The Political Consequences of Motherhood

The Political Consequences of Motherhood

by Jill Greenlee


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From civically and politically engaged women linking their identity as “mothers” to their fight for prohibition, public sanitation, and protective labor laws to the general call to arms of “mama grizzlies” issued by Sarah Palin in 2010, American political activists and candidates have used motherhood to rally women’s interest, support, and participation throughout American history. Politicized motherhood persists, and motherhood continues to inspire women’s participation and direct their concerns.

In The Political Consequences of Motherhood, Jill S. Greenlee investigates the complex relationship between motherhood and women’s political attitudes. Combining a historical overview of the ways motherhood has been used for political purposes with recent political opinion surveys and individual-level analysis, she explains how and when motherhood shapes women’s thoughts and preferences. Greenlee argues that two mechanisms account for the durability of motherhood politics. First, women experience attitudinal shifts when they become mothers. Second, “mother” is a broad-based identity, widely shared and ideologically unconstrained, that lends itself to appeals across the political spectrum to build support for candidates and policy issues.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472119295
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 05/31/2014
Series: The CAWP Series in Gender and American Politics
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Jill S. Greenlee is Assistant Professor of Politics at Brandeis University.

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The Political Consequences of Motherhood

By Jill S. Greenlee

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2014 University of Michigan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-12020-8


Motherhood and Politics

Being a parent changes everything and changes nothing at the same time.


On May 14, 2010, a primarily female audience gathered in Washington, DC, to listen to former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, speak about the 2010 midterm elections. The group was the Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List), an organization devoted to electing pro-life women to public office. With several female pro-life Republican candidates running in high-profile races that year, the organization's members were excited about their prospects. Governor Palin, who was described by the SBA List president as the embodiment of the "modern personification of the authentic leadership modeled by early women's rights trailblazers like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton," electrified the audience with her enthusiastic assertion that female Republican candidates were going to win big (Good 2010). In that same speech, she also captured the national spotlight when she declared that a new political movement was afoot — a movement of moms.

The movement that Palin described was one of conservative women, whom she dubbed "mama grizzlies," rising up to take back America for their children. She warned political rivals not to mess with the mama bears: they will protect their young from "generational theft" no matter what. The audience cheered. Conservative commentators applauded. Palin's words gave life to a new, heated conversation about the construction of female political power in the American electorate. She inserted a new label for women into the American political lexicon that tied their political concerns directly to their role as mothers.

But Palin's mama label was not really new. It was simply a remodeled version of an old tradition of rooting female political power in motherhood. The use of maternal identity as a justification of female political concern in the United States has spanned from the early days of the republic to the present. From civically and politically engaged women branding themselves as mothers in the fight for prohibition, public sanitation, and protective labor laws to Palin's call to arms, politicized motherhood has a long lineage. Importantly, it has endured, despite drastic changes in women's rights and roles in the political world. Motherhood has been — and continues to be — a powerful organizing agent in American politics.

The puzzle guiding this book relates to the ostensible ubiquity of motherhood as a way of framing women's participation in political life. Despite the evolution of women's political power and social roles, motherhood remains a common way in which to appeal politically to women. Why is this? Is the emphasis on motherhood undertaken only by conservative political forces that seek to retain traditional gender roles and dynamics? Is the use of motherhood simply a holdover from a previous era when domestic roles were the most common roles available to women? Or, does motherhood remain persistent in American politics because it shapes women's political beliefs, priorities, and attitudes? Does motherhood differentiate women from one another? Does it cause individuals to shift and adjust their political views? Simply put, does motherhood affect women's political views, and if so — how?

This book investigates the import of motherhood for women's political engagement. A historical examination of how presidential candidates appealed to women reveals that motherhood has been a hook for reeling in female political support from 1920 to the present day. Though there has been variation in the degree to which political candidates employ the images and rhetoric of motherhood in their campaigns, the periods during which motherhood was most prominent were also the most dissimilar with regard to women's rights and roles. Maternally laden appeals to women were most prevalent in the 1920s and in the post–1980 era. In short, as women's roles diversified, there was a resurgence of appeals to women based on their role as mothers. This is because motherhood remains the most normative and valued role that women adopt, and it is a role that women, regardless of how they construct their lives, must negotiate. As a result, the Democratic and Republican parties have resurrected a focus on motherhood as a way drawing in female support.

Given the pervasive nature of motherhood appeals in presidential politics, it is important to take seriously the question of whether motherhood shapes women's political attitudes independent from other important forces. Public opinion data offered in chapters 4 and 5 shows that in fact it does, though not in ways that are often portrayed in political discourse. Voices of ordinary women, such as Lilly, who is quoted at the beginning of this book, are heard in chapters 6 and 7, offering insights into the political consequences of motherhood that are often not reflected in the rhetoric of candidates and cannot be captured in survey data. These women demonstrate that motherhood shapes women's political perspectives — though often in ways that remain undetected in the swirl of elections, polling, and the construction of catchy labels for female voters.

