By Lorraine Connelly
Mothers are the ultimate multi-taskers, so why haven’t we seen more of them engaged in local, state, and national politics? According to the advocacy group Vote Mama.org, the leading source of research and analysis on the political participation of moms, just 6 percent of congressional representatives are mothers of children 18 and under. Surely, mothers of young children have earned a seat at the legislative table by now.
In 1910, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) began a postcard campaign to raise awareness of the women’s right to vote movement. Many of these cards echoed the Progressive Era’s belief in the “social housekeeping” role of women. Social activist and settlement house founder Jane Addams’ popular broadside, “Women and Public Housekeeping” (1910) argued that the very domestic household tasks that kept women out of the public realm also equipped them with the knowledge that could make them excellent municipal leaders. Women’s ability to clean and order their homes and take care of their children were, by logical extension, the very same skills necessary to remedy the ills of society.
Perhaps society could benefit from a rising tide of new “social housekeepers” who seek to cleanse today’s putrid political climate.
In Connecticut, there has been an uptick of young mothers running for office since 2016, notes State Representative Jennifer Leeper of the 132nd district. Leeper, who was elected in 2020 to represent Southport and Fairfield, is also the mother of two young sons, ages 6 and 8. She is seeking a second term this November. “Our rights and freedoms have increasingly come under attack, and we have been fearful of what that means for our children,” says Leeper.
Mothers who hold elected office have become the most effective champions for such issues as paid family leave, universal childcare, and Pre-k education. Why? Because they live these realities every day. Notes Leeper, “Issues around family leave and childcare were once regarded as women’s issues but we are the voice to say these are economic issues. If women don’t have affordable, safe places for their children to be they cannot return to the work force — that loss of economic productivity impacts everyone. We know what it’s like to spend more on childcare than we spend on our monthly mortgages. We must do better for our parents, but also for our children.”
Rebecca Hyland, who is seeking to unseat Rep. Craig Fishbein in the 90th district (Wallingford and Middlefield), cites her son, age 3½, as the primary reason for attaining elected office. “I want to make the world better for my son. I was lucky enough to have had experience as a public defender and high school teacher. While those roles increased my dedication to public service, it was my son who cemented by decision to run for office.” She adds, “If you want to look for a passionate advocate for family and child-related issues, look to a mother.”
The infant formula shortage earlier this year certainly demonstrated how unsupported mothers are in our current economic infrastructure. Many mothers were left on their own to find formula for their babies. Says Leeper, “This is a crisis that is still not resolved for our families with the most vulnerable babies who require highly specialized formulas. I have friends and constituents who are paying $50-$70 per can for the formula their babies require to be healthy. As a nation, we need to think more holistically about the needs of women and children and ensure that we have protections in place for when something like this happens.”
For Hyland the voting booth remains “the number one place to hold politicians accountable when they fail to advocate for their constituents.” Leeper notes that women often get involved in local government because of issues that impact their children most directly. She worked previously in the Performance Office at the Connecticut State Department of Education as a data analyst, and as a school administrator in New York City. Prior to being elected to the General Assembly, Leeper also served on Fairfield’s Board of Education.
We need more women to step off the sidelines and throw their hats into the ring for elected office. Leeper’s advice for “newbies,” like Hyland, running for office: “Your voice is important, and your experience is valuable. You do not need to know everything to do this work. Have a handful of people you really trust to be your kitchen cabinet and lean on them. Be gentle with yourself. Your very presence in the process is making democracy stronger and that is has never been more important.”
Now is the time to give young mothers, the guardians of our families, the power of elected office so that they can restore health and good order to our political house.
Lorraine Connelly is a writer and longtime Wallingford resident.