The median woman in Western democracies was for many years a married heterosexual mother. As a result, citizens tended to use family responsibility as a prism for evaluating political participation. Female candidates knocking on doors at dinnertime met such questions as, “What are you doing here at this hour? Who’s making dinner for your husband? Did you leave the kids home alone?” Voters thus assumed mothers could be committed to their families or to politics but not both.
The mirror image of this stereotype emerged in an exchange between US Senator Barbara Boxer and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Questioned by legislators in 2007 about plans to send more American troops to Iraq, Rice rejected Boxer’s suggestion that she was unable to understand the sacrifices made by soldiers and their families because she was not a mom.
Mothers and Others, edited by political scientists Melanee Thomas and Amanda Bittner, underlines the varied impact of parenthood on political activity. We learn that having children makes minimal difference in the general population and, in some instances, serves to elevate women’s involvement. For example, mothers with children aged five to 12 years old are more active as civic volunteers than other women.
By contrast, being a parent is significant to political careers. Female parliamentarians in Canada and elsewhere are more likely to be childless or to have older and fewer children than males. Even in a geographically small place such as the UK, women MPs find demands from their constituencies, parties and the House of Commons make it hard to see their families in the evenings or on weekends. Rosie Campbell and Sarah Childs report in their chapter that rather than discussing how to alter political institutions to create a better work/life balance, commentators in Britain portray female legislators as less committed to public life than their male counterparts. Women parliamentarians thus end up condemned as defective political representatives.
The volume illustrates clear differences among political women, particularly between feminists and their critics. Ronnee Schreiber shows how anti-equality campaigners in the US present themselves as mothers and political professionals whose mission is to reduce the size of government and uphold social tradition. They are rugged individualists who believe, in the words of leading activist Phyllis Schlafly, “The homemaker isn’t chained to the stove. She can do all sorts of things.”
Consistent with the experiences of contemporary women premiers in Alberta and Ontario, data in this book demonstrate threats of violence and acts of violence constitute serious problems for female politicians. Security problems extend to their families as well. To wit, women MPs in Canada avoid posting the names or photographs of their children because of concerns about safety. Mothers and Others is an important and pioneering volume. It forces readers to reconsider how to reform not just democratic institutions but also how we think about women in politics. The book deserves wide public attention.
—Sylvia Bashevkin is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto.