Traditionally, women in the United States have waited until their children are older to run for office, if they choose to run at all. In a country with few social supports for working families, having young families is seen as a barrier to political ambition for many women, who still manage the lion’s share of responsibilities at home.

Now, a growing number of women with young children are waging campaigns amid the surge of Democratic female candidates running in the wake of President Trump’s election.

Amanda Litman, co-founder of the Run for Something organization that supports first-time candidates, said that two-thirds of the 11,000 prospective candidates who have expressed interest since the election are women, many of whom have children. A Slack channel run by her group for candidates with young families hosts conversations about how to handle breast-feeding and canvassing, door knocking with toddlers, and posting pictures of their children online.

“It’s a new landscape for them without a lot of precedent,” Litman said.

The election in Virginia

In Virginia’s closely watched off-year election, there are a record:

  • 43 Democratic female candidates running for the House of Delegates
  • Nine Republican women
  • One independent

They are vying to bring their voices to a House of Delegates where women are just 17 of the 100 sitting delegates. Currently, only one has young children: Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg).

Research shows that women are just as likely as men to win elections, but they have to contend with higher standards — and more difficult questions — during the campaign when it comes to their families.

“For men, voters view families as a support system. For women, they are seen as an additional responsibility,” said Susan J. Carroll, professor and scholar with the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. As a result, some female candidates downplay their family lives, Carroll said.

Fighting for children’s future

For Kathy Tran,who is vying for the seat held by retiring Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), her children and her family’s story have been central to her campaign.

Kathy Tran, a West Springfield mother of four, laughs with her daughter Elise while leaving a note for a voter. Tran, a Democrat and first-time candidate, goes canvassing frequently with her youngest child. (Michael Alison Chandler/The Washington Post)
Kathy Tran, a West Springfield mother of four, laughs with her daughter Elise while leaving a note for a voter. Tran, a Democrat and first-time candidate, goes canvassing frequently with her youngest child. (Michael Alison Chandler/The Washington Post)

Tran, a39-year-old workforce policy expert, is a refu­gee from Vietnam who came to the United States with her parents when she was not yet 2.

Her fourth child was born shortly after Trump’s inauguration. Concerned about the new president’s anti-illegal-immigration platform, she and her husband, Matthew Reisman, chose the name Elise, inspired by Ellis Island, through which Reisman’s family immigrated to escape anti-Semitism. The middle name, “Minh Khanh,” is Vietnamese for “bright bell,” inspired by the Liberty Bell.

Within a few weeks of her daughter’s birth, Tran decided she wanted to live up to her daughter’s aspirational name. So she became a candidate.

Since February, she has knocked on more than 3,000 doors, many of them with her infant daughter at her side.

Sometimes on weekends, the family goes canvassing together, Tran said.

“We want our children to know that as our country is facing this moment of crisis, we are doing absolutely everything we can,” she said.

From trail to neonatal unit

Jennifer Carroll Foy entered a competitive primary against a Democratic opponent who had been campaigning for more than a year. Without much money or political capital, she said, her campaign relied simply on introducing herself, an African American who became one of the first women to graduate from the Virginia Military Institute, to as many voters as she could.


Jennifer Carroll Foy, running for state delegate, helped James Maddox Bey register to vote even though he won’t be able to cast a ballot for her in the upcoming election. Foy was one of the first women to graduate from Virginia Military Academy, is a foster mom, a public defender and recently gave birth to premature twins who are still in the neonatal intensive care unit. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
Jennifer Carroll Foy, running for state delegate, helped James Maddox Bey register to vote even though he won’t be able to cast a ballot for her in the upcoming election. Foy was one of the first women to graduate from Virginia Military Academy, is a foster mom, a public defender and recently gave birth to premature twins who are still in the neonatal intensive care unit. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

During her first trimester, she managed morning sickness with a full-time job, long commutes and evenings spent door-knocking in her district, which spans parts of Prince William and Stafford counties.

As an older mother carrying multiples, her pregnancy was considered “high risk,” and by her second trimester she needed to limit some of the physical work of canvassing because she was vulnerable to early labor.

Her field director or her husband, Jeffrey Foy, rode in a car nearby so she did not have to walk too far between houses or neighborhoods.

Two days before the primary she was put on bed rest. On Election Day, she handled logistics from home, while her husband and volunteers went from polling station to polling station. It was excruciating, she said. “But I had something bigger in that moment going on.”

In the end, when the votes had been counted and recounted, she had won by 14 votes.

Three weeks later, on July 5, she went into early labor. Her sons — Alex and Xander — were born at 22 weeks, weighing a pound and a half each.

In the first days and weeks, they were in critical condition, but they made steady progress.

As she and her husband moved their home base to a neonatal intensive care unit, so did her campaign. She conducted campaign meetings via conference call to set fundraising goals and plan the schedule for each week.

Now, at nearly 4 months, the babies weigh seven pounds and are expected to be discharged from the hospital soon.

“I smell the top of their heads and they relax me,” Carroll Foy said. “I think about their future and I remember why I’m working so hard.


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