Can you imagine a woman political candidate running for high office in the United States who isn’t a mother? Columnist Meghan Daum recently asked a room full of non-mothers to consider this question at the first ever NotMom Summit. In short, the answer is no; very few can imagine such a thing.
While we tell ourselves it is candidates’ professional experience that matters, for women it is their experience in the home that makes them viable contenders.
And why would we want women who deign to opt out of motherhood to represent us? Common lore tells us they are, to borrow from Daum’s recent collection, selfish, shallow and self-absorbed. Yet 40-plus years of social science research tells us that much of what we believe to be true about women without children is in fact myth.
Pope Francis summed up perfectly the popular sentiment when it comes to those who opt out of parenthood when he declared, “The choice to not have children is selfish.” Perhaps this sentiment comes from personal experience, for the Pope himself has made the choice not to have children. It does not come from research on the subject, which shows that the childfree volunteer in their communities, play important and unique roles in the lives of children, and in some cases are motivated not to have children out of concern for our collective future.
In fact, a 2009 study of older adults without children found that these individuals are more actively engaged in charity work than their parent counterparts. The same study found that nonparents have broader and more diverse social networks within their communities when compared to parents.
My own research on adults without children, including interviews with dozens of childfree women and men, shows that one of the very reasons some opt not to have kids is because of a concern for others. As Allison, a scientist in her late 30s, put it, “One of my main reasons [for not having children] is that it is a very responsible decision to not contribute to more overpopulation. Plus, there are plenty of kids who already need homes. I think it is more selfless to not have them.”
Certainly the most visible NotMoms among us defy the selfish myth. Think about these examples the next time you hear someone refer to women without kids as selfish: Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy for Girls, Ellen Degeneres’s support for numerous charitable organizations and her touching and hilarious shows featuring kids, Rachael Ray’s kid-friendly charity yum-o!, and Ashley Judd’s work with the organization Demand Abolition to eradicate the illegal commercial sex industry.
There’s no question that motherhood affords some women the chance to cultivate a great many skills that make for formidable political candidates — compassion, patience, an ability to multitask like nobody’s business, the tenacity of the most talented of ambassadors, a willingness to go to bat for one’s people.
Yet our historical preference for male candidates tells me that if motherhood were the only way to garner these qualifying skills, the 43 people to have been sworn in as U.S. presidents to date would not have all been men.
In truth, qualifications for high political office in the United States differ for women and men. Women play by a different set of rules. No Trump-like brashness allowed for them. Women must be aggressive but not too aggressive. They must be fiercely loyal and protective at the same time that they must always exude kindness, approachability and gentleness. They must claim their status and their skills all while presenting the requisite feminine modesty.
More than anything, women must make clear that they have a natural capacity for nurturing, an intangible set of qualities typically referred to as “maternal instinct.” Never mind that such a thing doesn’t exist; we require it of all women who wish to be considered real women, real candidates. Even more, we require that these intangible qualities be expressed through motherhood specifically and exclusively.
The 2015 NotMom Summit, the first of its kind, brought together women who are entrepreneurs, artists, business executives, authors, activists, academics, policy advocates, and, by any measure, accomplished leaders in their fields. At the summit they tackled big questions — exactly the sort we wish for our political representatives to consider.
They examined how to ensure a healthy future for our planet, how best to care for our elders and other loved ones, how to engage in thoughtful planning for old age, how to understand our workplace rights and how to speak up about workplace wrongs. They are women who have solutions to the most pressing social problems and they deserve to be heard. And yet not a single one, despite her skills, accomplishments and accolades, will be a viable candidate until — unless — she becomes a mother.
Amy Blackstone is professor at the University of Maine, chairperson of the sociology department, and director of the ADVANCE Rising Tide Center. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.