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Motherhood and Marijuana

In last week’s post on the growing public support for legalized marijuana, Nate cited earlier research that considered whether having children depresses tolerance for drug legalization.

I want to broaden this question to consider the effect of parenthood — and motherhood in particular — on political attitudes generally. From all the attention paid to mothers in politics, you might think that it has a profound influence on political attitudes. But the evidence is more mixed.

Jill Greenlee, a political scientist at Brandeis University, tackles the question in her paper “Soccer Moms, Hockey Moms, and the Question of ‘Transformative’ Motherhood”.

Ms. Greenlee’s data originated in a random sample of the high school class of 1965. Respondents were interviewed again, at different stages of their life-course, in 1973, 1982, and 1997. At each stage, Ms. Greenlee examined the effects of becoming a mother. These are rare and powerful data: measuring changes in the attitudes before and after motherhood among a particular group of women elucidates the relationships in the data more than taking a random sample might.

Despite the attention to moms in politics, Mrs. Greenlee found that becoming a mother has no consistent impact on political attitudes. Instead, its impact emerges on some attitudes but not others, and then only for certain periods of time and among certain subgroups of mothers.

Consider the issue in Nate’s post, for instance: marijuana legalization. Does becoming a mother make women more opposed to legalizing marijuana? Yes, but only by small amount (the equivalent of 6 points on a 100-point scale) — and only for those women who became mothers between 1973 and 1982.

Motherhood has mixed effects on attitudes toward the military and police, self-identification as liberal or conservative, and identification with a political party. For example, becoming a mother between 1965 and 1982 was associated with a conservative shift in ideology, but the effect is small: the equivalent of 8 points on a 100-point scale. Motherhood had no effect on identification with a political party.

Greenlee concludes that although motherhood can be thought of as bringing about changes that are “conservative in orientation,” they are limited in their scope and can have different effects on different women. More research is needed to uncover those effects — but in the meantime, her analysis suggests caution in assuming that motherhood has any straightforward impact on women’s political beliefs.

John Sides is a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and is one of the authors of “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.”