. She’s called Momala, she has told voters, and she cooks the Sunday night family dinners.
For American women in public office, being a mother has become a powerful but tricky credential. A woman who is professionally successful and ambitious is often seen as threatening or off-putting, researchers have found in multiple surveys of voters, but being a mother tempers that. It makes women seem warm and relatable — and suggests they can relate to voters’ lives, too.
Yet Americans are also ambivalent about mothers who work, forcing women to negotiate an obstacle course of perceptions and expectations.
Little of this is required of men. Compare, for example, the confirmation hearings in 1986 of Justice Antonin Scalia, a mentor of Judge Barrett. Senators welcomed his children to the hearings and offered them breaks, but spent little, if any, time connecting his fatherhood to his professional life. Justice Brett Kavanaugh spoke of coaching his daughters’ basketball teams, but there was little focus on his family life as a qualification.
“It’s that tightrope that women have to walk that men don’t,” said Christine Matthews, a Republican pollster at Bellwether Research and Consulting, who focuses on female voters and has been critical of President Trump. “If you’re a mom of young kids, how are you managing that? If you’re a career woman with no kids, do you just not understand my life? You have to address that before you can move on.”
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For Judge Barrett, the focus on her motherhood seemed, on one level, to stem from awe that a woman could have such a successful career while parenting such a large brood. “How do you and your husband manage two full-time professional careers and, at the same time, take care of your large family?” Senator John Cornyn of Texas said.
This is a question female public figures commonly face but male ones rarely do, according to research by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. Voters will consistently express concern about how a candidate with young children can handle both her family and professional roles, the foundation’s research suggests, even when they know that’s a standard they do not apply to men.
The implication is that caregiving is the responsibility of women, and that a woman with child care responsibilities may not have the time or capacity to handle matters of state, researchers said.
Judge Barrett and Ms. Harris are seeking high-profile public jobs in a political climate where female voters might prove decisive in the presidential election. As a result, both parties are making special efforts in every arena to court women, particularly suburban women. President Trump, who is far behind Joseph R. Biden Jr. in support among female voters, made a direct appeal to them at a rally in Pennsylvania this week. “Suburban women, would you please like me?” he said. “I saved your damn neighborhood, OK?”
In this atmosphere, motherhood becomes an important strategic tool. It helps female candidates appeal to specific voters, telling them that they know, firsthand, what life is like for American families, analysts said.
“The whole idea is really about turning the home into a political space, and then asking, ‘What would a mother be concerned about?’” said Seyward Darby, author of “Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism.” “She would be concerned about the safety of her children. She would be concerned about the safety of her communities.”
In the confirmation hearings, Republicans are using motherhood to fend off portrayals of Judge Barrett as an inflexible conservative. Responding to Democrats who fear that confirming her could threaten the Affordable Care Act, for example, Senator Charles E. Grassley suggested that her experience taking children to the pediatrician would inform her legal views: “As a mother of seven, Judge Barrett clearly understands the importance of health care.”
Emphasizing a woman’s maternal side also makes any potential critique of her seem distasteful.
“The Republican members of the judiciary are introducing her as a legal titan who drives a minivan,” Ms. Matthews said. “They are in some ways daring the Democrats to step all over a minivan mom.”
Motherhood tends to take the edge off ambition and forcefulness, traits that, when seen in a woman, can carry negative connotations. Ms. Harris’s Sunday dinners and Converse sneakers may show she’s more than a former prosecutor, analysts said.
“Women who present themselves as having masculine traits like being a leader need to balance them out with what’s seen as feminine expertise,” said Jill Greenlee, author of “The Political Consequences of Motherhood” and a political scientist at Brandeis. “Kamala Harris’s law-and-order background is more masculine, so the motherhood part makes it strategic, to see herself as warm to balance it out.”
This expectation that female politicians should also be mothers can be traced back to the U.S. women’s suffrage movement.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, those who opposed women’s right to vote suggested that politics was antithetical to a woman’s primary duty of raising children and that letting women enter the political sphere would undermine traditional gender roles.
In the 1910s, the suffragists argued that, in fact, motherhood and being politically active were not mutually exclusive — being a mother would make women better voters because they would be driven selflessly by the interests of their family, and voting would make them better mothers by enabling them to support issues they cared about.
But characterizations of career-minded women as aberrations from traditional gender norms have long animated conservatives and anti-feminists, researchers said.
It was one of the main arguments undergirding the campaign, led by in the 1970s, to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have enshrined equality “on account of sex” into the constitution. The amendment, Mrs. Schlafly’s “Stop ERA” campaign argued, would steer women dangerously far from their traditional roles in the home.
The modern-day incarnation of political motherhood began in 1980, according to research, with the emergence of a large gender gap in voting. Politicians began courting mothers, particularly white suburban ones, the so-called soccer moms of the 1990s and a group that remains a key to this year’s election.
Until recently, while many men began their political careers in their 20s, women often waited until they had raised families. Nancy Pelosi had five children, and first ran for office in 1987 at age 47, when they were grown.
The midterm elections in 2018 marked a clear change. Many female candidates made motherhood a central part of their campaigns, showing themselves pregnant or breastfeeding and making the case that being a mother made them uniquely qualified. Hillary Clinton’s political evolution tells the story. After downplaying her domestic life for years, she made her role as mother and grandmother central to her 2016 campaign.
“Twenty years ago, women were urged not to present themselves as a complex human being,” said Amanda Hunter, research and communications director at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. Ms. Harris, she said, is representative of a new kind of candidate. “She’s showing different parts of her life rather than focusing on her résumé, and that’s an overall shift.”
Perhaps the focus on the modern-day version of political motherhood could fundamentally remake the image of a leader.
“We think of leadership as masculine norms, but good leadership is about being compassionate and providing social good,” Professor Greenlee said. “Maybe if women play to the stereotypes, they are also just presenting themselves authentically, and trying to change the notion of what a political leader should be and what governance should look like and policy issues should be.”