We Need More Moms in Politics. But the Election Process Isn’t Built for Us to Win

Rachel Kessler for Friends of Jess Woolford
Most of us have ideas of what makes a mama: she’s either pulling up to the school drop-off with a perfect manicure or barely holding it together. As if this dichotomy isn’t already stifling, the image is even hazier when thinking about moms in politics
After 10 years in government and organizing work, my brain conjures abstracts of pantsuits and some balance between androgyny and traditional femininity. I picture my former boss, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, famously changing her son’s diaper on a conference room table moments before her swearing-in ceremony, or Senator Tammy Duckworth, the first U.S. Senator to become a mom while in office, or some of the horror stories that mamas in politics have shared with me about leaky boobs that hardened from missing a pump session during campaign events. 
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As a queer, Bronx-born Dominican mama who was raised in a working-class household, I’ve never seen mirrors of myself in political spaces. So about a year ago, I became determined to change that: I decided to run for office. Almost immediately, I realized that the reason I haven’t seen women like me in office isn’t because we don’t want to be there but rather because the path to becoming an elected official isn’t set up for us to win. 

"The reason I haven’t seen women like me in office isn’t because we don’t want to be there but rather because the path to becoming an elected official isn’t set up for us to win." 

Jessica Altagracia Woolford
In my run for the seat in New York State Assembly District 81 in the Northwest Bronx, one of the first things I needed to figure out was how to project my “mom-ness” against the sexist critiques that I was too inexperienced to serve my community in the state legislature. While being a mama has become a superpower for me — granting me the ability to fix boo-boos with besitos, growing eyes on the back of my head, and sometimes harnessing surprising super-strength when my daughter demands to be carried while I’m lugging all of the groceries upstairs — to many, being a mama is a disqualification.
Throughout my run, I had thousands of conversations with voters in my district. Almost daily, someone questioned my ability, my experience, or my priorities as a mom. I’d get some version of these exhausting questions: “But who is going to watch your kid?” or “What does your husband think about you running for office?” or “Pero entonces, ¿quien cocina en tu casa?” Each time I fielded one of these maddening queries, I did my best not to roll my eyes and, instead, focus on the issues facing our communities. 
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Chris Ehrmann for Friends of Jess Woolford
These questions reminded me how isolating running for office could be. No matter how many hits I’d take every day, I’d have to focus on why I decided to run in the first place. I’d have to swallow my rage and wait till door-knocking or phone banking was over that day to let it all out. Then, I’d have to start again the next day.
But how society views working moms is only part of the problem. There are a myriad of systemic barriers in our political system that discourage or make it impossible for us to run. To start, lots of conventional political wisdom says candidates should start knocking on doors at least a year before their election. But most of us, let alone those of us with kids in expensive cities like New York, can’t afford to quit our day jobs and forgo a paycheck and health insurance for an entire year. Additionally, being a political contender requires us to pay a lot of out-of-pocket money. To get on the ballot, candidates have to go through a brutal petitioning process to get thousands of signatures from voters in our district. Between the costs of a lawyer, campaign manager, and canvassing tools, candidates can easily spend thousands of dollars alone in this process. Every step along the way is a reminder that the system wasn’t built for working moms.

"While being a mama has become a superpower for me — granting me the ability to fix boo-boos with besitos and growing eyes on the back of my head — to many, being a mama is a disqualification."

JESSICA ALTAGRACIA WOOLFORD
On top of the expenses of running a campaign, raising a kid isn’t cheap. Nationally, child care costs are on the rise, due in part to inflation, the pandemic, and staffing shortages. This is especially felt in New York, where the cost of child care is estimated to be around $21,000 a year. Meanwhile, families are easily spending thousands of dollars on formula, diapers, and other essentials. Given these costs, I would not have been able to run for office if it wasn’t for a very brave mama who came before me, Liuba Grechen Shirley, who lobbied the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to allow candidates to use campaign cash for child care. 
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Still, mostly out of necessity, Mila, my then two-year-old, would sometimes join me on the campaign trail. I’d keep one eye on her during canvassing events as I listened to elders share horrible stories about rodents in their apartments or children who didn’t get the special education support they needed in predominantly Black, working-class neighborhoods. I listened to fearless queer youth who shared what it felt like to be policed in their school hallways and working mamas who were worried about the costs of child care and rent in our city.
Rachel Kessler for Friends of Jess Woolford
I listened to all of it, and each time I felt the constant burning rage of being a mom in the U.S., frustrated that so many of our representatives in government just don’t care. These conversations made it clear to me that our state legislatures, where the most important decisions about funding for our schools, our streets, and our homes are made, don’t have enough moms in office — and it shows.
Across the country, mothers with kids who are minors make up 18% of the U.S. population. However, a study by Vote Mama Foundation found that only 386 of all state legislators — or about 5.3% — are mothers to children under the age of 18. In my home state of New York, there are only 14 moms of young kids. Unsurprising to me, states with fewer moms in public office rank lower in how they are performing for their citizens across issues like health care, education, public safety, the economy, and more. For example, in Alabama, there are no moms with kids under the age of 18 in state office; the state also ranks among the worst in terms of health care, education, and opportunity. 
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Moms have vision and solutions, but we can’t run like rich white guys. Instead of asking us, “who’s going to watch your kids,” institutions and donors should ask, “what kind of support do you need to win?” From start to finish, child care was constantly one of my biggest campaign stresses. But it’s not just needed for candidates; high-quality and affordable child care are also necessary line items for a functioning campaign staff. Moreover, we need to address that universal leaky boob problem. To start, we should fight for a world where every city and state capitol has lactation rooms for nursing parents. That way, when mamas win, they can focus on the work at hand and feed their kids in a dignified manner. 

"States with fewer moms in public office rank lower in how they are performing for their citizens."

JESSICA ALTAGRACIA WOOLFORD
And of course, we need public campaign financing to level the playing field between working-class candidates and wealthy interests. The mama who knows the painful pressure of choosing between a gallon of milk or a gallon of gas is no less qualified to run a school board, chair a committee hearing, or lead a rezoning effort than a shadowy billionaire donor. In fact, it’s that painful pressure and her ability to solve problems that make her the best candidate to lead.
Here’s the thing: Moms lead how we love. And it’s this very superpower that convinces me that our legislatures would be able to pass universal child care and build a more equitable health care system, protect reproductive freedom, and enact housing justice measures if the same folks who shoulder the weight of the world are at the decision-making table designing true systems of care and repair.
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Chris Ehrmann for Friends of Jess Woolford
To my daughter, it’s now normal that moms run for office. And as hard as it was, I love how she coo’ed when we watched my campaign video, which she calls “mommy’s movie,” and that she was by my side until election day. I hold all the tensions that come with running for office as a momma. There’s the stress and worry. But there is also the indescribable joy that comes from walking into a poll site in a cafeteria where I went to middle school, holding my daughter’s hand, ready to cast my ballot for myself, and seeing the name my mother gave me and the name her mother gave her. This designation, Altagracia, Spanish for high grace, is a testament to our power. 
Moms are gracious menders, healers, creatives, and visionaries. We are a divine multitude of possibilities. In the words of New York State Senator Jessica Ramos, “There’s no such thing as someone else’s child.” Moms know this; it’s how we lead and how we win.

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