Maternal appeals in politics: their effectiveness and consequences.

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Maternal appeals in politics: their effectiveness and consequences.

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There is a history in politics of "maternal appeals" in which female activists and candidates appeal to popular ideas of motherhood to garner support for their political agendas. Political actors' choice to emphasize motherhood is at odds with social-psychological theories that indicate that women will be seen as poor candidates for leadership positions to the extent that they appear stereotypically feminine (Eagly & Karau, 2002; Heilman, 1983; Heilman & Okimoto, 2008). Nonetheless, political candidates of both genders claim to draw inspiration from their experiences as parents, and feminist political theories argue that appeals to nurturance and the family have the unique ability to usher in a new kind of politics built on fundamental values of compassion, generosity, and interpersonal connectedness (Elder & Greene, 2009; Hayden, 2003; Lakoff, 1996, 2002; Ruddick, 1989, 1997). This project provided an empirical test of the claim that motherhood can be harnessed to advance a political agenda. A novel theory of the dynamics of maternal appeals in political campaigns was tested in a content analysis of of political advertisements from the 2004 U. S. Senate, House, and gubernatorial elections and two laboratory experiments. Results indicated that candidates attempt to channel the power of motherhood for political gain, and in the contemporary political environment, male candidates have more leeway to make maternal appeals than do female candidates. Although they compromised political candidates' chances of electoral success, maternal appeals also changed the basis on which leaders were evaluated such that feminine characteristics were weighted more heavily in vote choice. Moreover, maternal appeals had effects beyond voters' impressions of candidates: They increased support for liberal policies among some individuals, suggesting that they can contribute to a liberal political agenda. However, maternal appeals also perpetuated stereotypes of mothers in an organizational context, with implications for the ethics of using maternal appeals as a political persuasion tool. Taken together, the findings of these studies support the claim that maternal appeals have a unique power, but in the current socio-cultural context in which motherhood is devalued and separate from the public sphere, the effects of its power are limited.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. July 2011. Major: Psychology. Advisors: Dr. Eugene Borgida and Dr. Christopher Federico. 1 computer file (PDF); vii, 295 pages, appendices A-H

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Deason, Grace. (2011). Maternal appeals in politics: their effectiveness and consequences.. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

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