The Republican Party has mom schizophrenia. It seems that some members and supporters of the GOP can’t seem to make up their minds about whether being an ambitious, successful working woman with children in politics is something to be vilified or lionized. That’s going to be a problem in a few months when the 2014 mid-term elections roll around. It’s no secret that the Republicans know they have a woman problem. They announced it themselves with the creation of a program to “train” their members on how to engage—and not to engage—with women. Yet, they are quite content to do some serious mom trashing when it suits them.
For months, Texas State Senator and gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis has had her mothering credentials attacked for supposedly abandoning her children while she earned her law degree to be able to better provide for her family. The right-wing echo chamber on Twitter has painted Davis as selfish for pursuing a career rather than staying home to raise her children and putting her own ambition ahead of her children’s needs, the clear implication being that such a person would never be fit for high political office.
Maybe that’s just because she’s a Democrat. Because when the motherhood shoe is on the other foot, it seems Republicans are OK with an ambitious mother of young children who spends a lot of time away from the kids.
Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), a woman with some striking resume similarities to Davis, is apparently the new Republican weapon to woo women voters. Rodgers was hand-picked by GOP leaders, including John Boehner, to give the Republican response to this year’s State of the Union address, and it’s no secret that she’s being groomed for more leadership roles.
While it’s true that McMorris was not yet a mother when she earned her college degrees, she’s been a mother since 2006, and is now a mother of three children under the age of eight, including one special needs child. Since she was elected to the U.S. Congress in 2005 (she was a Washington State Senator for ten years prior to that), her ambition has certainly been on display—she is the highest ranking GOP woman in the House of Representatives, she’s been on the influential (and time-consuming) Armed Services Committee and she is currently the Chair of the Republican Conference, the arm of the party charged with messaging—the kind of messaging that’s crucial to persuading voters.
But how can McMorris and the GOP square the obvious messaging that McMorris is a conservative ideal of motherhood, while others fan the flames of the attacks on Davis? If they’re trying to paint Davis as having abandoned her mothering duties to spend time in law school, how can they suggest that Rodgers is fulfilling her parenting obligations when being a leading GOP player means, by definition, long days and nights on Capitol Hill?
Voters know a double standard when they see one.
While past research has shown that married women tend to vote Republican, it’s probably safe to say that women in general hate hypocrites. That’s what the GOP is being in this good mom/bad mom scenario. But Republicans shouldn’t go counting the votes of married women who buy into this idea just yet.
As political conservatives try to make it harder for certain segments of America to vote with a variety of voter identification laws, they’ve missed the memo that the very married women whose votes they want might fall victim to not having the correct kind of ID, since 90 percent of women change their surnames when they marry, and 40-50 percent of marriages end in divorce (when many women revert to their maiden names). The very women Republicans are trying to woo with Rodgers could well be the same women who will get caught in their voter ID net.
So when it comes to the all important “women’s vote” in the fall, Republicans are going to have to work harder on their image and policy messaging. If the GOP and its vocal supporters think waging a political version of mommy wars is going to do the trick, they need to get back to that sensitivity training they were so excited about just a month ago.