Moms in office: the challenges of leading a family and a government

A Mothers Day roundtable at The Flour Box

Eamon Queeney—North State Journal
From left: Stokes County Education Board Member Cheryl Knight

WINSTON-SALEM — In the quaint Flour Box Tea Room in historic Old Salem, five women gathered to exchange stories of motherhood: the joys, the challenges, the early morning routines — simple things all mothers can relate to. But these women also have a very unique experience in common: they are all elected officials.According to a 2015 report from Meredith College, women still make up less than 25 percent of all appointed and elected offices in North Carolina. Congresswoman Virginia Foxx, state Speaker Pro Tem Sarah Stevens, Alamance County Commissioner Amy Galey, Stokes County Education Board Member Cheryl Knight, and Huntersville Town Commissioner Melinda Bales are among that minority.The primary reason there are so few women in office today is not due to overt discrimination or structural deficiencies; says the Meredith report, but the fact that women seldom seek office on their own.Foxx, who represents North Carolina’s 5th Congressional District and has two grandchildren, told the group over tea and lemonade that she doubted herself when she first contemplated running for office in Watauga County in 1973.”I was at a school board meeting one night, as an observer, and the school board was being particularly incompetent that night,” Foxx reminisced. “And this man said to me, ‘Why don’t you run?’ And I said, ‘No, no, I’m not qualified’ — and he said, ‘You mean you’re not as qualified as those turkeys are?'”Foxx had already earned her master’s degree and was teaching courses at Appalachian State, yet she still questioned her right to sit on the board — something she says is still happening today, more than four decades later.”A lot of women think that they need to know everything there is to know about a subject [before they run],” said Foxx. “It is not a criticism of women, but we’re not great risk-takers sometimes.”Studies support the idea that self-doubt is playing a substantial role in suppressing female candidacy. The Meredith report found men in North Carolina were 60 percent more likely than women to assess themselves as “very qualified” to run for political office.”I think [women] analyze: can we do it? can we do it effectively?” said Bales, a Huntersville town commissioner who also chairs the Lake Norman Transportation Commission. Foxx chimed in to agree, “We are much more analytical, much more planned.”But when women run, women often win. In the 2014 elections, for example, 25 percent of the candidates across North Carolina on the ballot were women, but 63 percent of these candidates won their races.”We all have an obligation to use our talents at the highest and best use,” said Foxx.Stevens, a state representative from Surry County and new Speaker Pro Tem, said there is an additional wrinkle when you are trying to balance politics and motherhood.”Tremendous mommy-guilt,” said Stevens, who has two daughters, three stepchildren and four stepgrandchildren. “I felt like I always should have been there for my kids.”But all five women said an overwhelming sense of responsibility and the lessons their children would learn from the experience outweighed sitting it out.”I wanted to lead by example,” said Knight, a 34-year-old mother of a 5- and 2-year-old, with a third baby due at the end of June. Knight is part of a new generation of female leaders. Today in Stokes County, where Knight serves, five of the six school board members are female.For Bales, most days begin at 5 a.m. trying to push two teenage boys out the door in time for school. Between the carpools, extracurricular activities, and evening meetings, Bales said the balance is a challenge, but a necessary one.”The reason I ran for office is because I looked at my kids and I looked at my town, and I said, ‘When they are looking to settle down, I want them to settle down right here in Huntersville, and the only way to do that is to make sure the quality of life and the job opportunities are there,'” said Bales. “I know that I’m making a difference in this role. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.”Galey, an attorney in her first term as a county commissioner, says she finds joy in watching her children participate in the political process.”That was the best feeling after the election, when my 16-year-old hugged me and said ‘I’m proud of you, Mom'” Galey beamed. “He had seen how hard I worked, and he had been a part of it.”At the end of the day, these women are just like any mom, they simply hope the choices they make as parents will raise responsible, good humans.Galey recalled another moment during her campaign, when her son Jack approached a voter at the polls and talked with him for a few minutes about his mom.”The man went in and voted, and when he came out he said, ‘You know, I voted for your mom because I figured if she can raise a nice young man like you she’s going to do a good job with the county.'” Galey told the group with a smile, “Those moments help to make up for the difficulties.”