Mothers quite literally make the world go ’round. Yet only 25 current congresswomen are mothers to children under the age of 18, and all seven women with children under age 2 who ran in 2018 were not elected.
So why don’t mothers have more of a place in politics?
Political candidate Liuba Grechen Shirley had the same question during her own campaign this past November. She ran against her district’s 26-year Republican incumbent, and while she lost her race, she felt that her voice and other mothers’ voices were still needed in the political sphere. So she decided to do something about it, and on January 16th, Vote Mama was born.
Vote Mama is the first organization of its kind, devoted entirely to supporting mothers as they run for federal, state, and local government office. The organization’s aim is to focus on mothers with children under the age of 18, connecting them with other elected officials to talk about how to run, how to maintain work-life balance, and for general networking.
Grechen Shirley has long held an interest in politics, receiving dual bachelor’s degrees in Politics and Russian from New York University in 2003 and working for the United Nations for over a decade with a focus on parental-leave policies.
But it wasn’t until her own representative, Republican Congressman Pete King, came out in support of the Muslim ban in January 2017 that she knew she had to take a stand. She organized a march against the representative’s stance, meant to end at King’s office. But when she arrived to meet with the representative at 3:30 p.m. as instructed, Grechen Shirley found the doors locked and the lights off.
“I remember being shocked…that’s not the way you treat your constituents,” she told HelloGiggles.
She channeled her outrage into a 400-person march, which subsequently led to a meeting with King; it was after that meeting that she realized she needed to run for his seat.
Grechen Shirley began her campaign in October 2017, looking to replace the incumbent who has what she calls a “horrible voting record,” including voting against paid family leave.
Grechen Shirley was mother to a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old at the time, and had thought she would wait to run until they were grown. But King’s actions and continued disregard for his constituents fired her up and prompted her to move up her timeline.
“I took a leap of faith—I wasn’t really sure what I was getting myself into,” she told HelloGiggles. “The way our government is set up is geared toward getting older, wealthy men in office. It’s not set up for moms, it’s not set up for working Americans. To run for office, you have to take a year or two years without a salary.”
She was able to raise $126,000 in the first few months of campaigning with no staff and no babysitter, and soon after was noticed by Pantsuit Nation, drawing more support for her campaign from her community and other female politicians around the country. As she continued campaigning up until the November 2018 election, Grechen Shirley worked tirelessly, spending 40 hours per week on the phone and another 40 hours in her community. But she took a lot of flak for not giving enough time to her campaign or her family.
“If you run for office as a mom, people discredit you. They think you’re an unviable candidate, they think you don’t have the time, they don’t take you seriously,” she said. Her opponents accused her of child abuse when her son broke his leg during the campaign, and others claimed she was using her children as “props” to get ahead.
Grechen Shirley was able to find solace in prominent Democratic politicians like Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand, both of whom offered recommendations on how she could be successful in all realms. She said that those meetings gave her the strength to keep going, even as she had to take money out of her retirement account for her campaign.
Ultimately, Grechen Shirley wasn’t able to replace King, losing by a mere six points. After taking a week off to spend time with her family, Grechen Shirley launched Vote Mama.
“I remembered wondering, ‘Why isn’t there more support, why isn’t there a playbook for how to run for Congress?'” she recalled. “I’m going to write that playbook, I’m going to build this PAC [political action committee].”
She took the money left over from her campaign, began fundraising with supporters, and had a director in place by December. Since its launch on January 16th, the Vote Mama advisory board has grown to 15 women—including freshmen congresswomen Katie Porter (D-California) and Kim Schrier (D-Washington)—and has already received many calls from other people who want to get involved.
Grechen Shirley emphasized that Vote Mama will support candidates up and down the ballot, just as she did with her FEC request last year, which asked the FEC to allow political candidates to use their campaign funds for child care. The commission ruled in her favor, so candidates can now use funds allocated for their campaign expenses—typically used for campaign staff salaries and promotional materials—to pay for child care, alleviating some of the pressure that mothers feel during their campaigns.
“Dads don’t face the same stigma,” Grechen Shirley said, referring to the 100 current congressmen who have children under 18. “We need to make sure we’re supporting children across the board.”
Now that Vote Mama is up and running, Grechen Shirley is excited for the future—especially with four women, including her supporters Warren and Gillibrand, running for the presidency in 2020. Vote Mama’s team is currently planning a big event in D.C. on February 12th, and another in New York City in March.
“The more moms we get into office, the more conversations we’ll have,” she said.