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More moms in Congress could mean more attention on children and families

The 2018 election has brought in the most diverse Congress in its history. There has been much attention already on the so-called Pink Wave of women, the Rainbow Wave, the first two Native American women, and some high profile and outspoken women of color, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib. Another one of the highlights from the 2018 election was the influx of new moms to Congress, which has doubled the number of working mothers in Congress.

Katie Porter (D-CA), a single mother of three, was elected in California , Abigail Spanberger’s photograph of her daughter sitting on the floor during her victory speech went viral, Angie Craig is the first lesbian mom in Congress, and as a result of this growth, Debbie Wasserman Schultz announced the formation of an informal “Moms in the House” Caucus.

The media has been quick to acknowledge the many challenges moms face in running for office and once they arrive to the Capitol, and consequently, the ways Congress as an institution needs to modernize to accommodate these new legislators — from eliminating late-night votes, addressing the availability of childcare, and providing adequate lactation rooms.

But what does this new influx of moms in Congress mean for policy? Should we expect differences in their policy priorities or legislative behavior? Our research, published online in American Politics Research this past fall, shows that working moms, who have children under age 18, may have a different legislative agenda than other women in Congress.

Studying moms in Congress

Our study examined how moms in Congress compared to women without children on the number of bills they introduce regarding children and families. Using statistical analysis and accounting for several factors such as seniority, ideology, and productivity, we found that moms are more likely to introduce legislation in this area than women without children.

Our data includes 196 unique female members of Congress who served during the period from 1973-2013. Using a two-step process, we first selected data from five broad search terms based on categories predefined by the Library of Congress for Congress.gov: Education, Crime and Law Enforcement, Families, Labor and Employment, and Health. We then selected on narrow search terms specifically related to children and families to capture the full spectrum of policies that could directly impact children and families.

To collect information on whether or not members were parents and the ages of their children, we used the Official Congressional Directories provided by the Government Publishing Office as well as news articles found through news databases. Overall, we found that the majority of mothers in the House had children over 18 years of age when they were elected  to office, and that number has been increasing. Up until 2018, the number of women in the House without children or minor children had remained fairly steady. This led us to create three different groups of women in our analysis: women with no children, women with minor children, and women with adult children.

 How could more working moms change the House?

On average, women in Congress over the time period examined wrote about 25 bills total in each session of Congress. Using statistical analysis, we examined differences in the number of bills moms wrote specifically about children and families, compared to women who do not have children.

Moms write more bills related to Children and Family issues than women who do not have children and that can add up over time. In each session of Congress, we found that women who do not have children write nearly 7 bills each session compared to moms who wrote more than 8 bills each session. Given that the average woman member of Congress was re-elected for 5 sessions, it means that moms write five more bills over their average stay in Congress than other women.

The differences become even more stark when considering the ages of children. In what we call the ‘recency effect’, we find that women with young children, under the age of 18, sponsor more Children and Family legislation than moms with adult children or women who do not have children. Working moms with younger children sponsor over 9 bills each session, compared to “empty nesters” who write about 8 bills and women without children who write about 7 bills each session.

Moms in Congress have sponsored, and passed, significant legislation over the past several decades. Pat Schroeder, who represented Colorado from 1973-1997 and co-founded the Congressional Women’s Caucus, fought for nine years to get the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 passed, and it is considered one of her greatest legislative successes. In 2014, Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA) sponsored legislation allowing children on Medicaid facing complex medical procedures to receive treatment out-of-state following the birth of her daughter who required out-of-state treatment for a rare condition.

In the 116th Congress, we may expect member moms to continue championing bills affecting children and families, such as paid family leave, which was recently re-introduced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Representative Rosa DeLauro(D-CT). We may also expect to see mothers in Congress introduce and advocate for a number of education bills, from increased access to early childhood education, after-school care and full-day kindergarten, to more affordable solutions for higher education. Other issues that mothers may advance include increased access to breastfeeding for working mothers, tax credits for eldercare, and affordable housing for families.

While we controlled for ideology in our study (using DW nominate scores) and found no differences in the rate at which conservative and liberal mothers sponsor child and family legislation, it is important to note that the majority of mothers in Congress are Democrats and beyond the policies listed here, they are also likely to be some of the biggest supporters of more partisan legislation aimed at reducing gun violence and gun deaths (an issue which compelled new member Lucy McBath (D-GA) to seek office and campaign on after her son was shot and killed), ending family separations at the border, and the expansion of LGBTQ+ rights, including protections for same sex parental rights and adoptions, an area of family policy that has been making its way through the states.

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Topics: Representation & Leadership