Sometimes the Best Political Role Model is your Mom

Often when we talk about political role models, we think of the most visible politicians: the President, a prominent historical figure or a current newsmaker. We assume we can learn most about politics by emulating those who hold the greatest political power. But this Mother’s Day, I’d like to make the case that some of our best political role models in life are our moms – whether they identify as political or not. Moms play an essential role in shaping their daughters’ (and sons’) perceptions of service, politics, and leadership. According to research done by Dove, 66% of girls say their primary role model is their mom. At a pivotal age for developing confidence and character, girls look to their mothers for guidance and watch carefully the behaviors they espouse and the values they prescribe. My mom – relatively apolitical by traditional standards – has been my political role model. First, she embodies the ideal of service to others above herself. Whether caring for her children, her parents, or her clients, my mom reminds me that making someone else’s world a bit better brightens yours. Second, my mom has always been a leader. Both in and out of the household, my mom has never stepped down from a challenge, has been a source of support and stability for her family and her community, and has paired independence of thought and action with recognition of the interconnectedness among all of us. Third, my mom embodies retail politics. While she might just call it “being friendly,” my mom’s ability to empathize with nearly everyone she meets is a skill for which many politicians (and their staffs) strive. As Congresswoman Donna Edwards (D-MD) recently said about her own mother at CAWP’s Lipman lecture, “I’ll tell you who I’m glad I never had to run against: my mother.” Same here, Congresswoman. Finally, my mom instilled in me the values that inspire me today to engage in politics and to encourage others to do the same. My mom lives her life based on a very simple motto: “do good things.” Watching her work to make the world just a little better than she found it compels me to do the same. For her, that means making a difference in the daily lives of the elderly by providing direct care. For me, it means getting more women in political leadership and taking an active role in policy debates and discussions.
U.S. Presidential candidate, Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) speaks on stage with her mother Dorothy Rodham, during a rally in Des Moines Hillary Clinton with mother Dorothy Rodham in 2008

I’m in good company in crediting my mom for my political drive. Hillary Clinton frequently credits her mother – Dorothy Rodham – for her intellectual drive, curiosity, strength, and perseverance. The late Geraldine Ferraro often cited her widowed mother, Antonetta, as both her inspiration and most solid source of support. She said, “Nobody had greater confidence in me than my mother,” and that confidence was essential when Ferraro became the first woman to run on a major party presidential ticket. At the recent 100th birthday celebration for her mother, Luisa, , Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) shared a similar admiration for the longest-serving alderman in New Haven history: “My mother has been my greatest inspiration. She taught me the most valuable of lessons. My mother knew the importance of helping people – she understood that politics was an avenue for change.” Congresswoman Susan Brooks (R-IN) also credits her mother and father for instilling in her a commitment to helping others: “We didn’t grow up with a lot of wealth,” she’s said, “but I watched (my parents) make significant contributions to the lives of a lot of people.” She added, “That’s what I’ve strived to do –– work hard, be ethical, be very grateful for all that I have, and help those less fortunate. It’s something that drives me.”
YvetteClarkeC20101129BE Representative Yvette Clarke (D-NY) with mother Una

The mothers of some women leaders not only taught them the values that inspired their service, but also showed them women could serve in elected office. Congresswoman Yvette Clarke (D-NY) succeeded her mother Una on the New York City Council before running for Congress. Former Maine legislator, Hannah Pingree, took on her role as Speaker of the State House in the same year that her mother, Chellie Pingree (D-ME), was elected to Congress. Senator Susan Collins’ (R-ME) mother was Mayor of Caribou, Maine and preceded her daughter as an inductee into the Maine Women’s Hall of Fame. In Michigan, State Representative Barb Byrum succeeded her mother Dianne in the state’s 67th District seat. Byrum writes of her mother, “It is my mother who knew early on that I would run for public office, even though I was not interested in politics at the time. It is my mother who guided me through life's challenges. My mother did so much more than give me life. She gave me the world.”
269620.JPG A FEA USA Dist. of Columbia Cokie Roberts with mother Lindy Boggs

Some prominent political mothers have pointed their daughters toward other forms of public service. Cokie Roberts, author and political contributor to ABC and NPR, has called her mother, former Congresswoman Lindy Boggs (D-LA), “a trailblazer for women and the disadvantaged.” Her trailblazing no doubt influenced Roberts’ own pathbreaking career, including her work honoring America’s Founding Mothers. Roberts’ sister, Barbara Boggs Sigmund, followed more directly in her mother’s footsteps, serving as a county freeholder and then as mayor of Princeton, NJ from 1983 to 1990. Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, frequently talks about channeling her mother, Ann Richards, in her leadership of one of the country’s largest women’s advocacy organizations. Calling the former Governor of Texas her “touchstone for pretty much everything,” Richards has said, “She always said to me, ‘If a new opportunity comes, you just have to take it.’ I think in my day-to-day life I try to channel a little bit of Ann in that.” Whether we channel our mothers in running for office, advocacy, or everyday forms of leadership, they play spark our desire and give us the tools to change the world in our own ways. The personal is indeed political, and the promise of a new generation of women leaders relies on the trailblazing women who have preceded them. So this Mother’s Day, take a minute to give thanks to the moms in your life who have helped you grow, and consider how the seemingly apolitical lessons they’ve taught you can translate into political action and leadership. In considering your run for political office, channel mom.

