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Research upends wisdom on women in politics

Published: November 4, 2011
Section: Front Page


As exemplified by the concept of “Republican motherhood” and Sarah Palin’s recent “hockey mom” campaign, motherhood has long been associated with a set of moral values or ideals thought to translate into more pressing issues of political significance. Professor Jill S. Greenlee (POL) has explored the connection between motherhood and its possible implications within the political sphere through her essay “Soccer Moms, Hockey Moms, and the Question of ‘Transformative’ Motherhood.”

In conducting her research, Greenlee has focused primarily on whether or not the progression into motherhood bears any impact on views concerning drug legalization, military, police, partisan identification and ideological orientation. Greenlee based her research upon a random sampling of high school students selected in 1965, who were then interviewed periodically throughout their lives in 1973, 1982 and 1997. In doing so, Greenlee was able to focus on the direct shifts in attitudes that may have occurred in response to major life changes, such as parenthood.

Greenlee’s research “explores the diversity and commonalities among women, as well as an understanding of the nuances of gender.”

Greenlee discovered subtle but prevailing trends in the attitudes of mothers compared to their childless female counterparts. For instance, on the issue of marijuana legalization between 1973 and 1982, the effect of becoming a mother signified a lean toward conservative views. Yet, between 1982 and 1997, mothers actually became more liberal regarding this issue, suggesting that the inherent effects of motherhood upon political views are also greatly dependent on shifts in public opinion and societal beliefs. Furthermore, Greenlee deduced that the distinctions between mothers in regards to age and culture, among other factors, demonstrated subtle themes as well. For instance, those who prior to 1973 became mothers at a younger age possessed more conservative views than those who became mothers later in their lives. Those who remained childless possessed the most liberal views.

Although Greenlee recognized a trend toward conservative views in her research, she acknowledges the societal and cultural factors that influence political beliefs as well. For instance, according to Greenlee, “The effects of motherhood on political ideology emerge between 1982 and 1997—the height of the family values movement.” As a consequence of the political environment of the time period, Greenlee claims certain “emphasized themes may have resonated with mothers.” For instance, she asserts the increased positive feelings toward military involvement between 1973 and 1982 may directly correlate to the conclusion of the Vietnam War rather than to a shifting view dependent solely on motherhood itself.

Furthermore, gender in itself leads to distinctions in political views, regardless of parenthood. When asked if a similar study had been conducted on the role of fatherhood upon political views, Greenlee responded that she did not expect to discover such a trend. In her essay, she claims “running the same set of analyses for men, I find that for only one attitude—views about marijuana—are the effects of fatherhood similar to those of motherhood.”

Greenlee’s research, although demonstrating subtle themes in regard to the effects of motherhood upon political views, signifies that such trends are also influenced by a wide array of cultural, societal, gender and economic factors.

Greenlee’s findings demand that these influences must be considered to understand truly political campaigning geared toward motherhood values in a way that have thus far been ignored.’

“The historical appeal to female voters through the lens of motherhood is not without empirical basis,” Greenlee said, “but it requires further inquiry to be fully understood.”