Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is chairman of the House Budget Committee, an author and now the GOP’s candidate for vice president. He’s juggling these duties while being the father of three young children — but you wouldn’t know that from the questions members of the media ask him.
Ryan, it seems, can have it all. And nobody seems to think that’s worth having a long, drawn-out, national conversation about.
“It is a non-issue,” said Jennifer Lawless, an American University professor who is the director of its Women and Politics Institute. “It reminds me of the kind of coverage that John Edwards received in 2004 when he was named as John Kerry’s running mate — where you have a relatively young male candidate who is about to put his family through several months of incredibly arduous campaigning, and it’s a non-issue.”
In his first interview after being tapped as Mitt Romney’s running mate, the only question Ryan received from CBS’s Bob Schieffer about his family was, “Congressman, this is going to change your whole life. What did your family think about it?” There were no follow-up questions about whether he could be a good father while spending most of his time on the road, meeting a grueling campaign schedule.
Female candidates don’t usually get the benefit of the doubt on this issue. They still shoulder more household and childcare duties than their husbands, or they are expected to. And when they decide to step away from some of these responsibilities, they face moralistic questions and raised eyebrows about whether they are a “good” wife and mother.
In the 2008 campaign, concerns about how Sarah Palin, the GOP’s vice presidential nominee, could take care of her five children — including an infant with Down syndrome — were a constant presence, from both voters and the media.
“You can juggle a BlackBerry and a breast pump in a lot of jobs, but not in the vice presidency,” Christina Henry de Tessan, a mother of two in Oregon who supported President Barack Obama, told The New York Times in 2008.
“A mother of a 4-month-old infant with Down syndrome taking up full-time campaigning? Not my value set,” said another mother of four in Maine.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani addressed the issue when he introduced Palin at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, saying, “How dare they question whether Sarah Palin has enough time to spend with her children and be vice president! How dare they do that! When did they ever ask a man that question?”
In 2007, Lawless found that in families with two working adults — generally in high-level careers — women were 12 times more likely than men to be responsible for the majority of household tasks. When it came to childcare, women were 10 times more likely to be in charge.
“If the goal is ultimately to treat candidates fairly and to create a system such that gender parity could one day exist, then I think we should be asking the same questions,” said Lawless. “The reality of the matter though is that women are still overwhelmingly responsible for household and child care responsibilities.”
While running for governor of North Dakota in 2000, Democrat Heidi Heitkamp — who is now making a bid for U.S. Senate — was often asked how old her kids were. She would respond that they were the same age as her male opponent’s children.
Women who don’t have children aren’t immune from these criticisms.
Last year, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) ran against a male Republican state senator who sent out a campaign email criticizing Cantwell’s support for allowing young women to have access to emergency contraception.
The bottom of the email noted that Cantwell was “unmarried” and “has frequently voted to undermine the role of parents in child-rearing.”
Retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) said last month that she had once considered running for president, but her family responsibilities made it unrealistic.
“I would love to have had the right timing. But, timing is everything in life,” she said during remarks at a women’s conference hosted by National Journal.
Hutchison, who has served in the Senate for 18 years, said she adopted her two children 11 years ago, which put her “out of the capability.” She said she’s been going home every weekend to be with her kids, which has meant she hasn’t been in Washington to make TV appearances on Sunday political shows and build her name identification “in the way that you would if you were running for president.”
That’s not to say that male candidates don’t struggle with being away from their families.
In a 2007 debate, then-Sen. Obama said his New Year’s resolution was to be “a better father, better husband,” admitting that the presidential campaign had been “an enormous strain on the family.” He recounted how he had gone to buy a Christmas tree with his daughters, Sasha and Malia, the day before, but they had just two hours together before he had to fly back to Washington, D.C. for a vote.
When asked how Ryan feels about the prospect of spending so much time away from his family, spokesman Brendan Buck said he could not speak for the candidate.
Lawless argued that as more and more women with young children run for office — from Palin to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) — voters’ expectations for women are beginning to shift. And female candidates, likewise, are finding role models to whom they can turn when asked how they can juggle the jobs of being a mother and a politician.
“I think ’08 fundamentally changed the terrain,” Lawless said. “The Republican Party is the party that would be the most inclined to embrace traditional roles and responsibilities. When they had, as their vice presidential nominee, a female candidate with very young children, they were saying by default that this was okay. So I think it becomes difficult for there to be backlash against that statement now, given who was on their ticket in 2008.”