LAS VEGAS — Sure, she’s a Harvard professor emerita and US senator, but Elizabeth Warren wants voters to know something else about her: Back when she was a young mother, she potty trained her 2-year-old in five days to score a spot in day care.
As the 2020 Democratic primary shapes up, its leading women candidates — accomplished stateswomen, all — are drawing attention to another role they play: Mom.
Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar both talked about being mothers in the opening statements of their presidential bids. Senator Kamala Harris speaks often of her husband’s two children and the nickname they have given her: Momala.
There are already indications that the women of 2020 plan to draw on their own experiences to embrace policies that affect mothers and working parents more broadly, bringing such issues as child care and family leave firmly into the political mainstream.
This week, for example, Warren plans to introduce a universal child care and early learning plan, which she has said would be paid for by taxing the wealth of the richest Americans.
“I believe in universal child care and early preschool,” Warren said, speaking to a crowd of about 600 outside on a chilly Las Vegas afternoon on Sunday. “Zero to 5, let’s make that investment.”
Experts say the way candidates are talking about motherhood is part of a broader shift in approaching running while female, after years in which women politicians were encouraged to downplay feminine or maternal attributes so they could project strength in the male-dominated world of politics.
Hillary Clinton in 2016, for example, frequently kvelled over her role as a grandmother. And the Democrats made considerable congressional gains in 2018, powered by female voters and candidates, some of whom brought their children on the trail and spoke openly about the challenges of motherhood.
“They can talk about authentic life experiences that unfortunately in the past have often been seen as a hurdle to office-holding and being a candidate in the first place,” said Kelly Dittmar, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University and a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics. “We’re starting to see that those experiences are value added to the conversations and agenda that we’re seeing in a presidential campaign.”
Warren recalled her own scramble when talking about her child-care proposal on Sunday.
“I was a working mom, and child care nearly turned me upside down,” Warren said. “I still remember vividly the day the baby sitter quit and what it was like to scramble to try to find somebody else. And it’s just gotten harder since then.”
For some women in politics, such an approach is a huge breath of fresh air.
“If you’re a mother, especially of young children, people don’t take you as seriously as a candidate,” said Liuba Grechen Shirley, an unsuccessful candidate for Congress in New York in 2018. During her campaign, she secured a ruling from the FEC allowing her to use campaign funds to pay for her child care while campaigning. “We need more moms in office.”
Child care, a concern for many families, has drawn an increased focus from presidential candidates and policy makers in recent years, including from both Clinton and Donald Trump during the 2016 election. But the candidates running in 2020 could bring it even more attention.
“They’re all candidates who spent a lot of time not just wrestling with these issues in their own lives, but hearing from constituents who are really struggling,” said Betsey Stevenson, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Michigan and a former chief economist of the US Department of Labor.
Warren is best known as a crusading populist who created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and has called for structural changes to curb the power of Wall Street. But running for president, she has emphasized her role as a young mother. On a campaign trip to Iowa, she joked that before she ran for Senate, her fund-raising experience was as Girl Scout Cookie chair.
The story about potty training her daughter on a tight deadline comes with a reliable applause line. “I stand before you courtesy of three bags of M&M’s and a cooperative toddler,” she said in Lawrence last week.
“I can identify with every mom issue that she talks about,” said Andrea Howard, 54, who was at the event in Las Vegas. She said she got divorced when her children were 3 and 4, and became a single parent who worked as a teacher.
Gillibrand also called for universal child care earlier this month on Twitter. She has made being a mother a centerpiece of her political identity — she is one of the few female senators to have held office while raising very young children — and of her presidential campaign.
“I’m going to run for president of the United States because as a young mom, I’m going to fight for other people’s kids as hard as I would fight for my own,” Gillibrand said as she announced her exploratory committee.
Klobuchar made a similar invocation in her announcement video, recalling an issue that launched her own engagement with political activism.
“I’m running as a mom who advocated for one of the first laws in the country guaranteeing new moms and their babies a 48-hour hospital stay,” Klobuchar said.
Harris drew huge cheers from a crowd in Columbia, S.C., when she touched on the issues of child care and early education while campaigning there on Saturday.
“We’ve got to have universal pre-K so that our babies can start out with a leg up,” Harris said. “Associated with this issue is affordable child care and a national policy for that.”
But Warren is likely to be the first candidate to offer specifics around universal child care. Warren’s plan would provide access to free child care for families making less than twice the poverty line. Other families would pay on a scale, with no one paying more than 7 percent of their income for child care.
It is an issue that could resonate with numerous women voters, such as Kathryn Danielson, 69, who went to see Warren on Sunday and recalled dropping out of school three months shy of earning a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, in part because she couldn’t get good child care for her children.
“She went through and did what I tried to do with kids, to get through school with kids,” Danielson said.