Video: The politics of ‘values’

By Researcher
NBC News
updated 5/10/2008 4:35:30 PM ET 2008-05-10T20:35:30

Soccer moms, security moms, Wal-Mart moms.  The labels assigned to mothers may vary, but campaign strategists are after the same target: mom’s vote.

For one thing, mothers are more likely to vote. “Married women and women with children vote in higher proportions than single women.” says Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University and an expert on women and politics.   She says women are prompted to vote to protect their families, “Whatever affects their families, whether [it] is their children or their spouses or their own aging parents, family issues are of central importance.”

NBC News exit polls from the 2004 presidential election show 20% of voters where women with children.  During the 2000 Bush-Gore contest, 39 % of voters were parents with children living at home.

“Women who have what we call the four magic M’s – marriage, munchkins, mortgages and mutual funds – are more likely to vote” says Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway, the co-author of “What Women Want.”   The mother of toddler twins and a newborn says mothers have more at stake on Election Day, from making sure there’re a good school and a safe place to play for their children, to protecting their family’s home and finances. “What moms are going to vote on this year are security and affordability, the twin pillars of a mom’s thinking,” she says on the telephone with her 8-week-old baby making noises in the background.

Video: Sen. McCain's mother, 95 years young The issue of security has a broad definition for mothers, according to Conway.  “It means everything from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to the fight against crime and drug addiction.”

Mandel says security and the economy are important to mothers every election, but this November women are especially concerned about finances.  “The economy is huge for families this year, certainly for mothers, how far their dollar stretches, their food budget,” she says. 

Security, health care, education, child care and equal pay are among the issues candidates have added to their platforms this election, but whether their efforts to appeal to women will pay off remains to be seen.  An informal poll on the mom-friendly site “TodaysMama” asked readers if the candidates were addressing their concerns.  Fifty-six percent said that they were.  The site’s poll participants listed the economy as the number one concern this election.

In addition to speaking about topics that would appeal to mothers, the presidential candidates have brought their own mothers, wives or daughters on the campaign trail.  Hillary Clinton has campaigned with both her mom and her daughter Chelsea .   Barack Obama is often seen with his wife Michelle, a mother of two .  And John McCain’s 96-year-old mother Roberta has campaigned for him .

Video: Obama kids say, 'Vote for daddy' "One women’s group encouraging candidates to adopt a more family-friendly platform is “MomsRising.”  The 140,000 members of this national advocacy organization often stage demonstrations at lawmakers’ offices to lobby for more paid family leave, accessible health care, flexible work policies and subsidized child care.  MomsRising was the group behind a mother-and-baby “nurse-in” at Burlington, Vermont’s airport last year, after a flight attendant asked a mother to leave because she was breastfeeding.

The grassroots organization mobilized members to sign a petition in protest, gathering over 19,000 signatures.  In March the Vermont Human Rights Commission found reasonable grounds to believe the woman was discriminated againstand a negotiated settlement was pending.

Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., has proposed a bill to protect the rights of breastfeeding mothers. That bill has been referred to a House subcommittee for consideration. 

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"The U.S. is way behind other industrialized countries on family-friendly policies, and that makes life much harder for mothers and families," said MomsRising President Joan Blades, a mother herself.  "The more mothers speak out, organize and get involved in the election, the better our chance to improve healthcare and childcare, pass paid sick days and paid family leave, make after school programs more available, and finally help women win fair and realistic wages.”  Blades is an online activism expert.  She co-founded Moveon.org.

Talk of free child care and flexible work schedules won’t necessarily win the vote of Mississippi mother and blogger Megan Jordan.  The Hurricane Katrina survivor is tired of candidates who walk on “politically correct eggshells” and tell people “what they want to hear,’’ rather than what they “need to hear.”   Jordan – a mom to two toddler boys – is also frustrated with the campaigns’ efforts to describe mothers by labels.   “Mothers and their opinions cannot be wrapped up in a neat little package with the label "soccer mom" or "working mom" slapped on it, and then have that encompass all of our concerns and opinions,” says the writer of the Velveteen Mind blog. “It is rarely as black and white as that.”

Jordan is not the only one who has a problem with the group labels affixed to women. “I frequently look at myself and wonder how I am supposed to label myself,” says Rachael Herrscher who runs the marketing department of TodaysMama, while raising a 5-year old boy and a 4-year old girl.  To this work-from-home mom, the descriptions are misleading because income and education may vary during a woman’s life and may not reflect her political preferences.  

Erika Jurney, a California mother who blogs as the “Plain Jane Mom, opposes labels too. “The people who place value on labels like 'security moms' are pollsters and politicians, but in real life people are multi-dimensional and these tight labels are meaningless,” says Jurney, who has 3 boys.

Conway, who studies women’s views and trends for both corporate and political clients, disagrees.  “They [labels] are not intended to pigeonhole Americans who share characteristics as mothers or blue collar workers,” she says.  “Labels help candidates appreciate the differences among women in this country according to their life choices and circumstances.”

Many women’s advocacy groups are looking beyond the November election and focusing on helping mothers become lawmakers themselves.  Some 30 years after the feminist movement gained ground in the U.S., nearly 17 percent of the members of the current Congress are women.   The goal of the nonpartisan organization “The White House Project” is to change that by offering training to run for office, whether for a slot on the school board or for the Oval Office.  The White House Project runs a program called “Vote, Run, Lead” online.  “This is training that can help them learn leadership, to lead in their lives in general," says Elizabeth Hines of The White House Project.

In the meanwhile, other groups are focused on just getting mothers to the polls so their voices are heard. As a small step in that direction, “Today’s Mama” is offering free babysitting on Election Day.

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