Female Candidates Breastfeed Children In Campaign Ads

Mar 23, 2018
Originally published on March 25, 2018 7:42 am

In recent years, candidates have tried all kinds of strategies to make attention-getting campaign ads. Throwing a large rock into a pond. Assembling a gun blindfolded. Talking to donkeys.

In two new political ads, however, candidates try something decidedly more commonplace: breastfeeding their children.

One ad opens on Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate Krish Vignarajah breastfeeding her baby and talking about the lack of women in state and federal elected office in her state.

In the other, Wisconsin Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kelda Roys feeds her infant daughter while talking about how she worked to help Wisconsin ban BPA, a chemical found in plastics, which some scientists have suggested is linked to health problems.

Breastfeeding may be as old as humanity, but doing so openly is rare in the world of political campaigns. As more women flood into politics, the videos represent one way that they are increasingly willing to break the mold of the standard candidate, almost entirely shaped by men, and more fully reflect womanhood in their campaigns.

The ads come as an unprecedented wave of women, including many young women, are running or preparing to run for Congress and governorships in 2018.

Putting one's motherhood front and center could, at first blush, look like a political risk. That's because voters have more doubts about mothers' ability to juggle politics and family than they do about fathers, as a 2016 study found.

"Voters will raise questions about a candidate's role as a mother as part of campaign discussions," the study from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation found. "They recognize a double standard for moms, who will get the most questions, but actively participate in it and are conscious of doing so."

Not that female candidates needed academic research to understand that. Pennsylvania Republican state House candidate Natalie Mihalek recently wrote in an op-ed that she gets questions about child care that her male opponents do not.

"Why am I the only candidate in the room being asked these questions?" she wrote. "Do they think mothers don't already juggle multiple tasks? Has no one noticed that men, my husband included, are also parents and share parenting duties?"

While motherhood complicates a woman's candidacy, it may also be true that the best way for female candidates to deal with a double standard is to confront it head-on, and breastfeeding in a campaign ad is certainly one way for a candidate to show voters that she has no problem being a mom and a politician at the same time.

"A prime concern for voters is whether a woman candidate will be able to both serve her constituents and care for family at the same time," said Amanda Hunter, communications director at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. "And by sort of addressing that out the gate, that can be an effective strategy."

What it means is that these candidates have an additional topic to address, on top of their policy positions and qualifications.

While the ads come at a time that it's attention-grabbing to breastfeed in a campaign ad, they play into an existing cultural conversation around "normalizing" breastfeeding.

It's a conversation that has inched into the political world. A Virginia state representative recently breastfed her daughter on the floor of the House of Delegates. Other politicians — a member of parliament in Iceland and a member of parliament in Australia — have similarly garnered attention for breastfeeding their children while conducting political business, and a D.C. City Council member pumped breast milk during a committee hearing in December.

Candidate Roys told NPR that the response to her ad has been "overwhelmingly positive," and that it has additionally helped her gain traction in a crowded Democratic primary field to take on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican running for a third term.

"It's been phenomenal. It's been absolutely fantastic," she said. "And in a primary where we have a lot of candidates who are older white men — that is really what the field looks like — I stick out in a lot of ways."

NPR's Sarah McCammon contributed to this report.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

A new ad from a Democrat running to be governor of Wisconsin may not sound unusual.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD, "OUR GIRLS - KELDA ROYS FOR GOVERNOR")

KELDA ROYS: Government should be about helping every person achieve his or her potential, and Wisconsin used to do it so well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kelda Roys is just doing what candidates do, pitching herself to voters while showing off her family. But what you can't see is that in the middle of her pitch, Roys starts breastfeeding her 3-month-old daughter. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben explains that we may see more of this in a year when women are taking politics by storm.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Breastfeeding may be as old as humanity, but doing so in a campaign ad appears to be new. In recent weeks, two gubernatorial candidates have unveiled ads in which they breastfeed. There's Kelda Roys in Wisconsin and Maryland's Democrat Krish Vignarajah. She's hoping to unseat the Republican incumbent in her state.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD, "KRISH VIGNARAJAH: I'M A MOM. I'M A WOMAN. AND I WANT TO BE YOUR NEXT GOVERNOR.")

KRISH VIGNARAJAH: Some say no man can beat Larry Hogan. Well, I'm no man. I'm a mom. I'm a woman. And I want to be your next governor.

KURTZLEBEN: It's perhaps no surprise that breastfeeding has come up on the campaign trail this year when women are running for office in unprecedented numbers. The ads represent one way that they are breaking political norms, norms largely shaped by men, to more fully reflect womanhood in their campaigns. For her part, Roys says that voters have responded well to her video.

ROYS: It's been overwhelmingly positive, and I've received all kinds of great, encouraging messages from people all over Wisconsin and all over the country.

KURTZLEBEN: And had she tried this kind of ad in any other year, when Democrats in particular weren't as energized by women candidates, Roys thinks it just wouldn't have worked.

ROYS: Well, I could have made it. I'm just not sure that the response would've been so positive.

KURTZLEBEN: Breastfeeding in a political ad might seem like a risky move and not just because many Americans are uncomfortable with women breastfeeding in public.

AMANDA HUNTER: A prime concern for voters is whether a woman candidate will be able to both serve her constituents and care for family at the same time.

KURTZLEBEN: That's Amanda Hunter, a spokesperson for the nonprofit Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which researches women in politics. In a 2016 study, the foundation found that voters concern themselves with women's family lives in a way that just doesn't happen for men.

HUNTER: They don't seem to face the same type of criticism and the same sort of blunt questions that you hear, anecdotally, women candidates talk about when voters might ask, who's watching your kids right now? Where are they?

KURTZLEBEN: A good way for candidates to respond, according to Hunter, is to simply be upfront about their family lives. And breastfeeding in an ad is certainly one way to do that. To Roys, her video has an added benefit of making her relatable to voters.

ROYS: I think there is a real hunger for candidates who are authentic and true to themselves and not overly poll-tested.

KURTZLEBEN: The decision to use the breastfeeding footage might have been a risk. But Roys feels that it helped her stand out in a primary field of more than a dozen candidates. Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News. Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.