Opinion: Donald Trump pushed women into politics. COVID-19 could be a hurdle

08/05/2020 - Marietta, Georgia - Henry Watson participates in virtual learning on a laptop at the Emily Lembeck Learning Center in Marietta, Wednesday, August 5, 2020. The learning center is part of the Marietta City Schools district. The Marietta City School System is offering childcare for staff while the district is operating on a virtual-only option. Each class will be staffed by MCS staff members, and no more than five children will be in each class to allow for social distancing. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Over the last three years, we’ve seen a tremendous upswing in the number of women willing to run for public office — in Georgia and across the nation. President Donald Trump has often been cited as the cause.

So it seems odd to consider that a coronavirus pandemic, a viral attack that now seems certain to define Trump’s term, could also tap the brakes on this trend — as a paralyzed public school system and crippled daycare network conspire to keep women at home.

A few days ago, I received a weighty text from Sarah Riggs Amico, a Democrat who ran an unsuccessful campaign for lieutenant governor in 2018. She lost a June primary contest for the U.S. Senate, too.

Amico disappeared shortly afterwards, but not by choice. She and most of her family – husband, kids and parents – came down with COVID-19.

She is recovering, and had surfaced a few weeks ago — only to be hit with another dose of harsh reality. Part of her text linked to some dire statistics on daycare centers. They’re opening far slower than other businesses.

Then there was the pre-plague 2019 Pew Research study showing that, when it came to managing child activities and schedules, mothers still carry a far heavier load than fathers.

A personal note accompanied the data.

“I’m considering leaving the full-time workforce for the first time since I graduated. Even for women who can afford childcare, these circumstances are extreme,” wrote Amico, who has a master’s degree from Harvard Business School. Only last year, she was a top executive in her family’s trucking business.

Amico and I live in the same west Cobb County neighborhood. If it were open this month, her two daughters would walk into the same elementary school that mine did three decades ago.

But it is not open. Cobb schools, like most in metro Atlanta, have committed to learning by laptop at home. “I’m lucky. I have a partner who prefers to cook and grocery shop and do the laundry and cleaning — God bless him,” Amico said a few days later, at one end of a long table.

But her husband also has a start-up company that he’s trying to get off the ground. After two political campaigns, it was supposed to be Amico’s turn to carry the water and pay the bills. And yet.

“The idea that I’m going to be a referee, a psychologist, a home nurse, and a teacher for my kids and still go to work — I love multi-tasking, but I can’t do it anymore in this pandemic,” she said.

In corporate terms, Amico knows that sidelining herself at this stage of her life will, over a lifetime, rob her and her family of income in the neighborhood of seven figures. Amico also knows she’s lucky.

“We’re not in a hospital. We’re housed, we’re fed. I don’t really feel that I have a right to complain,” she said. Other mothers are far worse off, and that’s what worries her.

“We’re literally going to destroy a generation of upward mobility,” Amico said. “A lot of us have known for a long time that childcare is not a personal issue. It’s an economic one for working moms.”

Balancing work, family and ambition is an extremely personal calculation. Formulas are as numerous as families. But on the Democratic side alone, 107 women will be on the November ballot in contests for the state House and Senate. More than a few have small children, and 43 will be challenging GOP incumbents, according to Melita Easters, executive director and founder of Georgia’s WIN list, a group that recruits and trains women candidates committed to abortion rights.

Rebecca Mitchell fits both categories.

The race for Snellville-based House District 106 is one of this fall’s more important legislative contests. The Republican incumbent is Brett Harrell, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, the panel in charge of all tax legislation. That’s no small thing in the middle of a mammoth economic downturn.

Mitchell has her own important niche. She’s an epidemiologist specializing in data analysis, currently attached to Emory University. She’s also the mother of four, ages 6 and under. The youngest are 2-year-old twins.

“When COVID came, it wasn’t reasonable for me to send my kids to daycare. Which meant I needed to be home,” Mitchell said. Hers is a job that can mostly be done remotely. You can almost hear the shrug over the phone.

“It reflects the reality of being a woman in Georgia with children. All of us face the same things, and we’re all trying to do more things than is possible,” she said.

There is an assumption that campaign events before 7 p.m., when her husband is away, will include kids. After 7 p.m., Mitchell flies solo. Sleep is somewhat theoretical.

“I get the right amount of hours, but there’s just a lot of people waking me up in the middle of the night. They all climb into the bed that I’m on, then I go find another bed,” Mitchell said.

Her son will begin virtual kindergarten this month. “I have no idea how that’s going to go. But we’re going to try it. We’re in the same boat with everybody else. He’s going to be in kindergarten in the same room where I am working,” Mitchell said.

Her other three children will be in the hands of the nanny, though Mitchell suspects her 4-year-old daughter will try to jump into her brother’s kindergarten space.

Whether it comes in the form of a nanny or a brick-and-mortar building, daycare has always been expensive. “My childcare costs have consistently been more than my income, and I am a visiting assistant professor. That says something stunning about the impact of an economic crash.

“We don’t have a system where people can work outside the home and have more than two kids in childcare,’ she said. Even though few daycare workers earn more than $15 an hour.

“We have so many people running who do have young children,” Mitchell said. “What this epidemic did was highlight how insecure our childcare situation is in Georgia, for everyone. The fact that we’ve devastated so many daycares because they had to close or had to decrease enrollment — we need to look at what pre-school education looks like in Georgia.

Mitchell may win in November. Or she may not. The whole of Gwinnett County is up for grabs. But it seems safe to say that enough women will be joining the Legislature in January to make a strong case for giving childcare a more elevated position in Georgia’s economic hierarchy.

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