I spent the night at the Beacon Hotel in Washington D.C., but I don’t remember sleeping much. I had flown out of Chicago the night before for an interview at one of the venerable conservative think tanks. I was 22, an economics major from the evangelical Wheaton College, the president of our Students in Free Enterprise chapter who had wrapped up a Koch Foundation internship the previous summer, and the oldest daughter of a man who ran for Congress as soon as he was legally allowed, winning the Republican primary outside of Cleveland. Working in Republican public policy felt like destiny.
I remember wearing a black suit that I’d gotten for the occasion and having a full day of interviews, meeting with different department heads and scholars and going up and down back staircases all locked with keycards. I was both tired and on an adrenaline high heading into my last meeting with the executive who made the final hiring decisions. We sat in chairs in the middle of his office. He had gray hair and wire glasses and asked what I wanted to work on. I said women’s economic opportunity.
He chuckled and shook his head and said something along the lines of That’s cliched; why do women always want to study women’s issues? And then he lowered the boom: “Because of how you look, no one’s going to take you seriously in policy. You should get a job in communications instead.”
Unsurprisingly, no job offer was extended. For years, I thought it was something about me, and I felt shame about it. If only I had worn my glasses, or been quieter, or been less quiet, or said regulatory reform was, of course, my passion. But 15 years, two presidential campaigns, a move to Texas and three babies later, I’ve come to the realization that it was something bigger, something more endogenous to Republican politics than any particular institution or person. The party — and its institutions — have never been welcoming for millennial women.
Now that these women are becoming mothers, they are finding even less to like. And the GOP should pay attention — or it might find itself without the voice in the party that could save it.
I’m not the only millennial woman to feel out of step with the GOP. According to Pew Research polling in 2018, among millennial women, 70 percent are or lean Democrat, relative to 23 percent who lean or are Republican. This gap is huge relative to that of millennial men, who split 49 percent Democrat to 41 percent Republican, and dwarfs the partisanship of other generations of women. Importantly, this is not a baked-in gender gap: The partisan gap among millennial women has nearly tripled in the last two decades.
I’m an economic analyst, not a pollster. But reasons are given for the general flight of women from the GOP abound. There are few Republican women in leadership — in Congress, think tanks or policy campaigns — relative to that of Democrats, but that’s been the case for some time. The tone and the crassness of many in the party’s leadership — “Legitimate rape”; “grab ‘em by the p—-”; “blood coming out of her wherever” — has ticked up. The hardline party stance on immigration or health care or gun rights, which women voters tend to care about more than men, have been in the spotlight. Then there’s the fact that millennials came of age during 9/11 and the Great Recession and now Covid-19, and so might be more inclined to recognize the world is fragile and that government in theory could help.
But I can’t help but think that the GOP’s yawning gap among millennial women in particular has to do with their becoming mothers. The millennial generation is typically defined as being born between 1981 and 1996, meaning that these women are now in their mid-20s to 40 — prime years for starting families.
More than a million millennials are becoming mothers every year. Millennial mothers are facing the intense time, financial, emotional and physical pressures that come alongside the joy and delight of children. Millennials without children also see this dynamic among their friends — part of a cycle potentially influencing their own fertility decisions, according to New York Times polling.
Millennial women are more educated than any previous cohort of American women or men, by a substantial margin, and are more educated than millennial men. And they are beginning to personally experience the gap between how much progress women have made in some respects and the fact that only a lucky few of us still have access to paid maternity leave policies, childcare support or flexible workplaces. On top of that, the children of millennials are increasingly getting a raw deal on K-12 education, federal debt and early childhood investment as resources increasingly flow to the elderly.
Millennial mothers look up and see a lot of older Republican men in leadership talking about very few of these things. Few Republican-oriented organizations are focused on such concerns. Popular conservative talking heads spend the day in Twitter battles, deriding dads who take paid parental leave, and calling paid maternity leave “another predictable click of government’s leftward-moving ratchet.”
Democrats are discussing these issues, which likely contributes to more millennial women leaning left. Others, like me, believe in what the GOP can stand for but wonder when it will change. So far, the message seems clear: As long as mothers remain in the party, we are on our own.