The Smart Business of Women’s Public Leadership

Last night, I joined an expert group of women on HuffPost Live to talk about Warren Buffett’s Fortune article on the importance of women’s full inclusion into American business, politics, and leadership. Put simply, Buffett argues that women are essential to American growth and success, representing half of the population that has been underutilized (“relegated to the sidelines”) for too long. Stifling half of the country’s talent is not only unethical, he writes, but is also bad business. And, as we know at the Center for American Women and Politics, under-representation of women in political offices is bad for democracy and governance. Our research shows that women bring unique voices to government, as voters, advocates, and elected officials. When in office, women prioritize different issues, build upon unique experiences, and often take a more inclusive and collaborative approach to Women in Congress Pie_Webgoverning. In the current political environment, it’s women who have provided at least some hope of breaking the paralysis that has characterized our nation’s capital. And, with women still representing less than 20% of Congress and under a quarter of state legislative posts, we have significant “human capacity,” in Buffett’s terms, left to be tapped. How do we capitalize on women’s capacity to lead? Buffett calls on his male colleagues to “get on board” with gender parity, but also urges women not to doubt their abilities nor give in to structural or self-imposed barriers to advancement. There is a symbiotic relationship between structural barriers and self-doubt, however, where women’s experiences with (or within) male-dominated institutions make it hard for them to view themselves as equal players in what remains a man’s world. The change that fuels Buffett’s optimism for the future is reliant on disrupting masculine dominance in public life, and that means altering long-held images of and expectations for public leadership. Buffett describes how, as a young man in the 1940s and 1950s, his floor for professional success was the ceiling for his sisters. In other words, society’s expectations for boys were not only greater than those expectations for girls, but women faced structural barriers that halted their path to leadership before they could even dare to see themselves as heads of communities, companies, or countries. Buffett is right to note that those structural barriers are eroding, but societal expectations of how leaders look and act still fall heavily into a male mold. CAWP has recently launched Teach a Girl to Lead, a campaign meant to change those expectations among boys and girls so that the idea of women’s leadership is not extraordinary, but ordinary – and essential. If we are to be as optimistic as Warren Buffett is about America’s future, we know that it’s imperative that future generations of girls and women not only see themselves as public leaders, but help to shatter the glass ceilings that remain in politics and government. That’s not only good for democracy, but it's also best for our country’s bottom line.

CAWP On the Road: Re-envisioning Public Leadership

"Our dream is a generation of young people who expect and believe that leadership should be diverse in every way." – Debbie Walsh, Director of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), Rutgers University This week, the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) was proud to join the White House and the U.S. Department of Education in co-sponsoring the Conference on Girls’ Leadership and Civic Education at the White House. The Conference was intended to move the ball forward on President Obama’s pledge to promote political and economic equality for all women through the Equal Futures Partnership. To do so, the conference co-hosts brought together scholars, public officials, leaders of youth-serving organizations, media experts, business leaders, educators, young leaders, and others to address questions and concerns related to civic engagement, gender, and public leadership. The conference posed the following questions:

  • How do we teach our young people about public leadership and the role of government in a way that engages boys and girls equally?
  • How can we ensure that our civic education efforts inspire both boys and girls to envision themselves as future governmental leaders?
  • How do we inform all our young people about the roles women play as leaders in government, from City Hall to the White House?
904353_560918890614979_1991535836_o Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND)

 

photo2 Senator Susan Collins (R-ME)

 

These questions are broad and have no simple answers, but the dialogue begun by two expert panels, five productive breakout sessions, and insights from two female members of the U.S. Senate (Collins and Heitkamp) was incredibly valuable to informing action that organizations, media, educators, and others can take to better reach the goal laid out at the start of this post. Conference panelists and speakers focused on the importance of early intervention to introduce young girls and boys to images and ideas of public leadership that are both accessible and diverse. They emphasized the need to combat countervailing pressures, particularly for girls, that divert them away from leadership and/or cause them to question their ability, intelligence, or willingness to stand apart from the crowd. Many participants cited the need for and utility of role models and mentors who  allow girls to both imagine themselves as public officials and, in some cases, provide them the tools and the advice to find political or policy success. From including more female leaders in classroom 921212_560918807281654_1846322512_omaterials (or even posters!) and media images to connecting young people directly with female leaders in their communities, adults from all sectors (educators, parents, media, politicians, organization leaders) can, as Ruth Mandel (Director, Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University) said on Monday, “contribute to making the idea of woman political leaders seem natural, even inevitable.” Dr. Jill Biden kicked off the conference by sharing a story about her own daughter, who was lucky enough to see women’s political leadership first-hand at a very early age when her father (then-Senator Joe Biden) took her to the U.S. House of Representatives to advocate for an issue she cared so deeply about – dolphin safety. Lobbying then-Representative Barbara Boxer (CA), Biden’s daughter not only met a powerful woman whom she could emulate, but – according to Dr. Biden, “She saw that she could effect change.” 922125_560919180614950_1284175309_oCAWP has spent more than three decades dedicated to harnessing public leadership in women and girls, from our work with the Public Leadership Education Network to our NEW LeadershipTM program for college women (now in 24 states). We are especially proud to be launching a new initiative, Teach a Girl to LeadTM (TAG), which will be a national education and awareness campaign to re-envision what public leaders look like. TAG will draw upon the experts and organizations who participated in the White House conference, many of whom are already project allies, to meet its goals of better integrating gender into civic engagement and education, and public leadership into efforts aimed at girls’ empowerment. Our staff left Washington, DC with new wisdom, new relationships, and renewed energy to inspire and engage a new generation of women leaders. We look forward to your ideas, support, and enthusiasm to make our dream a reality. To learn more, visit our website and check out photos from the conference.