Fatherhood, Motherhood, and Political Viability

By Meredith Conroy

Paul Ryan and his family, in an instagram post.

The latest twist in the tale of the House Speaker vacancy has seen Paul Ryan, the resentful favorite, use his general appeal to ask for four concessions, one of which is that he would take on fewer fundraising duties than past Speakers, in order to maintain the time he now spends with his young children.

When I heard this I was struck by how unapologetic he was in his demands, and for this one demand in particular. Furthermore, I was struck by the praise he was receiving for this particular demand—“how refreshing for a man to put his family before work” etc. Via her Facebook profile, which boasts 1.7 million followers, Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In, gave Ryan the “Lean In Award of the day” writing, “We need work to work for parents – and having leaders who weigh responsibilities as fathers as much as their responsibilities to their jobs shows all of us what is possible.” Although, not everyone agreed that he should be recognized; plenty of Sandberg’s followers were quick to point out Ryan’s hypocrisy—as a member of congress, Ryan has not supported paid family leave, or other measures that would give similar courtesy to working parents. [Sidenote: there was of course the sarcastic twitter response #PaulRyanConditions, which mocked the general premise of demands, but not the demands in particular.]

While the rationale for his demands is varied—certainly he wants to ensure that taking on the Speaker role will not preclude a future presidential run—the familial rationale is one that a similarly situated woman would never make, and is a not-so-friendly reminder that for a woman in politics, her family can be a liability, while for men, it is an asset.

In particular, recall this interview with Nancy Pelosi, featured in the outstanding documentary, Miss Representation, in which she reminisces about her first run for public office:


While Pelosi’s first run for public office was in the mid-90s, women who are mothers who run for office, today, are still more likely than their male counterparts to have their families, and role as mothers and wives, featured in media coverage (Banwart, Bystrom, and Robetson 2003; Conroy et al. 2015; Heldman, Carroll and Olsen 2005; Kahn 1994, 1996).

Even if media coverage that focuses on a woman’s family and her role as a mother is not judgmental, it is problematic. When a woman’s coverage is focused on her familial role as a mother, it takes away from coverage that might otherwise be focused on her issue positions, which would more clearly establish her as a viable, experienced, political candidate, instead of more exclusively a mother. This is not to say that motherhood doesn’t contribute to a woman’s leadership capacity—I would argue it enhances it—yet until the lingering stigma that a working mom is a neglectful mom is eradicated, describing women with political ambitions primarily in terms of their motherhood does not give her campaign an edge.

To be frank, media coverage that is focused on family and parental obligations can be more damaging for women than for men. This is because the persistent expectation in American society is largely that women are more responsible for raising children than men. This expectation is a major influence on whether a woman will even consider running for office. For example, Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox (2010) uncover a shockingly wide gender gap in the role of parenthood on the decision to run for political office—sixty-five percent of women believe that having children makes it more difficult to run for public office, whereas only 3 percent of men agreed.

Unfortunately, women who are mothers may be right to exercise caution when deciding to run for office. Using an experiment, Brittany L. Stalsburg (2010) manipulated otherwise identical candidates’ parental statuses and found respondents to indicate that men with young children are more politically viable than women with young children. As Stalsburg notes,

This line of research suggests that gender role expectations and family obligations are more salient for political women than for political men. Women are constrained by family responsibilities and must negotiate their private lives in ways that men do not (2010, 378).

As such, men are more likely to feature their families when campaigning than female candidates (Bystrom et al. 2004), to overcome the presumption that they are primarily wives and mothers, less capable of politicking.

And it is in this environment that we find Paul Ryan able to unapologetically demand that if he accepts the House Speaker position he be able to travel less, to be a present father. Hopefully, our future is one where women can make the same demands, without being perceived as politically weak, or less viable.

Works Cited

Banwart, Mary Christine, Dianne G. Bystrom, and Terry Robertson. “From the Primary to the General Election: A Comparative Analysis of Candidate Media Coverage in Mixed-Gender 2000 Races for Governor and U.S. Senate.” American Behavioral Scientist 46, no. 5 (2003): 658–

Bystrom, Dianne G., Mary C. Banwart, Lynda Lee Kaid, and Terry A. Robertson. Gender and Candidate Communication: VideoStyle. WebStyle. NewsStyle. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Conroy, Meredith, Sarah Oliver, Ian Breckenridge-Jackson, and Caroline Heldman. “From Ferraro to Palin: Sexism in Media Coverage of Vice Presidential Candidates,” Politics, Groups, and Identities, 2015. DOI: 10.1080/21565503.2015.1050412.

Heldman, Caroline, Susan J. Carroll, and Stephanie Olson. “‘She Brought Only a Skirt’: Print Media Coverage of Elizabeth Dole’s Bid for the Republican Presidential Nomination.” Political Communication 22, no. 3 (2005): 315–35.

Kahn, Kim Fridkin. “Does Gender Make a Difference? An Experimental Examination of Sex Stereotypes and Press Patterns in Statewide Campaigns.” American Journal of Political Science 38, no. 1 (1994): 162−95.

Kahn, Kim Fridkin. The Political Consequences of Being a Woman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

Lawless, Jennifer L., and Richard L. Fox. It Still Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don’t Run for Office. Revised Edition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Stalsburg, Brittany L. “Voting for Mom: The Political Consequences of Being a Parent for Male and Female Candidates.” Politics and Gender 6 (2010): 373−404.

Meredith Conroy is an assistant professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino. Her book, Masculinity, Media, and the American Presidency, is now available from Palgrave Macmillan. To order a copy at a discounted rate, visit www.palgrave.com, and enter discount code PM15THIRTY.

2 thoughts on “Fatherhood, Motherhood, and Political Viability

  1. Pingback: Lincoln Chafee and Dynastic Politics – Bloomberg View | Politics Area

  2. Pingback: Lincoln Chafee and Dynastic Politics – Bloomberg View

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