There has been far too little serious thinking about policies and ideas related to supporting motherhood and family policy on the right. Part of this shortage stems from a conservative desire to limit government overreach, but it has created gaping holes in the safety net, particularly for mothers and children. Part of it, though, is also likely the result of having few women in general and mothers in particular in positions of power in the party, limiting their ability to have a say in policymaking.
I’ve seen how this works firsthand.
In 2012, I was hired at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank, as program director of economic policy. While there, I published multiple papers and articles on women’s economic opportunity, childcare, single parenthood and paid leave with the only resident female scholar on the economics team at the time and my friend, Aparna Mathur. At times, our work faced resistance. AEI prides itself on its ability to encourage competition of ideas, so some of this was to be expected, though the disagreements at times felt more fundamental.
Our work didn’t fit neatly into conservative philosophy at the time, although I always held out hope that government support for childcare and maternity leave could fit within a pro-family, pro-growth conservative framework. I felt like a renegade or RINO for writing about it, despite motherhood showing up as an inflection point in the data on economic opportunity and upward mobility again and again. Being the only women on the team contributed to the feeling of being on our own in raising these issues.
Eventually, Aparna and I both eventually left AEI for other opportunities. In 2014, I moved to Texas to lead policy for then Governor Rick Perry’s second presidential run in 2016, and nine months later, I had my first baby. After giving birth, the survey data that one in four women return to work within two weeks contained a whole new level of meaning. Nothing is healed, attached, or stable by then, or even close to it.
The lack of women is an issue across the GOP policy establishment. Across both chambers, there are 106 Democratic women and 38 Republican women in Congress. A glance at the roster of top right- and left-leaning policy institutions shows that in general, left-leaning institutions tend to have more female domestic policy scholars as well. Congress and think tanks supplement and inform each other’s work, existing in parallel Washington universes, and so they also reinforce each other’s cultural problems, including their lack of female representation and leadership.
Still, the number of Republican women in Congress is at a high-water mark, having trailed behind Democrats’ share of women in office since the 1950s. And slowly, the Republican Party is coming around on family-friendly policies. That sea change came with then-candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 election cycle. Largely driven by interest from his daughter Ivanka, Trump included a six-week paid maternity leave policy and childcare proposal in his campaign. With his engagement on this issue, Trump gave the party and the many institutions associated with it the political cover to move out on issues of childcare and paid leave without being labeled RINOs.
Slowly and surely, a wider range of Republican members began putting forward paid leave policies of their own, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio (who proposed tax breaks for companies that provide paid family leave in his presidential campaign in 2016), Utah Senators Mitt Romney and Mike Lee, Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy, Iowa Senator Joni Ernst and others. These included innovative proposals to draw funds early from Social Security to finance periods of paid parental leave, to advance and to increase the size of child tax payments to cover periods of parental leave, or to combine other means-tested programs into an easier-to-access cash benefit for families. And the Republican Congress under Trump passed an expanded child tax credit, passed a spending plan with more money for the Child Care and Dependent Block Grant (CCDBG), which helps support childcare for low-income families, and provided paid parental leave for the federal workforce. In 2017, AEI and Brookings launched a bipartisan working group on paid leave, and I was delighted to speak at the launch event on the importance of paid parental leave from a conservative viewpoint.
The Covid-19 pandemic at the end of the Trump administration provided an accelerant to the debate. Congress passed emergency and temporary provisions to support families, including a bipartisan federal paid leave program for the first time, an expanded child tax credit and increased childcare funding. But these programs have since expired.
With President Joe Biden at the helm, few Republicans seem eager to come back to the table. His landmark agenda, Build Back Better, which focused on dramatically ramping up our early childhood investment, was so huge and unwieldy and full of hidden costs that Republicans were able to denounce the whole package instead of dealing with its components. Even many Democrats harbored concerns about it for driving up prices and not reaching the most vulnerable families. There was little in the legislation that sought to reach across the aisle or compromise, despite recent bipartisan momentum on infrastructure and gun rights. The legislation failed to gain the support of moderates in the Senate and hasn’t gone anywhere since.
But Republicans must come back to the table on these issues, and quickly.
You might at this point be wondering why I haven’t considered a switch in party affiliation. But I’m a homeless Republican because Democrats don’t get it completely right either. Here, I’m not alone. Millennials are more likely than any other demographic to identify as independent, and the growth in women leaning or identifying as Democrats is mostly coming from the “leaning” cohort, not the identifying group. And in 2020, millennial women were 10 points less likely to identify with or lean toward Democrats than in the previous election cycle.
