Female Candidates Breastfeed Children In Campaign Ads
Friday, March 23, 2018
In two new political ads, however, candidates try something decidedly more commonplace: Breastfeeding their children.
One ad opens on Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate Krish Vignarajah breastfeeding her baby and talking about the lack of women in state and federal elected office in her state.
In the other, Wisconsin Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kelda Roys feeds her infant daughter while talking about how she worked to help Wisconsin ban BPA, a chemical found in plastics, which some scientists have suggested is linked to health problems.
Breastfeeding may be as old as humanity, but doing so openly is rare in the world of political campaigns. As more women flood into politics, the videos represent one way that they are increasingly willing to break the mold of the standard candidate, almost entirely shaped by men, and more fully reflect womanhood in their campaigns.
The ads come as an unprecedented wave of women, including many young women, are running or preparing to run for Congress and governorships in 2018.
Putting one's motherhood front and center could, at first blush, look like a political risk. That's because voters have more doubts about mothers' ability to juggle politics and family than they do about fathers, as a 2016 study found.
"Voters will raise questions about a candidate's role as a mother as part of campaign discussions," the study from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation found. "They recognize a double standard for moms, who will get the most questions, but actively participate in it and are conscious of doing so."
Not that female candidates needed academic research to understand that. Pennsylvania Republican state House candidate Natalie Mihalek recently wrote in an op-ed that she gets questions about child care that her male opponents do not.
"Why am I the only candidate in the room being asked these questions?" she wrote. "Do they think mothers don't already juggle multiple tasks? Has no one noticed that men, my husband included, are also parents and share parenting duties?"
While motherhood complicates a woman's candidacy, it may also be true that the best way for female candidates to deal with a double standard is to confront it head-on, and breastfeeding in a campaign ad is certainly one way for a candidate to show voters that she has no problem being a mom and a politician at the same time.
"A prime concern for voters is whether a woman candidate will be able to both serve her constituents and care for family at the same time," said Amanda Hunter, communications director at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. "And by sort of addressing that out the gate, that can be an effective strategy."
What it means is that these candidates have an additional topic to address, on top of their policy positions and qualifications.
While the ads come at a time that it's attention-grabbing to breastfeed in a campaign ad, they play into an existing cultural conversation around "normalizing" breastfeeding.
It's a conversation that has inched into the political world. A Virginia state representative recently breastfed her daughter on the floor of the House of Delegates. Other politicians — a member of parliament in Iceland and a member of parliament in Australia — have similarly garnered attention for breastfeeding their children while conducting political business, and a D.C. city council member pumped breast milk during a committee hearing in December.
Roys told NPR that the response to her ad has been "overwhelmingly positive," and that it has additionally helped her gain traction in a crowded Democratic primary field to take on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican running for a third term.
"It's been phenomenal. It's been absolutely fantastic," she said. "And in a primary where we have a lot of candidates who are older white men — that is really what the field looks like — I stick out in a lot of ways."
NPR's Sarah McCammon contributed to this report.
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