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Do female politicians face a ‘motherhood bind’?

October 16, 2020, 1:02 PM UTC
U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) questions Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett via videoconference as she testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the third day of her Supreme Court confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill on October 14, 2020 in Washington, DC. Barrett was nominated by President Donald Trump to fill the vacancy left by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who passed away in September.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds—Pool/Getty Images

This is the web version of the Broadsheet, Fortune’s daily newsletter for and about the world’s most powerful women. To get it delivered daily to your in-box, sign up here.

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Fortune has a deep dive on the NBA bubble and the Wubble, Patrisse Cullors inks a Warner Bros. deal, and we explore the motherhood bind. Have a wonderful weekend.

– Walking the motherhood tightrope. The Broadsheet has spent plenty of time covering the “double bind” that women face in the workplace. It goes something like this: Stereotypes tell us women are supposed to be nurturing, gentle, and empathetic—but somewhere along the way, it was decided that those aren’t qualities that align with strong leadership. So, if a woman ticks all those boxes, she can’t possibly be a good leader. Yet, if she leans the other way, conforming to more “masculine” traits, like toughness or assertiveness, she is likely to be seen as abrasive, bossy—or worse.

This New York Times story suggests that the double bind has a sibling—I’ll call it the motherhood bind. The piece, by Claire Cain Miller and Alisha Haridasani Gupta, looks at the “tightrope” that women in public office walk when it comes to being—or not being—a mom.

On one hand, researchers have found that being a mother makes female politicians seem warmer or more approachable to voters. On the other, many Americans remain somewhat suspicious of working moms, and wonder how effective they can really be at their jobs while also fulfilling their parenting duties. Implied, of course, is that women still bear the true responsibility for taking care of children—the fatherhood bind does not exist.

The Times looks to two very different women to illustrate the phenomenon: Judge Amy Coney Barrett and Senator Kamala Harris. Barrett has seven children, a fact that Republican senators have been performatively cooing over all week. As the NYT puts it: “They described her mothering as ‘tireless’ and ‘remarkable,’ clear evidence that she was a ‘superstar.’” Want a laugh? Just try to imagine a group of senators taking the time to praise a male judge in these terms.

Harris, meanwhile, has leaned into her identity as stepmother, which some observers see as an attempt to sand any scary edges off her identity as prosecutor and her ambition—another trait voters sometimes punish female candidates for possessing—for the nation’s second-highest office. 

Some analysts told the Times that there’s an upside here: at least women like Harris and Barrett get to talk about their personal lives, to present themselves as “complex human beings”—something an earlier generation of women were urged to avoid.

Perhaps. Or perhaps women in public office—and, in some cases, the business world—have just traded one set of inflexible and stereotypical expectations for another.

Kristen Bellstrom

Today’s Broadsheet was curated by Emma Hinchliffe


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