Something is holding back moms from going fully from conservative to liberal.
For someone like me who is religious (Anglican) and still leans conservative, Democrats have often swung too far left. On abortion, for instance, Democrats have often refused to support any limitations on the procedure, although most Americans want more restrictions, the science has evolved on the pain fetuses can feel , medicine has changed the science of viability and U.S. laws often are less restrictive than those in European countries. Democrats have also tended to offer wildly expensive prescriptions for our domestic economic issues, like the $5 trillion that Build Back Better would cost if its programs were passed and made permanent, hiding the true cost and claiming that this would somehow reduce skyrocketing inflation. They also included poison pills in BBB like reducing childcare support for religious providers, despite faith-based groups comprising half of center-based care used by parents, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.
I’ve been in plenty of conversations with high-ranking Democrats who have confessed that they’d block a paid leave plan for new parents unless it covered a wide range of other uses, too, despite limited research on the impacts of other types of leave and the overwhelming benefits of parental leave. Some Democrats also refuse to acknowledge the problems with our K-12 system and are actually trying to shut down charter schools despite their popularity, as evidenced by often long waiting lists, and the fact that they serve many low-income communities across the country. Some Democrats also worked to keep schools closed during Covid-19 far longer than the science suggested was necessary, to the detriment of children’s mental health, food security and achievement. Some Democrats also don’t seem to believe that we need to address our historic debt — a bill that this next generation of kids will have to pay.
With these deep flaws in both parties, is it any wonder that women are exhausted by politics in general? In 2018, More in Common, a nonpartisan organization that works to combat polarization, coined a term for those who are fed up and done with politics: the Exhausted Majority. According to that report, the people in the Exhausted Majority were more likely to be women.
I’m not saying that with a few policies and window dressing for millennial mothers, the GOP ranks will swell. I’m saying the problem is deeper. A system that doesn’t give voice to those raising the next generation is unlikely to be set up for success and vibrancy.
There is perhaps no larger generational opportunity for Republicans to reverse course and support mothers than in the wake of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. As a result of that ruling, millions more babies are going to be born, especially in red states, and, morally and economically, the GOP must demonstrate its commitment to caring for those babies and their parents.
Women have abortions for complicated and interrelated reasons, but the leading reason people cite in multiple polls — 40 percent in a 2013 survey — is lack of financial security. These new babies will be born into a country that doesn’t provide job protection for 40 percent of workers following the birth of a child and where only 1 out of 4 workers have access to paid family leave. Those babies will be born into a country with an elevated neonatal and maternal fatality risk relative to the rest of the developed world. In the United States, high-quality childcare is also largely out of reach for many families, which leaves women having to choose between working and good childcare for their kids.
And do you know who has felt all of this most recently and personally? Millennial mothers.
It would be logically consistent for the GOP, the anti-abortion party in the United States, to get serious about these issues, and to extend the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to outside the womb — a position that has come to be known as a whole life ethic.
For whole life conservatives, it should be a fundamental birthright that every American is entitled to spend the first months of life with their mother and father without their parents’ risk of job loss or financial instability. The literature on childhood development overwhelmingly highlights the importance of parents being present and engaged early on, and yet the status quo makes it very difficult for mothers and fathers to spend this critical time healing, adjusting and bonding with their newborn. Republicans shouldn’t nervously offer benefit trades, like dipping into your Social Security if you want to have access to paid leave following birth — they should go all in and make America a global leader in our care for new mothers. I’ve argued for six weeks as a bare minimum of paid parental leave, but the research supports significantly longer durations. A federal paid parental leave program is not just a patch or a backup plan; it’s a cultural shift that this time of intensive caregiving and attachment is worth protecting for everyone, irrespective of their occupation or the state they live in. It’s a signal for our value of life and care.
Low- and moderate-income families in particular should receive childcare support, and conservatives who champion upward economic mobility for those with lower incomes should be advocates for this kind of support. Today, many low-income families are ineligible for existing childcare support because that support only accrues to the extremely impoverished through underfunded CCDBG or to the well-off through tax credits, like the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, which is not refundable if you don’t owe taxes (outside of a temporary pandemic-related exception) and thus not able to be claimed by low-income households.
