Citizens in Iowa will make history tonight by bunching together in gyms and auditoriums, but some worry that there is a vital group underrepresented in the process: mothers.
Cedar Rapids Gazette columnist Lyz Lenz, author of the upcoming book, Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women, sparked a national conversation last week when she used her column to ask, "How do you caucus with a baby?"
Caucusing involves voting with your body. You have to be there in person, in a loud, busy room at 7:00 o'clock at night—bedtime for many little kids and therefore a busy time for many mothers. As Lenz wrote in her viral piece, the way caucusing is set up means that, "In 2020, 100 years after the 19th Amendment was passed, Iowa's mothers are still effectively disenfranchised from caucusing."
Lenz is a mother of two, a 6-year-old and 8-year-old, and lives in Cedar Rapids. We spoke with Lenz about her viral piece and the barriers to political participation mothers face.
"Women are still, even in 2020, the default caregivers," Lenz tells Motherly. "A lot of people have said to me, 'Well, why didn't you talk to the dads? Why didn't you ask the dads how they're going to do it?' And I mean that is a fair question, but I think we all know the answer."
The answer is that women do the majority of childcare in America, so the system itself needs to be overhauled to allow mothers to be more involved in the political process.
Lenz told Motherly that she "had a lot of conversations with my neighbors and friends, and I wanted to know if they were going to caucus, and how they were going to do it with their babies." She heard from many women—some with supportive partners who will care for the baby, others who plan to just put their baby in a sling and breastfeed and even moms with toddlers who plan to head to caucus tonight armed with an iPad and Goldfish crackers.
"But other people were like, 'I just can't do it'," she says. "I had women say to me privately, because they didn't want to admit this in public, but they just were like, I'm not going to do it. It's too much. I'm too overwhelmed."
For some, the idea of dragging a stroller up a flight of stairs and wrangling multiple small children with trying to interact (and be taken seriously) by adults is just too much. That's okay. But what isn't okay is the continuation of political inequality when we have alternatives.
When Lenz's piece blew up on Twitter one of the common critiques was "just get a babysitter," but getting a babysitter isn't that easy for some mothers. Hiring a sitter is prohibitively expensive for some. If you don't have family nearby (or if they're busy caucusing or have different political views) it can be difficult to find someone locally. One of the women Lenz spoke with ended up getting her kids' grandparents to come in from Nebraska.
It really isn't a question of getting a babysitter, it's a question of whether mothers should have to go to extreme lengths to access something that those unburdened by unpaid care work can simply walk into. Lenz adds, "People are so willing to just say to mothers, 'just try harder, or just hire a babysitter, or just make it work,' without trying to understand the cultural and structural ways that we remove women from the process."
Sometimes equal does not mean fair. On paper, mothers have an equal right to show up and caucus just like anyone else but in practice the same lack of support that mothers face in other areas is preventing mothers from participating in political life. While some women can overcome the barriers Lenz describes, others simply cannot and their voices are silenced because of it.