Want women to run for Congress? We need someone to watch our kids first.
by Liuba Grechen Shirley, The Washington Post | April 9, 2018
I use campaign funds to pay my campaign manager. But what about my babysitter?
Along with hundreds of women across the country, I threw my hat in the ring and decided to run for office a few months ago. Just a year ago, I was consulting for nonprofit organizations from home while raising a newborn and a toddler; running for Congress seemed like an impossible task. But after spending a year hearing my representative, Pete King, defend President Trump; watching King vote to take away health care from nearly 74,000 people in our district; and setting up town halls that King refused to attend, I started to think seriously about running. When I finally met with King and he told me he thought town halls “diminished democracy,” I knew I had to run.
At the start, I was told I had to raise $100,000 in the first quarter to be taken seriously as a candidate. Daunted, but undeterred, I wrote a list of every person I’ve ever known and starting dialing. Three days a week, I would drop my daughter off at nursery school, put my one-year old son in his stroller, and walk around our neighborhood making calls to donors. I spent my afternoons nursing my son, while my daughter covered my head in hair clips, with my phone attached to my ear.
My mother was able to watch my babies every day after 3:30 p.m., which allows me to head out the door, meet constituents and attend community meetings. For two months, I built forts, changed diapers and made lunch while talking to donors, and I managed to raise $126,114 in our first quarter. But this schedule was unsustainable — and I no longer wondered why more mothers with young children weren’t running for Congress.
Women hold less than 20 percent of the seats in Congress, and even fewer are mothers with young children. It’s not hard to see why. Every new mom considering a run for office has thought about Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who is pregnant and struggling with the question of how to breast-feed since her baby won’t be allowed on the Senate floor. We’ve seen Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) holding her son’s hand from outside the Senate chambers and leaning her head in to cast a vote. The endless obstacles don’t just begin once elected. In a survey of potential female candidates, the Brookings Institution found women are 15 times more likely than men to be responsible for the majority of child care.
Without child care, running for Congress while caring for young children is close to impossible. If we want more mothers with young children and working Americans to run for office — and win — then we need to remove the institutional barriers that are holding us back. And the first barrier is paying for child care.
Since 1975, the Federal Election Commission has issued rulings on the right way to spend campaign funds. In 1996, the FEC allowed Rep. Jim McCrerey (R-La.) to use campaign funds for travel for his wife so she could accompany him on a campaign trip and care for their children. In 2008, congressional candidate Todd Goldup asked the commission to approve use of campaign funds to pay for day care for his children. The FEC agreed with his request, but because there were not enough sitting commissioners at the time, their approval was not considered an official ruling. No female candidate has asked the FEC for a ruling to use campaign funds for child care — until I filed a request last week. If the FEC approves my request, this will set a new precedent, allowing parents to use campaign funds for child care in federal elections across the country. Men with young children have long been able to run for office, and in great numbers; this ruling could afford the same opportunity for mothers.
We hired a part-time babysitter to help a few hours each day while I campaign, and she is just as integral to our team as my campaign manager. I love having my children with me, but it’s simply impossible to do the work necessary to run for Congress and be a full-time caregiver at the same time. Running for Congress means working full time for more than a year for no salary, and most families cannot afford to juggle child care, school loans, medical bills, a mortgage and property taxes on one salary — which is perhaps why more than half of our current congressional representatives are millionaires.
Having young children shouldn’t disqualify me, or any parent, from running for office, and neither should not being able to afford child care without an income. Besides, mothers with young children are made for the chaos of Washington. We are multitasking experts: We can nurse, change a diaper, broker sibling peace and balance a budget — all within an afternoon. It’s time to take down the institutional barriers blocking mothers from running for office. And if I’m going to win, then I need a babysitter.