Childcare support should be increased through the state block grants, CCDBG, or by making the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit refundable. Importantly, this assistance should also be allowed to go toward faith-based providers and in-home providers to boost the supply and diversity of providers, in addition to regulatory review and apprenticeship programs for caregivers.
The most impoverished age group of U.S. citizens are those under the age of five. A monthly child tax credit that’s refundable and tightly targeted by income could help to eradicate child poverty. Those reforms should be paired with an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which boosts the income of low-wage workers and has a long history of encouraging work, especially for single mothers. Some parents would like to stay home or scale back work hours, and an improved CTC and EITC system could create more financial flexibility and options for these families as well.
We should also be having more conversations about maternal health, from contraception to postpartum and in-home visits. We should be seeking to make it easier to work part-time, as many women say they’d like to, and to make it easier to change jobs by increasing access to portable benefits, which link benefits to workers instead of specific employers, something that free-market conservatives should embrace to reduce friction in the labor market.
In a whole life conservative ethic, we should be increasing the safety of our schools. I realize that school safety is a much bigger problem than gun access, and it also encompasses mental health, broken families, atomization of community and the cultural lionization of violence, but in the words of conservative columnist Peggy Noonan, gun reform “might get us an inch on the yardstick, and that’s something.” I’m not sure anyone in Washington has a great idea for how to fix those other cultural issues that are to blame for school shootings, so it seems like we should take action where we can.
We have this tendency in public policy to think of certain issues as liberal or conservative, especially as our parties have come to resemble hardened extremes instead of broad and loose coalitions. To conservatives, spending more on early childhood and maternal health is considered liberal and off the table. But this is inherently limiting to reform.
I’d prefer not to grow the government either, but that doesn’t mean we have to continue to decrease the already shrinking share of the pie going to children. Spending for these priorities should come from a massive overhaul of our existing system. Our entitlement spending is disproportionately tilted to the elderly, including those with significant means. It makes little sense why we’d commit as a country to a safety net for the 20+ years at the end of life, but not at the beginning. (Unless, of course, you look at who is in political leadership and who votes.)
Yes, this would take hard work and compromise. That’s what government is for. Instead, I fear many in the GOP would rather call out companies who provide stipends to employees to travel for abortions, further stoking the new culture war that has broken out over abortion in the wake of Dobbs — instead of striving to make America the best place to be a mother and raise kids.
Is there a home for millennial mothers in our political system?
I still identify as center-right, and I’m not giving up on economic freedom and the role of strong mediating institutions like church and family and federalism as a philosophy. There are also reasons to hope on the right, including figures such as Romney and others who are putting forward creative and innovative ideas to address the issues facing parents and children within a conservative framework. Or the increase in Republican women elected to Congress. Or that Representative Liz Cheney dedicated a section of her recent speech at the Reagan Library to young women, who she said instinctively seem to know the dangers our country faces and what’s at stake in our coarsening politics. “These days … men are running the world,” she said, “and it is really not going that well.”
There are signs women are warming back up to Republicans, too. In May, one average of six recent national polls found that Republicans were on pace to do better among women voters than it did in the 2018 midterm elections. My hunch is this midterm swing is more from looming recession fears and skyrocketing inflation — a reaction against Democrats (“affective polarization”) — as opposed to any constructive agenda conservatives are putting forth.
We need a GOP that listens to women and particularly mothers — not just for any political party, but for the country.
As Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky wrote in their book How Democracies Die, one of the few prescriptive ways out of our polarized doom loop is a stronger center-right party. This screams millennial moms to me. The ones for whom the whole day is multi-tasking and problem-solving and compromise and keeping helpless kids alive and staying on a tight budget and staying connected in the community and just getting things done. The ones who don’t fit neatly into either political party and thus have the freedom to hold politicians accountable instead of having to curl up into an increasingly tiny political box.
I think back to that interview in college. Little has changed for women in GOP institutions — although today I’d have a few strong words for the interviewer rather than flushed cheeks.
But we can still change the party. Imagine how much stronger we’d be, as a nation today if, for the next cohort of young women to go through that process, the door to the interview were to swing open and the person on the other side were to say: “It’s so nice to meet you. I’m a politically homeless mother, too. Make yourself at home; there are lots of us here.”