ST.LOUIS — St. Louis’ next mayor will be the single mother of a young son — no matter who wins.
That’s a side note in the lead-up to the April 6 election, but the fact that voters chose Tishaura Jones and Cara Spencer over two married men in the primary election leaves the debate to focus on crime, education and the economy, not the candidates’ personal lives.
“Voters chose the two most progressive candidates,” said Clarissa Rile Hayward, political science professor at Washington University. “Maybe voters in St. Louis don’t have the same gender biases to the same degree. A possible good outcome is that some of these single mother stereotypes will be chipped away.”
Last year, less than one-fourth of the mayors of U.S. cities with populations over 30,000 were women, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Two U.S. senators and 23 representatives are mothers of children under 18. The lack of representation means issues like family leave, child care, maternal mortality and education can be downplayed in the legislative process, say leaders of the political nonprofit Vote Mama.
Historically, traditional gender norms have allowed candidates who are fathers to be viewed as ambitious and powerful leaders. Women have had to overcome the idea that their primary role is as a caregiver.
“Either you can be a good mother or you can be a good leader,” Hayward said. “There’s this double standard where it’s fine for a man to be a parent and a leader, nobody really questions it, whereas it’s an issue when it’s a woman.”
It’s been standard politics for generations for male candidates to include pictures of their nuclear families in campaign ads. Jones’ son Aden, 13, appears in some ads but has been more interested in teenage life than the campaign trail. Spencer’s son Cy, 10, has only been featured in a second round of television commercials, after he agreed.
The strategy has shifted, Jones said, since her previous campaigns when she “couldn’t lead with being a mom. I had to lead with my experience, my capacity to do the job.”
Spencer said being a single mom helps her identify with her constituents who “know that I understand how important day care is, being able to tune into the small business owners, how important it is to have after-school activities,” she said.
Still, showcasing their roles as single mothers can trigger biased narratives in some voters that are extra punitive to a Black woman like Jones, Hayward said.
People tend to assume Black women are single mothers because of a poor decision they made, where white women are given the benefit of the doubt and more sympathy for their circumstances, she said.
Jones cited a whisper campaign during her first campaign for city treasurer in 2012 that suggested she was running just to get out of Jefferson City as a state representative. Politician dads who work in the state capital are seen as making a “noble sacrifice,” while moms are “irresponsible,” she noted.
Voters generally assume that male candidates, even single fathers, have a support system handling child care and household work. Typically, only women are questioned on the campaign trail about how they manage the work/life balance.
St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson started her political career in the 1990s as a single mother of young children. A search for U.S. politicians who are single mothers turns up several examples — including the mayors of Phoenix, Topeka and Washington, D.C.
All have been the subject of media coverage about the “juggling act” between work and home. A similar search for single fathers in politics turns up empty, and not because they don’t exist, but because their home lives are generally not part of the discourse.
The recent rise of single mothers in politics means their status is starting to be seen as an advantage, suggesting “they are super qualified, really high energy, organized, have lots of great ideas,” Hayward said.
“Seeing women and people of color in leadership positions as the rule and not the exception is really going to change how (children) view leadership in the future and what that looks like,” Jones said. “It can look like anything. I think it sets the stage for being able to show up as your authentic self.”
Spencer said her son was at first hesitant about her decision to run for mayor, worried about spending less time together. He has since become a big part of the campaign behind the scenes, asking questions and offering advice, she said.
She launched her campaign early last year, before schools shut down and she had to manage virtual school and her work as alderman of the 20th Ward.
“Having those responsibilities helps get you focused and more efficient,” Spencer said. “I am a great cookie baker. I’m a great alderman. I’m a great mom and it is possible to do all those things.”
At least in St. Louis, the idea of a single mother in her 40s running the city has progressed to almost unremarkable.
“Changing that inherent perspective is a really, really good thing,” Spencer said. “Normalizing what should be normal.”