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Prof. Greenlee authors book about intersection of motherhood and politics

Published: September 19, 2014
Section: News


Brandeis University is proud to welcome another addition to its already sizable collection of books written by current professors. The newest member to Brandeis’ library is titled “The Political Consequences of Motherhood,” by Professor Jill S. Greenlee. The book is the culmination of a research project begun in 2008 and was published this past spring. Her research analyzes the rhetoric of political candidates toward female voters since women were first granted suffrage in 1920, and attempts to determine whether or not motherhood actually has an impact on political attitudes.

In her seventh year here at Brandeis, Greenlee teaches a wide variety of courses in the Politics and the Women, Gender and Sexuality departments. Her classes range from introductory courses in American politics (POL14b) to Political Psychology (POL123a) to Women in American Politics (POL125a). Greenlee’s research was born as she completed her dissertation at the University of California, Berkeley. From there, her interest in political socialization, or how an individual’s political views change over a lifetime, combined with her studies on the effects of parenthood in both men and women, inspired her to wonder how certain terms such as “Soccer Mom” and “Walmart Mom” appear to have become ubiquitous within campaign speeches directed at women.

There were three stages to Greenlee’s research. In the first stage, Greenlee and several of her undergraduate students performed historical content analyses of The New York Times from 1920 to today, systematically extracting information on how women were discussed by the media. The research team also analyzed documents and campaign materials from the Presidential Archives and pulled materials from other collections in order to analyze documents from the candidates who did not win the presidency. Surprisingly, they found that candidates appealed to motherhood most frequently during the 1920s and then in the 1980s and onward, which are periods of the greatest expansion in the roles of women.

In the second stage, Greenlee looked at cross-sectional data interviews from 1948 to the present in order to determine if a specific demographic exhibited any changes in opinion over the course of several decades. She also examined panel data that consisted of the same individuals being interviewed about their political beliefs in 1965, 1972 and again in 1995. She compared how their answers changed after graduating from high school and becoming parents themselves. The results showed that, in general, the years in which political campaigns were centered on salient issues involving children, women tended to care more about the issues being raised.

In the third stage of her research and the last two chapters of her book, Greenlee and her research assistants conducted interviews of mothers in Boston and Berkeley. The results indicated that motherhood, “… doesn’t change women’s attitudes strongly … [It] changed their perspective on politics, shifted their priorities … [They] started thinking more about the long-term,” Greenlee concluded.

Greenlee’s book states that while motherhood does shape a woman’s political values, it’s not always in the way that campaign speeches would have you believe. For example, while mothers are generally regarded as more “dove-ish” than men, when asked about President George W. Bush’s administration and policies, many women claimed to be supportive of war and military spending. By writing this book, Greenlee hopes to “clear up misconceptions about women. Women are not a monolith, not all are the same.”

Despite her long-running interest in this topic, Greenlee is currently branching out by co-authoring other works related to motherhood. She has also been investigating racial attitudes amongst whites, attempting to see if Barack Obama’s election to the presidency is shaping the current generation of white American youths.