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‘There have been new challenges’: Women running for office aim to balance new demands during COVID-19

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers listens to a constituent’s question on Aug. 7, 2019, on the campus of Gonzaga Univeristy. Now, McMorris Rodgers is among many Northwest lawmakers trying to prevent another historic wildfire season.  (COLIN MULVANY)
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers listens to a constituent’s question on Aug. 7, 2019, on the campus of Gonzaga Univeristy. Now, McMorris Rodgers is among many Northwest lawmakers trying to prevent another historic wildfire season. (COLIN MULVANY)

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone to stay at home in March, former state Rep. Kristine Reeves knew her campaign would change in ways many other candidates’ wouldn’t.

Reeves, who has two young children, now had to balance campaigning for a seat in Congress and figuring out how to home school her children.

“How do you have a kitchen-table classroom, run for Congress full-time and also work through these big feelings of uncertainty with little people?” Reeves, who served as the Spokane County Democratic Party chair during the 2008 primary, remembers thinking.

The pandemic forced all candidates to rethink their campaigns. From changes in fundraising to switching events to Zoom, campaigning in 2020 looks a lot different than past years.

Many female candidates, who already face barriers in campaigning, were hit especially hard. Many with young children had to find time to home school in the midst of a campaign. They also had to find new ways to raise money that didn’t include knocking on doors, a strategy that often helps women in particular.

Women face numerous barriers to get into politics, even without a pandemic, said Cynthia Stavrianos, associate professor of political science and chair of the women’s and gender studies department at Gonzaga University.

Women need a lot more encouragement to run for office, Stavrianos said. She cited research from Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox, political scientists who have researched and written numerous books about women in politics. Often, women need to be recruited. Men also tend to believe they are more qualified to run than women, leading many women to decide not to run at all, Stavrianos said.

Research from the Center for American Women and Politics shows women often weigh their responsibilities as a care giver heavily when deciding if they should run for office, although perhaps not as much in recent years.

Both men and women faced problems campaigning as the pandemic went into the late spring and summer. But for many women, household responsibilities tend to fall more on them.

“I have an amazing partner, but the burden tends to fall on women,” Reeves said, adding the household burden can be a challenge in politics.

Reeves, who ran for the seat in Congress that represents parts of Pierce and Thurston counties, including Olympia, finished third in the August primary. She said she doesn’t think the pandemic affected how she finished but said the biases toward working moms might have had more of an effect than normal.

For example, Reeves said if her children show up in the background of Zoom calls, she is seen as someone who can’t control her children. If a man’s children show up in Zoom calls, however, he is often seen as a “such a good dad.”

State Rep. Mari Leavitt, D-University Place, said that, while she has an amazing partner, he also works. During the day, she said she has to balance Zoom calls and making sure her children stay focused on school.

It’s a challenge in normal years, she said, but especially during a pandemic when there’s no child care or school for her children during the day.

“Having that team around you is super critical to do well and to maintain sanity,” Leavitt said.

Campaigning is different than any other job, state Rep. Jacquelin Maycumber, R-Republic, said. Everyone with children struggles.

Maycumber said she wants to make it easier for working moms to run for office, sponsoring a bill last session that clarifies how campaign funds can be used for child care expenses.

“I really want to see young people, people with children, have the opportunities to run,” Maycumber said.

Many people in the Legislature are semi-retired and have children in college, state Rep. Sharon Shewmake, D-Whatcom, said. Those people might not have to think as much about balancing work and children.

As a working mom with three school-age children, U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers said life has been different because of COVID-19.

“There have been new challenges that have come from working and teaching my children, all in the same space, and often at the same time,” McMorris Rodgers wrote in an email.

State Rep. My-Linh Thai, who has two college-aged children, said one of the biggest things she has had to deal with is the mental well-being of her family. Her children are struggling with the uncertainty of the school year, and her husband is a physician and has cared for patients with the virus.

Thai said she depends heavily on her campaign staff, who are all women.

“We are incredibly supportive of each other,” she said.

Thai recently announced the state’s votes for president during the Democratic National Convention’s virtual roll call. Thai, a first time legislator, explained how she came to the country as a refugee as 15.

Another challenge women face when running for office is fundraising. While women don’t necessarily raise less money than men, research shows they do face difficulties reaching that equal amount, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. The barrier is even higher for women of color.

Women often receive donations in smaller amounts, so they need higher numbers of small individual contributions to reach the same amount of money as men, according to the center. Large donor networks also help, but they often benefit Democratic women more than Republican women.

Women also rely more on women donors for support. Because women tend to receive more small-dollar fundraising, Stavrianos said raising money might not be as difficult during a pandemic, when large donations might not be as common.

Reeves said she struggled to ask people for donations, especially during an economic recession, but she said she found that her empathy for people’s situations helped. Reeves said she proved that a woman of color with a background in foster care can raise money.

“You can still raise a lot of money when you do it with empathy,” she said.

Women tend to be much more relationship-oriented, Leavitt said, adding she missed campaigning and canvassing in person.

“Having those one-on-ones really help you to learn what issues people care about,” she said.

Despite difficulties in campaigning, Reeves said she hopes the pandemic encourages more women and working moms to run for office. Working moms tend to fight more for accessible and affordable child care, paid family leave and equal pay – issues that Reeves said tend to become politicized.

Before the 2020 election, the Washington Legislature was made up of about 40% women. Women held five of Washington’s 10 congressional seats and both of its Senate seats. Three women currently hold the statewide offices of auditor, commissioner of public lands and secretary of state.

The number of women and people of color has a significant effect on the type of issues discussed in the legislature, Thai said.

“I would venture out and say our state would have been in worse conditions than where we are right now if it wasn’t for a slate of women who serve in the state Legislature,” she said.

Shewmake said it’s hard to know what’s on the other side of the pandemic, but she hopes child care will be discussed more in the Legislature.

Because of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, Shewmake said lawmakers will likely be thinking a lot more about equity.

“At the end of the day, if we are really fighting for a future for all of us and an economy that puts people first, we need to elect more working moms and women of color,” Reeves said.


Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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