Using this diverse set of methodological approaches, I first establish the durability of motherhood in politics. I then identify two mechanisms that account for this resilience. First, motherhood explains attitudinal shifts that take place when women become mothers. As expected, according to social role theory, mothers take increasingly conservative stances on issues that are related to morally laden policies. These shifts are small but present even after taking into account that women enter into motherhood at different points in their lives. Second, "mother" is a broad-based identity, widely shared and ideologically unconstrained, that lends itself to appeals across the political spectrum. This creates an opportunity for political actors to activate that identity when building support for a candidate or policy issue. Women with very different political affiliations identify their role as mother as an organizing force for their political beliefs. This makes motherhood-based political appeals a sensible option for many political actors.


Through the lens of motherhood, this book examines a fundamental question of political socialization. Political socialization refers to the general process through which "the citizen acquires a complex of beliefs, feelings, and information," that help the individual understand the political world around her, and gradually over time produces the "political self" (Dawson and Prewitt 1969, 17). The path toward the political self is shaped by socializing agents such as family, friends, school, work, and historical events that structure an individual's communication environment throughout the course of her life. While important foundations are laid during childhood, political socialization continues in adulthood. Scholars have identified early adulthood, roughly between ages 18 and 25, as an important period for political development. During these impressionable years political attitudes begin to stabilize and patterns of political participation are set (see Stoker and Bass 2011 for a summary of this literature).

During the impressionable years and the years that follow, individuals experience important life events, many of which can have a transformative impact on an individual's environment, preferences, or resources. The acquisition of new roles and life experiences can create new relationships, social environments, interests, concerns, and responsibilities that can lead to changes in political views, contributing to the ongoing formation of the political self (Sapiro 1994; Sears and Levy 2003; Steckenrider and Cutler 1989). This means that the events that typically take place in adulthood have implications for political attitudes and behaviors. As prior scholars have written, "attitudes are not immune to experience" (Huckfeldt, Johnson, and Sprague 2005, 27).

Scholars have established that several widely experienced life events are consequential to individual's political attitudes. Going to college influences political attitudes and behavior as a result of contact with new groups and the exposure to new ideas through experiences inside and outside of the classroom (Newcomb et al. 1967; Alwin, Cohen, and Newcomb 1991; Hillygus 2005; Gurin, Nagda, and Lopez 2005). Marital transitions have implications for both political participation and political attitudes, as spouses fall into similar participatory patterns and converge attitudinally (Jennings and Stoker 1995; 2005). Military service can have an impact on political attitudes (Jennings and Marcus 1977), as can being at risk for involuntary conscription via the draft (Erikson and Stoker 2011). Participating in social movements has implications for an individual's political views and behavior that follow them much later into life (Jennings 1987; Duncan and Stewart 2000). Thus, while the impact of these events is often subtle, causing small changes rather than tectonic shifts, these experiences have a meaningful impact on individuals' political attitudes and introduce important points of difference into aggregate public opinion.

This analysis further affirms the import of life events in shaping individuals' political views. According to Sigel (1989), life events that contribute to the formation of one's identity bring with them the assumption of new social roles, and create opportunities to deal with the new demands of adulthood, thereby offering the possibility of attitude change. Parenthood certainly fits those criteria. And while expectations are strong that becoming and being a parent should be consequential to individuals' political view, the existing evidence is limited. This book establishes the rightful place of motherhood on the list of life events that are important for the ongoing formation and change of political attitudes in adulthood.


Becoming a parent has been described as a "traumatic developmental event in the life course" (Holmes and Rahe 1967). Scholars have found (and ample anecdotal evidence confirms) that new parents are rarely prepared for the realities of child rearing, and individuals face an array of challenges that are psychological, physical, financial, and social (LeMasters 1957). Researchers have established that parenthood affects the psychological well-being of individuals in both positive and negative ways (Nomaguchi and Milkie 2003; Bird 1997; McLanahan and Adams 1987; Barnett and Baruch 1985; Glenn and McLanhan 1982). Parenthood marks a shift in identity and self-concept (Cowan and Cowan 1992; Mercer 2004), and it can serve as the basis for feelings of generativity, or commitment to helping future generations (Stewart and Gold-Steinberg 1990). Becoming a parent also has implications that extend outside of the psychological realm. It affects social resources and social networks (Gallagher and Gerstel 2001; Ishii-Kuntz and Seccombe 1989; Umberson and Gove 1989; Nomaguchi and Milkie 2003), and fosters involvement in community institutions such as schools and places of worship (Nomaguchi and Milkie 2003). Becoming a parent facilitates deeper social integration that yields closer ties to other adults (Umberson and Gove 1989; Nomaguchi and Milkie 2003). Having a child also meets one of the most common societal expectations, as parenthood "fits with American cultural ideas that place a premium on having children" (Nomaguchi and Milkie 2003, 357). This role brings with it a sense of legitimacy, and certain rights and privileges that are both cultural and political (Sieber 1974).

