Liuba Grechen Shirley had no intention of running for office. She enjoyed her job in economic development. She was consulting for big-name organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And she had two kids under age 3, including a 5-month-old baby.
But in 2017, her congressman, Republican Rep. Pete King of New York, announced his support of President Trump’s ban on immigration from predominantly Muslim nations. Grechen Shirley knew she had to challenge the 15-term incumbent for his position in the House.
Grechen Shirley raised $2 million with no corporate PAC, but in the end she lost her race. Still, her experience inspired her to create Vote Mama, the first political action committee (PAC) built to support mothers. Specifically, it helps Democrat mothers of children under 18 in their bids for office.
“When I was first considering running, I kept trying to find out about campaigning as a mom,” Grechen Shirley said. “What are the hours like? How do you handle childcare when everything is so up in the air? I could find quotes here and there in news stories, but there was no playbook.”
Now she wants to create a roadmap through Vote Mama, which aims to support women candidates through direct financial support, mentorship, networking with peers, endorsements and more.
The goal, Grechen Shirley said, is to disrupt the cultural and structural hurdles mothers face. These challenges cause many women to wait until their children are grown before running for office, which ultimately tends to limit the time they have to rise to leadership positions in a way that men don’t experience.
The numbers back that up, said Debbie Walsh, director of Rutgers University’s Center for American Women in Politics: “Historically women have tended to run when they’re older. They wait until the burden is lessened.”
‘I never brought my twins to any public event’
Even the most powerful woman in U.S. politics, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, waited until she was 47 to run for office for the first time.
“It’s largely because women are still the primary caregivers at home while also working,” Walsh said. “We’ve heard in the past that women said they wished they had a wife: the dry cleaning gets picked up, food is in the fridge, all of those things that fit the stereotype of tasks the mother does.”
Historically, women with young children who have decided to run “have been advised not to talk about it,” Walsh said. “It tended to immediately lead to the question, ‘Well, who’s taking care of that 8-year-old at home?’”
Walsh pointed to former Gov. Jane Swift, who is still the only woman to serve as governor of Massachusetts from 2001 to 2003. The Republican won her race as Lieutenant Governor in 1998, just a few weeks after giving birth to her first child. And when she became governor, she was pregnant with twins and became the first sitting governor in U.S. history to give birth when she welcomed her daughters just one month into her term.
Swift told Know Your Value that both the campaign trail and serving office were challenging: “As a married working mother in my 30s, I wasn’t all that uncommon among my peers generally—but in politics it was entirely different. It’s hard to be first and it’s hard to be the only one.”
While campaigning, Swift was told not to bring her children out to events or even to discuss them.
“We turned down all human-interest press offers, including one from Oprah,” Swift said. “My people said if you say ‘yes’ to any national press, you can’t refuse the local ones. Then that becomes the story and no one will care what you’re doing otherwise.”
“I made this mistake with my older daughter,” she added. “The clips with her were the only B-roll anyone ever used when talking about me in a story—so I never brought my twins to any public event. There was such a voracious appetite for photos of my children that it overshadowed everything.”
Swift and Walsh both noted the difference in her treatment compared with fellow Republican Gov. John Engler, who campaigned and served as governor in 1994 when his wife gave birth to triplets.
“[Engler] could do photos and events with his wife and these three adorable babies, and he could do that without fear,” Walsh said. “The assumption, of course, was, ‘Oh, he’s got that wife there.’ With Jane [Swift], you’d have thought the world would stop spinning on its axis. She was asked on TV everywhere, where are the kids? And feminist organizations didn’t come to her rescue in that moment because she was a Republican.”
Swift’s motherhood continued to create headlines even when she was in office. While pregnant with her twins in the first weeks of her term as governor, she was put on bed rest for threatened pre-term labor. Swift led a meeting of the Massachusetts Governor's Council by teleconference, leading the Democrat-run group to lodge complaints.
“The Council’s meeting was federally mandated, so the twins’ timing was inconsiderate,” Swift said dryly.
Looking back now, Swift said she is “a bit sad” about how she was treated but is “not resentful, because someone had to go first. In the intervening years I’ve supported other women in their leadership and I do see change happening. Getting to [gender] parity will make our governing better.”
This includes Swift’s work with Vote Run Lead, a bipartisan group that has trained 33,000 women to run for office. “I think there are roles for organizations that are partisan, but also ones that focus on bipartisan or nonpartisan efforts,” Swift said.
The Vote Mama PAC is squarely and proudly focused on Democratic women, Grechen Shirley said, and they must support three causes: a woman’s right to choose, paid family leave and universal pre-Kindergarten.
But Grechen Shirley individually also broke ground that could make campaigning a bit easier for both mothers and fathers—and on both sides of the aisle. By the time she launched her 2018 campaign, her kids were 1 and 3 and her family couldn’t figure out how to balance childcare costs. So she petitioned the Federal Election Commission to allow her to use campaign funds on childcare, which had never been done before.
“My campaign manager called me and told me to sit down,” Grechen Shirley recalled. “She told me Hillary [Clinton] had written a three-page letter in support. Fox News even called it one bipartisan issue we can agree on.”
The FEC voted unanimously to approve the proposal. And during this past election cycle, Grechen Shirley said, nine federal candidates—both mothers and fathers—took advantage of the ruling. Politicians across country have petitioned their own states and cities to allow them to spend campaign funds on childcare too.
With the power of a group and a PAC, Grechen Shirley said, she believes it’s possible to effect even more change for women who would run for office if they could just get a little bit of guidance, commiseration and support.
“We’re missing out on critical voices in government,” Grechen Shirley said. “I want to make running for office as a mom a norm, not the exception.”