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Mom is at home in House, Senate

Female politicians find that talking about motherhood issues reassures traditionalist voters, strategists say.

January 23, 2007|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — It probably wasn't chance that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's first public event after announcing her interest in running for president -- a stop at a New York health center named for the Chelsea and Clinton neighborhoods -- echoed the name of her daughter.

Nor was it chance that the new speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, took up her gavel for the first time earlier this year surrounded by children, including some of her grandchildren.

In recent days, female politicians have risen to new power and prominence. And they did so -- deliberately -- surrounded by reminders of their motherhood.

Whether being a woman is an asset or liability in national politics may be an open question, but being a mother -- or a grandmother -- appears to be a sure winner.

Strategists say that talking about motherhood is reassuring to voters, some of whom are still uncomfortable with women in powerful jobs. It also helps create a narrative for their lives that connects them to mainstream and traditionalist voters.

"Raising children is certainly something both have in common with millions of Americans, and parents everywhere worry about their kids' future, so why not talk about it?" said Democratic strategist Stephanie Cutter. "It's really no different than talking about a military record or experience in running a business -- it gives voters a sense of who you are."

One example is freshman Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who brought her 11-year-old daughter, Abigail, to the Senate floor for her swearing-in this month. Abigail frequently accompanied her mom on the campaign trail, and the story of her complicated birth -- and the family's struggles with their healthcare plan -- was a frequent campaign theme.

"Being a mom is a big part of who I am. Historically, I don't think there have been enough moms in the U.S. Senate, and I think it was good for mothers across our state to get the sense that someone who understands their lives is in the United States Senate," Klobuchar said recently.

For Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who has been little known on the national stage except as a "San Francisco liberal," highlighting her motherhood and grandmother-hood -- she has five children and six grandchildren -- is also part of a strategy to make her less of a caricature.

But perhaps no female politician has used motherhood as effectively as Clinton (D-N.Y.), who is starting the most serious run at the presidency by a woman. Not coincidentally, when she was asked about her presidential ambitions on a women's TV talk show last month, Clinton noted that "we've never had a mother ... [in] that position."

Also not coincidentally, Clinton has just released a new edition of her 1996 book on raising children. The cover features a large photo of Clinton surrounded by school-age children. Inside is a soft-focus portrait of the senator with her 26-year-old daughter, Chelsea Clinton.

"At the core of this book is my own experience as a mother and my conviction that parents are the most important influences on the lives of their children," Clinton writes in the new introduction.

For Clinton, whose eight years as first lady left many with a view of her as a strident feminist and partisan, talking about being a mother could "soften" her image. Strategists say they expect Chelsea Clinton, now working for a New York City-based hedge fund, to take on a prominent role in her mother's campaign.

"Gender stereotypes are still alive and well in America and cut across men and women in all ideologies," Republican strategist Dick Morris and his wife, Eileen McGann -- no fans of Clinton -- wrote recently on their website, "Survey research shows that all voters believe that women are more compassionate, more focused on children and education, and more pro-peace than men."

Although many conservatives consider Clinton a liberal, she has tried to position herself more as a centrist on issues from immigration to abortion. One reason, political analysts suggest, is electoral strategy: More than half of the electorate is female and some of the most sought-after voters are mothers. Those voters tend toward moderate views.

"Swing women tend to be married and moms," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who noted that talking about being a mother "creates a connection to married women."

Although mentioning motherhood is often seen as a softener for women, Lake says that the reverse is also true: It shows them as strong in a nonthreatening way.

"People think that mothers are very tough. It's comfortable for voters to see a woman being tough in that way," Lake said.

Pelosi took advantage of that "motherly" toughness strategy during the recent scandal over former Florida Republican Rep. Mark Foley's inappropriate advances to teenage congressional pages.

"As a mother and grandmother, I think 'lioness,' " Pelosi said as she criticized the Republican leadership's response. "You come near the cubs, you're dead."

Ellen R. Malcolm, head of Emily's List, which works to propel the careers of Democratic women, said she considered the past year a watershed for political women: "It's kind of a coming of age."

After the 2006 midterm elections, there are 71 women in the House of Representatives and 16 in the Senate -- a record for both chambers.

And a female governor heads the National Governors Assn. for the first time.

"One of the strongest themes of the last election was that we needed a change for the next generation," Malcolm said. "By talking about being mothers, they show that they are looking ahead to the next generation."


Times staff writers Faye Fiore and Nicole Gaouette contributed to this report.

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