While the 2018 midterms were a record-breaking election for women, the trend had its exceptions: Every woman with kids under two years old who ran for Congress lost. One of those unsuccessful candidates was Democrat Liuba Grechen Shirley, who challenged Peter King in New York.
Now, her new mission is to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Grechen Shirley is founding Vote Mama, the first political action committee devoted to supporting progressive mothers running for office. The PAC will endorse and fundraise for progressive female candidates with children under 18—and connect those endorsed candidates with elected officials who can guide them on how to juggle motherhood and running for office.
“This was an historic year [for women], and it’s still only 25 moms in Congress,” Grechen Shirley says, referring to women with children under 18. That means that just 5% of Congress is made up of mothers in that stage of parenting. For perspective: that’s out of 131 women serving in the House and the Senate this session (many of whom do have older children). Meanwhile, there are currently 100 men serving in Congress who are fathers to young and school-age children.
Grechen Shirley understands challenges faced by candidates who have younger kids. She made waves during her campaign for winning a Federal Election Commission request to use campaign funds to pay for childcare after making it through the first six months of her campaign without a babysitter for her two children—a victory that other candidates have since taken advantage of to make their own campaigns possible.
“I got the idea before I even started running,” she says. “My biggest hesitation was how can I run for Congress with a 1-year-old and a 2-year-old? There weren’t that many moms who’d done it before.”
One day during the campaign, she ended up crying on the phone to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) as politics talk turned to motherhood and how hard it was to balance without support. More recently, she says she had breakfast with another presidential contender, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), where the pair spent an hour talking about the logistics of serving in public office while raising children. That experience is part of the reason Vote Mama will match its candidates with members of its advisory committee to provide advice: California Rep. Katie Porter, Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore, New York Rep. Grace Meng, and more. Porter, a newly elected representative, has talked about the challenges of running for office and serving in Congress as a single mother of three.
There are PACs out there, like EMILY’s List, that support women running for office—but none devoted to mothers. And female candidates who aren’t running in one of an organization’s top priority races don’t get that much support through those channels beyond the endorsement, Grechen Shirley says.
So why mothers? With more moms in Congress, the institution will hopefully prioritize the issues that matter to moms and their families: paid family leave, universal pre-K, affordable childcare and the expiration of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, to start. “That wouldn’t have happened” with more mothers in office, she says.
To receive the PAC’s endorsement, the candidates must be Democrats who support abortion rights, paid family leave, universal pre-K, along with special attention paid to other issues that matter to working families.
“We need to make being a mom and running for office the norm,” says Grechen Shirley. “We need our kids to see that running for office is just what mamas do.”