While they are widespread, the effects of parenthood are, of course, not universal. Scholars are careful to note that the impact of parenthood is often moderated by age, family structure, marital status, socioeconomic status, and employment status. There are substantial differences in parenthood that exist along gender lines. Though parenthood is consequential for men and women along a multitude of dimensions, there is evidence that women feel its effects more acutely. Scholars acknowledge the transition into motherhood as a major development in the life of a woman in a way that is not equivalent to the adoption of fatherhood by men (Mercer 2004; Meleis et al. 2004).

Feminist scholars have long examined the centrality of motherhood in defining gender norms. Research on identity shifts, demands of social roles, intersections with race and class, cross pressures between work and family life, and issues linked to caregiving have produced a literature on motherhood that spans multiple disciplines and outlines the impact that parenthood has on women's well-being, social roles, and sociopolitical status (Arendell 2000; Adams 1995; Ross 1995; Fischer and Tronto 1990; Collins 1994; Bassin, Honey, and Kaplan 1994). This literature highlights the differing social expectations for men and women with regard to parenting, and draws distinctions between how parenting shapes women's identity versus men's. For example, women are much more likely to identify motherhood as a primary identity, than are men to identify fatherhood as a primary identity (Arendell 2000; McMahon 1995). Moreover, the role of mothering acts to reinforce gender identity (Arendell 2000; McMahon 1995; Fox 2001). Not only is mothering and motherhood connected to feminine traits such as nurturing, but also for many women, motherhood is marked by activities that are connected to a gendered division of labor, such as housework, meal preparation, and childcare. As one scholar asserted, "all things considered, motherhood may be the most gender-enforcing experience in the lives of many women" (Fox 2001, 374).

The parenting role defines women's social roles to a great extent, creating social expectations of nurturance and selflessness that extend beyond the boundaries of home and family life. Consequently, motherhood shapes not only how women see themselves, but also how society sees them. And, because women are more likely than men to serve as the primary caregivers of children, they experience more movement in and out of the workforce. Thus, beyond shifts in identity, women are more likely than men to experience changes in their work life, and consequently, changes in their social network as a result of parenthood. A woman may have a full-time job and regularly interact with coworkers one day, and the next find herself alone at home, or trying to meet other new mothers.

This distinction is important. If women are more likely than men to see their parenting role as a primary identity, and if the external world is more likely to impose gender norms on them that are connected to mothering, then parenthood should be consequential for women when it comes to political attitudes. And if women's social networks are more likely to be altered by parenthood, then motherhood should have important implications for the political engagement of women. In short, women should be more likely than men to experience political change as a result of becoming and being a parent.

Political scientists have started to identify gender differences when looking at the effects of parenthood on political participation, with men and women responding differently to the adoption of this role. Burns, Schlozman, and Verba (2001) find that women often exit the workforce as a result of motherhood, and the withdrawal from this mobilizing setting then depresses their political participation. On the other hand, men with children are more likely to participate in the workforce, which facilitates greater political participation. Bowers (2003) finds that parenthood both promotes and depresses different modes of political participation for women compared to men, but concludes that in general, parenthood hinders women's overall political participation. Evidence also suggests that motherhood redirects women's political priorities. For example, motherhood motivates political engagement on education politics (Jennings 1979). Mothers participate more at the local level with particular attention to family-centered issues, social-welfare programs, and issues regarding peace than do women without children (Lynn and Floria 1973; Sapiro 1983). Scholarship on female activists who organize and protest under the banner of motherhood also provides evidence that having a child can be consequential to political views (Jetter, Orleck, and Taylor 1997). This includes activists in the abortion debate who, Luker (1984) argues, have fundamentally different views on the centrality of motherhood in women's lives and construct their positions on abortion around that view.


Excerpted from The Political Consequences of Motherhood by Jill S. Greenlee. Copyright © 2014 University of Michigan. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Chapter 1 Motherhood and Politics 1

Chapter 2 The Hand that Rocks the Cradle: 1920-1976 11

Chapter 3 Soccer Moms, Hockey Moms, and Waitress Moms 1980-2008 74

Chapter 4 Distinctions: Political Perspectives of Mothers and Non mothers 119

Chapter 5 The "Transformative" Effect of Motherhood 156

Chapter 6 Talking about Motherhood: Common Shifts in Political Thinking 171

Chapter 7 Reasons for Change: How Motherhood Alters Political Attitudes 194

Chapter 8 Consequences 210

Appendix 219

Notes 235

Bibliography 255

Index 279

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