In 2019, I ran for Virginia’s state senate. I am a mom of two children and at the time, they were ages 10 and five. At the height of the campaign, my youngest started Kindergarten and my oldest began a new school in fifth grade. During most of the campaign, I was working full-time. Consequently, my children were in after-school care, private preschool, and summer camps that we paid for out of pocket. However, in late August, it was apparent that if I were going to have a chance at winning, I needed to take an unplanned, unpaid leave of absence from my job and work full-time on the campaign. This also meant that I could no longer afford childcare and needed to balance being a full-time mom with being a full-time candidate.
I am one of many moms who have run for office and could have benefited greatly from using my campaign funds towards childcare expenses. Yet, in many states, this is not the law. In fact, in Virginia, one can legally use campaign funds towards many personal expenses – like buying office supplies or meeting your campaign staff at a local coffee shop – yet, it’s frowned upon to use those same funds for childcare for minor children. This unspoken expectation directly and disproportionately impacts mothers seeking political office.
As the national Programs Director with ReflectUS, a Coalition of the nine leading women’s representation organizations, we are collectively building a movement to remove such systemic barriers that inhibit women from seeking elected office. Through our “From the Ground Up” state network, the ReflectUS Coalition is particularly focusing on the barriers to elected and appointed office facing working-class women. If being a candidate without childcare support is difficult for women candidates with economic resources and familial support, it is nearly impossible for women without those support systems. In Virginia, childcare costs are among the most expensive in the country. Additionally, families across the U.S. pay an average of $847 to $990 per month per child, depending on age. Hence, childcare is a substantial expense for most families’ budgets. Fortunately, local and state organizations are responding to this injustice.
ReflectUS has partnered with Virginia Organizing and the League of Women Voters of Virginia. Both of these organizations are advocating for systemic changes to eliminate the barriers to political participation and threats to representative democracy. As a result of these and other efforts, such as the incredible initiative of VoteMama Foundation and ongoing systemic change work of ReflectUS Coalition member RepresentWomen, among others, Virginia was poised to pass House Bill 1952 (HB1952) before the end of the 2021 session in February. The bill, which has been re-referred to a Senate committee after passing unanimously in the House of Delegates, clarifies that candidates may not use campaign funds for personal expenditures, with one exception – paying for childcare while campaigning.
Naming childcare as an allowable campaign expense is an important part of this legislation, and a step in the right direction. One of the leading national advocates on this issue, VoteMama founder and CEO Liuba Grechen Shirley, talks often about creating a new norm of childcare as a campaign expense for parents running for office. She states:
“I petitioned the Federal Election Commission and became the first woman in history to receive federal approval to spend campaign funds on childcare. This decision paved the way for working parents to run for office.”
HB1952 ultimately failed this year. Had it passed, this legislation would have created an explicit understanding that support for childcare is an acceptable campaign expense. This bill, and acceptance that candidates need to pay for childcare to effectively run for office, would have been incredibly helpful for me as a candidate and would greatly reduce one of the barriers for women running for office. Unfortunately, only a handful of states have passed legislation allowing the use of campaign funds for childcare expenses.
When I ran for office, it became clear to me that in order for us to move towards a representative democracy, our society must normalize motherhood. Many voters, for instance, did not want to be reminded that I was a mom of small children with real needs – they wanted the young family campaign aesthetic without the realities of parenting. I am convinced this internalized and subtle sexism is the reason paying for childcare with campaign funds is often disparaged. This reality is confirmed by the way our society has pushed women to the side during the COVID-19 crisis. As Melinda Gates notes, “Here in the U.S., one in four women has already considered downshifting her career or leaving the workforce altogether because of new caregiving responsibilities at home.”
Normalizing childcare expenditures as part of political campaigns is a good start to making elected office more accessible for more women in diverse circumstances. ReflectUS is working towards breaking down these barriers, and I’m proud to be on the forefront of this movement.
Amanda Pohl is the Programs Director for ReflectUS, a national, nonpartisan coalition working to increase the number of women in office and achieve equal representation across the racial, ideological, ethnic, and geographic spectrum.