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Single Mothers Are Having Their Moment in American Politics

A growing number of single women are running for public office. In order to beat their opponents, they may need to shatter some unfair stigmas first.
Megan Hunt celebrates her primary win on May 15th, 2018.

Megan Hunt celebrates her primary win on May 15th, 2018.

Lily Espinoza Ploski is a Latina single mom to a 14-year-old son. She's also frustrated with a society that she says has told her time and again that her only value comes as a wife and mother; to many, it's this single status that's the real reason behind rising poverty rates and a general perception of "family decay" in America.

But that frustration has led to a productive output: Ploski is running to be California's state superintendent of public instruction. She's among a growing number of single women running for public office.

There's also, for example, Megan Hunt, who is running for the Nebraska legislature; or Lillian Salerno, a Texas-based attorney vying for a seat in Congress; or Californian Katie Porter, whose congressional run is aimed at "[taking] on Donald Trump and the powerful special interests in Washington."

Since the last presidential election, there's been a surge of women, single mothers included, driven to run at local, state, and federal levels, according to EMILY's List, a political action committee that advocates to elect pro-choice Democratic female candidates to office. Over a two-year period between the 2014 and 2015 election cycles, EMILY's List was contacted by 920 women wanting to run for office; now, that number has swelled to over 30,000, says Julie McClain Downey, the organization's communications director. While EMILY's List doesn't collect data on whether the women interested in running are single parents, Downey says that they've noted a rise, at least anecdotally.

"I'm sure that we have seen an uptick in single moms that have contacted us," Downey says. "I can say with some certainty that nearly any sub-group you would look at, we've seen an uptick in."

There's certainly room for political representation: Out of about 12 million single parent families with children under the age of 18, more than 80 percent were headed by single mothers, according to 2017 United States Census data.

"I think it's so important for us to run because single mothers are probably one of the most disenfranchised groups of the population other than children," Ploski says. "We have been systemically, politically, and economically taught from a very young age that, as a woman, our only worth is as a wife or a mother."

For several decades, single moms have faced an onslaught of discrimination and stigma from politicians and policymakers. Take, for instance, an excerpt from Profiles in Character, a 1995 book that former Florida governor Jeb Bush co-authored: "One of the reasons more young women are giving birth out of wedlock and more young men are walking away from their paternal obligations is that there is no longer a stigma attached to this behavior, no reason to feel shame," Bush wrote. In his own political career, Bush has put those principles into practice: As governor in 2001, he refused to veto the so-called "Scarlet Letter" law, which required women looking to put their babies up for adoption to publish their sexual histories in a newspaper if they were unable to identify the father. (The law has since been repealed.)

The demonization of single moms has largely continued in years since Bush's infamous Scarlet Letter mishap. In 2014, in a speech on the House floor, Texas Representative Louie Gohmert said he was motivated to enter politics by welfare fraud committed by single moms (a fictitious bogeywoman). Two years later, Illinois State Representatives John Cavaletto and Keith Wheeler put forth a bill that would mandate unwed mothers either to name a father on their child's birth certificate or go to court within 30 days with a family member who could sign the birth certificate and agree to accept financial responsibility for the child. (The bill never passed.)

Ploski, who has, in the past, worked for education non-profits as well as for Columbia University and Harvard University, has been chipping away at these sorts of institutional stigmas since becoming a single mom in 2002. Her platform focuses heavily on universal childcare, career preparation for high school dropouts, and comprehensive health education in elementary schools. But campaign fundraising remains a challenge, she says, in part because she has to convince constituents that single motherhood is a strength—not a hindrance.

"There's so many women with wonderful ideas and noble causes in education and experience that we're losing out on because we don't see the representation of single women in politics and in the economy," Ploski says. "You get at a point in your life where you talk so much about these issues but then there's a time for action. I just feel like 2018 is the year for action for me."

Hunt, for her part, is advocating for justice reform, personal and business incentives for returning veterans, and statewide comprehensive sex education. She says that, while the majority of people in her Omaha community have been supportive of her single status, she still gets asked about her marital and financial status—as if the two were innately intertwined. Hunt says it's those very questions that most inspire her.

"I want my daughter to know how powerful her voice is. There's nothing about my personal life I have to defend," she says.

EMILY's List's Downey says that, in addition to the 30,000 women who have contacted her organization because they want to run for office, they've also seen about 8,000 reach out to offer help for other women running for office. "That's something, as an organization, we've never really seen before but we're so heartened to see," she says.