Political Science The Politics of Parenthood: Attitudes, Behavior, Policy, and Theory
Jill S. Greenlee, Elizabeth A. Sharrow
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0304


As the rhetoric around parenthood has increased in the political world, so too has the scholarly focus on parenthood within political science and related fields. This article attempts to account for the many ways in which parenthood is political and has implications for the study of politics. In this article, we consider parenthood as a role, identity, and life event that has the potential to shape the attitudes and behaviors of individuals. We also review literature on the constitutive roles that public policies and political institutions play in structuring the meanings and practices of parenthood. In this survey, the unit and topics of analysis differ across areas of study, varying from parent, child, candidate, officeholder, historical era, or policy domain. The literature is also characterized by the use of different data sources, methodologies, and research designs, all of which vary in their ability to isolate the independent effect of parenthood on the outcome of interest and which we acknowledge is largely focused on heterosexual partnerships and two-parent households. The scholarship here is organized around four major themes: 1) Parenthood and political socialization, 2) Parenthood and political attitudes and behavior in the mass public, 3) Parenthood and political behavior among elites, and 4) Parenthood as terrain for state-building and public policies. In this structure, we first review some central works within the literature on parents as primary socializing agents of their children’s early political orientations, while also discussing the smaller literature on children as socializing agents onto parents. Second, we examine research on how parenthood shapes the political lives of adults in the mass public. We consider literature regarding how parenthood shapes the policy stances of political elites and literature examining the political attitudes and behaviors of voters and activists. We also review research on how parenthood shapes how voters evaluate political candidates. We then consider how parenthood operates as a landscape for state-building through public policy and political institutions, and how parenthood functions as a social arrangement around which public policies are built. While scholarship outside of political science examines aspects of parenthood with implications for politics, this review covers primarily research within political science. Moreover, we touch only lightly upon topics that have generated vast amounts of scholarship, such as the politics of women’s fertility and reproductive rights. Finally, we are mindful that approaches to the study of parenthood that examine how gender, gender identity, race, sexuality, disability, and class converge to shape distinct parenting experiences, identities, vulnerabilities, and policy needs are unfortunately uncommon within political science—we hope this bibliography might underscore the need for such research in the near future. While we primarily focus on work from the American corpus, we include cross-national studies and perspectives which highlight that national context (i.e., role of the welfare state) shapes the ways in which parenthood matters for politics and policy. The authors thank Hayden Latimer-Ireland, Linda Wang, and Anja Parish for their help with the production of this manuscript.

General Overviews

The role of gender is central the discussion of parenthood. And, indeed, this article considers how motherhood and fatherhood operate as roles, identities, and organizing forces within politics. One work that examines motherhood across a range of domains and in a cross-national, comparative context is Thomas and Bittner 2017. This book offers an important overview of the ways in which motherhood shapes the political careers and candidacies of women and the political attitudes and actions of women in the electorate. It also offers insight into the varying contexts of social welfare state variation, placing the United States into specific comparative perspective.

  • Thomas, Melanee, and Amanda Bittner, eds. Mothers and Others: The Role of Parenthood in Politics. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2017.

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    This edited volume examines how parenthood shapes the lives of women in politics, be they candidates, public officials, or citizens. The book takes a global perspective on motherhood and politics, drawing out the common themes from research across Canada, Latin America, the United Kingdom, and the United States and also addressing how different institutional contexts shape the experiences of mothers in the political sphere.

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