Where are the Moms in the White House? (OPINION)

By Amy Julia Becker

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The political conventions of 2012 made one thing clear--both parties want to woo the moms of America. As Lisa Belkin pointed out in the midst of the Republican convention, in his convention speech, "Mitt Romney used some version of the word 'mom' 14 times." Romney's mom-laced speech came after both Paul Ryan and Ann Romney had courted the moms of our nation as well. Ann Romney explained that the moms "always work a little harder" than anyone else, and she said there are some things the men just can't understand. The Democrats followed with Michelle Obama's powerful words about what it means to be an American, which ended with a proud declaration that her most important title is still "Mom in Chief."

Both Ann Romney and Michelle Obama praised their husbands, and they painted similar portraits of family life. They described marriages that began with some degree of financial duress--the Romney's dining room table was an ironing board, Barack Obama's most prized possession a coffee table he had found in a dumpster. They both called upon memories of their husbands years ago to help us imagine these men without the trappings of fame and power and fortune. They extolled their husbands as fathers, and then they returned to their appeal to the mothers of this nation. There was something in those speeches for everyone, but it was the moms who were praised, and the moms who were being courted.

Moreover, both women implied that there is wisdom in being a mom, that moms know something about leadership, about values, about what matters to this nation, and about how to work hard to achieve goals.

Of the 15 members of Obama's cabinet, four are women, and two are mothers. Hillary Clinton, one of the moms, has already announced her intention to end her tenure as Secretary of State after the election. And both she and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius have grown children. The dads on the cabinet include at least four who have school-aged children. Romney has begun preparations to form a cabinet, although he has not named his choices yet. But his transition team and circle of close advisors rarely include moms.

So why are there so few moms on Obama's cabinet? And why so few advising Romney? If moms are so great, and so valuable, to both parties, why aren't more of them in official positions of influence?

In the Atlantic a few months back, Princeton Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote an article in which she explained her decision to go back to Princeton rather than continue working for Hillary Clinton in the State Department. In Why Women Still Can't Have It All, Slaughter describes the cultural and societal forces that make it difficult for women to be involved in the lives of their children and climb the ladder towards professional success, particularly when it comes to jobs within the highest reaches of the federal government.

Slaughter identifies practical solutions: changing the cultural expectations surrounding when and where both men and women work, placing a higher value as a culture on time spent with children, and recognizing that influential positions within government might only be possible after children have left the nest.

But she also concludes that including moms in the highest reaches of government is not up to moms alone: "If women are ever to achieve real equality as leaders, then we have to stop accepting male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal. We must insist on changing social policies and bending career tracks to accommodate our choices, too. We have the power to do it if we decide to, and we have many men standing beside us."

Ann Romney and Michelle Obama spoke on behalf of their husbands when they praised the moms of America and extolled their own roles as mothers. And yet neither mentioned social policies like paternity leave or incentives for flexible work that might allow more moms to faithfully raise their children while also advancing their careers. Government policy alone will not change the number of mothers in the halls of power. But both parties have an opportunity to couple their rhetoric about moms with policy measures. Both parties could offer policies to support a stable family structure in which women are not on their own to raise their children as well as an economic system that provides means for women to advance their careers even in the midst of PTA meetings and baseball games.

This election centers on the economy and the role of government. But both parties should also pay attention to the moms, not just through rhetorical flourishes at the conventions, but also by championing their involvement in structuring governmental policy. Whether or not Michelle Obama remains the Mom in Chief, we can hope the election of 2012 brings more moms into positions of power within the White House.

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