Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney may have some ground to make up before November if he hopes to gain more support among female voters, a majority of whom have consistently shunned him in the polls. But his comments during Wednesday's debate about cutting funding to PBS are not likely to do the trick.
"I like PBS. I love Big Bird," Romney said. "But I am not going to keep spending money on things [we have] to borrow money from China to pay for."
The comment provoked a strong, emotional reaction among some parents. "As a mother of two young girls (5 and 7) raised on PBS, my jaw dropped when Romney made that statement," Liz Gumbinner wrote to The Huffington Post. "The more I thought about it, I went from shock to outrage. It alienated an entire nation of parents."
"I told my husband, 'The few mothers of young children who are still behind Romney -- he lost them there,'" said Christina Nanof, a 27-year-old mother in Potomac, Md. "Even a lot of the fathers of young children, I'm sure, were like, 'What? You're not getting rid of Elmo! There will be riots in the streets!'"
Jessica Pieklo, a 38-year-old law professor and mother of two in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., was "rendered speechless" by Romney's comment. "We don't have cable, so PBS is the only children's television my kids have," she said. "The idea that we would lose that, or that it would be privatized -- it's shocking to us for a whole lot of smart reasons and a whole lot of emotional reasons."
"Sesame Street," a publicly-funded television program, is one of the few children's shows that teaches kids about numbers, colors, and sharing without the adult-centered advertising found on other cartoons or cable channels. But beyond the obvious educational benefits, the show provides mothers an invaluable, if short, opportunity to answer work emails, pull together dinner, or even just to stare at the wall for 15 minutes while their kids are distracted by something wholesome.
On the two days a week that Pieklo is at home with her two-year-old daughter, she says Big Bird gives her twenty minutes to help her older son finish his homework. "Yes the educational benefits of 'Sesame Street' are certainly one thing, but the opportunity to just catch my breath when I'm going nonstop from 5 a.m. to 11 at night is invaluable for me."
For Nanof, a stay-at-home mom, the fifteen minutes in the morning during which her toddler is perched in the middle of the living room floor and distracted by Big Bird "is the difference between getting the laundry folded or, God forbid, taking a shower before noon," she said, and not having time to do those things.
An often overlooked benefit of a show like "Sesame Street," blogger and single mother Laura Roe Stevens points out, is that single or low-income parents often depend on it when they have to rely on a grandparent or young babysitter to watch their kids. "I have so many single moms writing to me in such dire straits," she said. "They can't afford preschool, so even if they can't get the most fabulous nanny for their kids, they know that for at least one hour, their kids are getting something really good with 'Sesame Street,'" she said.
Of course, mothers are not a monolithic group, nor are they single-issue voters. But for many moms, Romney's lack of support for PBS is another example of the candidate being out of touch with women.
"It seems absurd, being a father of five, that he doesn't get how absolutely fabulous that show is," she said. "Whether you're a parent in graduate school, or working full-time, Big Bird means a lot."