Staci Appel is up at 5:30 every morning, rousing her six kids from their beds, getting them showered and fed breakfast—usually cereal and milk, but sometimes pancakes or scrambled eggs on special days. She and her husband, Brent Appel, a justice on the Iowa Supreme Court, pack their lunches and throw in a load or two of laundry, if there’s time.
Then, the former Iowa state senator hits the campaign trail. Appel is running for Congress, a job that will take her to Washington D.C. for most of every week if she wins. “We’ll handle it like everything else we’ve handled: as a family,” says Appel, who ran for office at her children’s encouragement and with the unflagging support of her husband. “We’re no different from any other family: juggling kids and work.”
What’s different, though, is that Appel is running for Congress at all. Hers is one of the toughest demographics for either party to recruit: a mother of young children. Until now, women have typically waited until their children were older to get into politics. On average, women enter politics four years later—at the age of 51 versus 47—than men, according for Rutgers University’s Center for American Women in Politics. But not so this cycle: A remarkable number of young mothers are running for Congress.
“It is a big change,” says Michele Swers, a Georgetown political science professor and author of “Women in the Club.”
“Having younger women in office is a positive trend because Congress runs on seniority so these younger women will have a better chance of getting the seniority needed to become committee chairs and party leaders,” Swers says.
The first woman to give birth in Congress was Rep. Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, a California Democrat, in 1973. These days, more than a dozen women in Congress have school-aged children, but it’s still a tiny percentage of the 99 women currently serving in both chambers. Democrats have nine young mothers running for Congress or governor this cycle, according to EMILY’s List, which helps elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, and Republicans have at least three.
Part of the problem is many mothers of young children view representing more than half-a-million people in Congress as too daunting a job to balance at a time when family obligations are the most intense. But some members—like Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers, the top women on the House GOP leadership team who had all three of her children in office, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat who recently wrote a book encouraging young women to run—are working to change that. Both women actively court younger mothers to run, pointing to themselves as examples of healthy work-life balance. Both say the freedom of being able to set their own schedules—and essentially be their own bosses—makes the job doable for mothers.
The optics of being a young mother is also changing. In 2008, commentators openly wondered if Sarah Palin had to bandwidth to be the vice president and the mother of a special-needs infant, and in 2012 GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum openly wondered who was taking care of rival Michele Bachmann’s children while she was on the campaign trail. But this cycle, female candidates are wearing the mom label with pride.
“What is interesting is to see how women use their motherhood as a credential for office holding, instead of an impediment or barrier to office holding, as it has often been historically framed,” says Kelly Dittmar, assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University and Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics. “In doing that, women candidates are more likely to show their children in campaign output and talk about them in messaging, contrary to previous generations where women were told to be cautious about showing their young children as it might raise voter questions about how or if they will be able to balance the conflicting demands of politics and parenthood.”
Indeed, some say, it’s almost too much pride. Michigan Republican Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land was mocked last week by liberals on Twitter for so often appending her statements with, “as a mom.”
But for Appel, those words are partly why she’s running. In the state Senate she helped pass universal pre-K for all Iowans and toughen standards for children's seats in cars and texting while driving.
“We bring a different perspective to the table,” Appel says, “one that I believe Congress could benefit from.”
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