Newswise — A mother leans over a conference table that dominates a second-story bedroom, now converted into a 2018 congressional campaign headquarters in her home. District maps cover the walls, boxes of flyers are stacked in the corners and papers lie scattered across the table. Each signal the intensity of the campaign by this first-time candidate. Down the hall, her husband dresses the couple’s toddlers. A rousing rendition of “Old McDonald” wafts into the campaign office, where plans are being made for the next meeting, conference call and key decision. Just another day for a “mom-candidate” on the 2018 congressional campaign trail.

Dr. Melissa K. Miller, associate professor of political science at Bowling Green State University, is a keen observer of national political campaigns and well aware that women candidates’ fundraising and win-rates now mirror those of men, once incumbency and party are controlled. Yet Miller has long suspected that mothers of young children are held to different standards. Unfortunately, there is little scholarship on this issue, perhaps because, historically, mothers of young children are far less likely to run. Fortunately, the 2018 campaign trail featured a record number of women’s candidacies, including mothers of young children. Miller will present “Moms on the Run: Breakthroughs and Barriers in the 2018 Election” April 24 at BGSU.

Miller’s path-breaking research was sparked in 2017 at an academic conference where she heard a congressional candidate lament that not a day went by on the campaign trail when she was not asked about being a mother of young children by voters concerned about her electability. The anecdote prompted Miller to begin systematically looking at mothers running for U.S. House of Representatives in 2018. She set out to discern how mothers of young children were both received by voters and characterized by their campaigns. 

During the pilot stage of the project, Miller embedded in the congressional campaign of a “mom-candidate” for three days on the West Coast. There she observed the candidate and her staff working in the aforementioned converted bedroom, while her husband and part-time nanny took charge of their three young children. Miller subsequently conducted in-depth interviews with a dozen mom-candidates of various backgrounds: Democrats and Republicans, married and single moms, white and women of color, women running in open races and those challenging incumbents, and women from all regions of the country. She also sifted through their advertising, websites and media coverage – all to discern how motherhood figured in their campaigns.

Miller’s research details the many ways in which motherhood features in the campaigns of mothers of young children. She reports on their firsthand experiences juggling campaigning, kids, domestic chores and often, paid work. In some cases, women faced frequent questions about who would care for their children if they got elected. Sometimes well-meaning, sometimes curious, and sometimes thinly veiled, such questions were pronounced for some candidates but absent for others. Age, rather than party, seemed to distinguish the questioners. 

Mom-candidates used a variety of strategies to respond to such questions, ranging from detailed explanations of familial networks to a curt retort offered to a reporter, “Well, I’ll just ask [the incumbent I’m challenging] how he does it.... He’s got kids the same as age [as mine].”

Notably, most mom-candidates considered their motherhood an asset on the trail. Almost without exception, the women interviewed by Miller reported that featuring their children on the campaign trail and in campaign materials made them “more relatable to voters.” Relatability was considered a key benefit of motherhood by virtually all of Miller’s interviewees. 

Many mom-candidates pointed out that campaigning is largely conducted during “Mommy Time,” that is, on evenings and weekends when voters are off work but day care centers and schools are closed. This was particularly challenging for mothers of very young children without extended family nearby. Of necessity, they took their children with them on the campaign trail. Mothers of older, school-age children likewise involved their children on the campaign trail, but often found that their children bored quickly and preferred to stay home. Regardless, the mom-candidates Miller interviewed universally reported that their children were well received on the trail. One even remarked that when she canvassed at homes of the opposing party, “those instances of people just being extremely rude didn’t happen on the days that I had my children with me.” 

Miller also delved into the roles played by spouses and learned about a range of spousal involvement in both the campaign and the domestic spheres. Some were completely immersed in both the campaign and parenting, while others played an overall minimal role. One commonality was striking, however. Virtually all mom-candidates reported that housework suffered. In the words of one, “Our house looked like a torpedo hit it.” 

Miller’s groundbreaking research brings critical attention to the unique experiences of mothers of young children on the campaign trail in 2018. Many of them foregrounded their motherhood in ways rarely seen before. But Miller’s research also reveals the ongoing presence of gender-based stereotypes in some quarters, evidenced by personal questions about child-rearing and future plans if elected. Designed to educate both scholars and the public, “Moms on the Run” offers a trove of experiences from a diverse mix of mom-candidates. Their stories will inform the candidacies of future mothers for years to come.

Miller’s lecture is part of the BGSU Institute for the Study of Culture and Society (ICS) Faculty Fellowship program. ICS is an organization that helps BGSU professors take a full semester away from teaching and service obligations to research an interdisciplinary topic and present their findings to the public. Fellows’ research must be of significant national or international importance with wide relevance. Prior fellows have studied the First Amendment rights of Ohio K-12 students, the modern representation of female athletes and other interdisciplinary topics. 

The institute is an interdisciplinary, public humanities center founded in 1996. ICS helps faculty to develop, communicate and disseminate their scholarly and creative work to constituencies across campus and throughout the region. With its public events and outreach efforts, ICS brings issues of vital national and global importance to northwest Ohio, and, in turn, brings community knowledge back into the university.