Monday, October 17, 2011

Why Women Don't Run for Office

On last week's episode of Modern Family, Claire Dunfy - a stay at home mom - decides to run for local office. This isn't so much driven by personal ambition, she just hates the guy in office and wants to replace him. Anyway, at one point in the show she realizes that she has too much to do at home, and that her family falls apart when she has to step out for a few hours to fill out some forms at town hall (because her husband doesn't know how to handle the tasks she normally takes on), and she decides she can't run for office after all. Someone finally talks her into it, but it's fairly accepted that she won't actually win.

Now I realize the show is fiction, but I think Claire's struggle is one many women looking to run for office relate to. Despite how far we've come, many families rely on mom to run the family - make breakfast, pack the lunches, drive the kids to school, make the costumes for the school play, drive the kids to soccer practice and ballet class, make dinner, do many of the household chores, the list goes on and on. Even women with jobs are still expected to work the second shift (taking on the housework after a full day working outside the home). Being a mother is still a tasking, thankless job, and many people don't even realize how much they rely on mom until they have to somehow make do without her for a day or so. That said, I think it's common for women to feel like they can't run for office because they have too much to do at home, and they can't just up and leave their families to fend for themselves.

Another, related reason - one big reason keeping women from running for federal office, is the feeling that a wife and mother cannot uproot her family. Holding office in the executive branch requires one to live in Washington, and it also requires one to travel all over the country during the campaign. If a woman were to become president, her whole family would need to move to Washington with her, and I think many women feel like they cannot make the family move like that. What about the kids? What about her husband's job? Certainly, men have to ask themselves this too before moving for work, but such a move is generally acceptable for men because they are assumed to be the family's primary breadwinner, whereas his wife's occupation - if she has one - is often seen as secondary income, a job she holds just to make some extra money, rather than a career she's invested in. I know I often try to consider a career I can do anywhere, so that when I get married we can go where my husband needs to be and I can do what I want to do there. Sometimes I date a guy who wants to live and work in a specific region and I think "if we get married, I can't be president, because I have to be where he is and I can't expect him to move for me."

Maybe that's just me, but I can't help but feel like there are plenty of other women with the same dilemma. I'm sure many women don't feel like they have the right to move their families, or even their husbands.

Then there's the economic reason keeping women from running for office. A campaign costs money, and public service doesn't pay well at all. You need money to run and many women, single or married, can't afford it due to the still-present wage gap. Married women, again, don't feel like they have the right to that much of the family budget. That's for the husband and children. It's for family vacations, dance classes, Christmas presents, and of course dad's business trips.

In short, running for office is a selfish thing. It requires money and resources; it requires one's family to support you in the campaign, make television and live appearances, even go on tour in some cases; and running for and holding public office is a huge time commitment many women don't feel like they can make because of all the responsibilities they have at home. While men are still encouraged to go after their career ambitions and that it's okay for their family to be a close second to work, women still feel pressure to put their wants and needs last, behind those of their husband and children - they still feel that they exist to serve others before themselves. This may not be true for all women, and of course we see that many women run for office either despite these sociological obstacles, or because they are a non-issue for them - these issues are true for enough women that they need to be examined and addressed.

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