RI Gov. Raimondo Puts Being a Mom at Center Stage

November 30, 2015


Rhode Island's first female governor took her young son to a bill-signing to name a state insect. Her daughter starred in an eye-catching campaign commercial and danced at her mother's inauguration.

Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo often uses the phrase "as a mom" in speeches. She recently tweeted about her "mom challenge of the day": She needed to resew pointe shoes before 11-year-old Ceci's dance class.

By putting her children front and center, Raimondo is unlike many past politicians, whose young kids rarely — if ever — appeared at official events. And observers say Raimondo — the only current female governor with young children — symbolizes a shift in the way female public leaders talk about their families and how society perceives them.

While women still struggle with gender stereotypes in the political arena, experts say Raimondo's stature hasn't been diminished and voters like to feel they know the candidate, regardless of whether they agree with them.

"We've seen a sea-change in how women can present themselves and how they're covered," said Victoria Budson, executive director of the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. "This opens the door for more and more women to consider this as a choice, where they feel positively about the experience of running and getting elected."

It's a shift playing out on the national stage, too: Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton worked to prove she was tough enough in 2008 and now she talks about her granddaughter on the campaign trail, said Anne Mattina, a communications expert at Stonehill College.

Such a tactic may be strategic.

Raimondo became Rhode Island's first female governor in January after serving as state treasurer and working as a venture capitalist. She crafted a contentious overhaul of the state's pension system and helped push it through the General Assembly. Some think the 44-year-old has national ambitions.

"For the savvy female candidate or officeholder, bold moves in policy are often followed with corresponding moves to soften their image," said Valerie Endress, a communications expert at Rhode Island College.

Some reacted negatively.

During the campaign, political opponents questioned why Raimondo was talking so much about her children and motherhood. She was accused of pandering after she tweeted to ask people whether there's such a thing as Italian meatloaf. Raimondo said at the time she was trying to portray a complete picture of herself, that she's not just "the pension lady."

It's a tightrope, Endress said: Raimondo can't appear too nurturing or compassionate, nor can she be too assertive or abrasive.

"Raimondo and Clinton are blazing their own trail," she said. "But, it's still a difficult trek."

Mattina, though, sees Raimondo as someone who is doing it on her own terms, as a mother.

"Unless and until we have women out there like her, it's not going to change for the coming generations," said Mattina, who studies the influence of gender expectations on female candidates.

Take the case of former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift for example, Mattina said. People were beside themselves when she asked for a lactation room to be put in the statehouse in 2001.

Swift told The Associated Press this month that one of the most disappointing parts of her political career was hearing from young women interested in politics that they viewed her experience as a "cautionary tale." Swift said Raimondo is at "the tipping point."

"The fact that women are able to be their authentic selves at work has to be positive for them politically and for us as a society," she said.

For Raimondo, integrating her life as a mom into her position as governor came naturally.

"What do I have to do so that my kids will want to live here and have a job here?" Raimondo said in an interview.

Raimondo said she took her children campaigning, at first, because she wanted the family to be together. Raimondo and her husband are also trying to teach them about the importance of public service.

Now, she said, 8-year-old Tommy presses her to keep her promises, telling her, "You told the people you would do it."

"We're all on a mission to make Rhode Island better," Raimondo said.