Credit: The Texas Tribune on Flickr, under Creative Commons
(WOMENSENEWS)–Few political candidates run campaigns on their achievements as mothers, and fewer still as single mothers. But that is what Texas Democrat Wendy Davis is doing, and it is one reason–the biggest one, perhaps–why I’m hoping she prevails in today’s gubernatorial primary.
Sure, I care about her policy positions. She won national renown, of course, for standing up–literally, for 11 hours straight during a filibuster last June–to protect women’s right to abortion. And last year, she supported expanding Medicaid in a state where 19 percent of women are poor and 38 percent of single parents are below the poverty line, as Sharon Johnson reported in a previous story for Women’s eNews.
But as someone outside the state, and part of her national and non-voting audience, I’m most interested in her decision to highlight her past as a teenage single mother who managed to lift herself out of poverty while raising two daughters.
“The story of my life is also the story of millions of single mothers who feel alone in the world, millions of young dreamers searching for their chance to become something more than what they were born into, millions of families all across Texas who would sacrifice everything to give their children a better future,” she writes on her campaign website. “Throughout this campaign, I’ve shared this story–not because it’s unique, but because it isn’t.”
Davis is right; her story is not unique. Millions of single mothers in the United States are, as she notes, successfully balancing work and family responsibilities.
But it is unusual in the male-dominated world of politics.
Sons Benefit from Humblebrag
To be sure, politicians have traded on the single-mom story before. But it seems to me that more often than not, it’s the child–or rather, the son–who benefits from this kind of humblebrag.
Take Bill Clinton and Barack Obama for example. They ran successful pull-yourself-up-from-your-bootstraps campaigns as the sons of hardworking single mothers.
And they’re not the first sons of single moms to win the keys to the White House. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, in fact, were raised by their mothers after losing their fathers during childhood, according to Single Parent Magazine.
We’ve heard about the trials faced by single moms from their candidate-kids. I want to hear the single-mom story from the moms themselves. We need more moms in political power because I’m pretty confident they’ll be more sensitive to issues of particular concern to moms than the current bunch of (mostly male) politicians.
Remember, we live in one of a handful of countries on earth that lacks paid family leave, and the United States ranked a disappointing 30th in Save the Children’s 2013 ranking of the world’s most mom-friendly countries.
Female candidates, however, tend to avoid playing up their roles as mothers on the campaign trail–and understandably so.
Despite all the hard work that goes in to the job, mothering still does not garner respect on the political resume, despite the fact that mothers earn a ground-up grasp of a wide range of policy issues like early childhood education, health care coverage and workplace reform.
Vulnerable to Attack
When female candidates do draw attention to their experience as mothers, they are vulnerable to attack from both sides. We learned that once again with Davis, who was smeared for leaving her daughters in Texas so she could attend Harvard Law School in Massachusetts.
Ostensibly, the grounds for the attack were the ways Davis’ campaign story did not square with the facts. Her ex-husband’s contribution to the cause–in terms of helping her financially and also with child care–were, shall we say, minimized, according to news reports.
But the way the story took off smacked of more than insufficient fact-checking in the tall-tale state of Texas. To my ear, the momentum had a lot to do with ongoing ambivalence about a woman who dares to have kids and a kick-ass career. If she had stayed put and opted against Harvard Law, she may not have become the powerful woman she is today.
It’s time to flip the script. Mothers–and single mothers in particular–should be free to highlight, rather than hide, their achievements at home and in the workplace.
Davis is doing that, and I applaud her for it.
“Mine is a story about a teenage single mother who struggled to keep her young family afloat,” she writes on her website. “It’s a story about a young woman who was given a precious opportunity to work her way up in the world. It’s a story about resiliency, and sacrifice and perseverance.”
I’m “deeply proud of the life I’ve built and the daughters I’ve raised,” she also says.
I’m proud of her too, and of all of the nation’s moms, and especially the single ones, who do the challenging, unpaid and underappreciated work of birthing and raising children.
If Davis wins today, it will be a victory for politically minded moms who may have an easier time running for office in the future–and for all the families who would benefit if they did.
Allison Stevens is a writer in the Washington, D.C., area.
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