By Annamarie Houlis
When it comes to women’s share of representation in parliament, the United States ranks 104 out of over 190 countries. That’s because, of the 115 congresses in the history of the country with 1,972 senators representing their states in the past 229 years, only 51 of those senators have been women. And there have only been 10 members of Congress who have given birth while in office (all the births happened while the female lawmakers were serving in the House).
Among those women are Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, Susan Molinari, Blanche Lambert Lincoln, Enid Greene Waldholtz, Linda Sánchez, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Kirsten Gillibrand, Jaime Herrera Beutler and now-Senator Tammy Duckworth.
Duckworth, a retired lieutenant colonel who served a total of 23 years in the Illinois Army National Guard, delivered her firstborn daughter on Nov. 18, 2014, when she was 47 years old and a member of the House. While three of the 10 House women went on to serve in the Senate (Lincoln, Gillibrand and, of course, Duckworth), Duckworth has now become the country’s first sitting senator to have a baby while serving in the chamber.
She gave birth to her second child, Maile Pearl Bowlsbey, on Monday, April 9. And now, Duckworth’s maternity leave dilemma is exposing the sexism that is still rampant in our country’s politics.
The Illinois senator explained in a February interview with Politico’s Women Rule podcast, “I can’t technically take maternity leave — because if I take maternity leave, then I won’t be allowed to sponsor legislation or vote during that time period.” At the time, Duckworth reportedly said she had planned to take 12 weeks off and try and change Senate rules to allow her to work while on parental leave. But Duckworth was forced to choose between taking care of her newborn or her constituency.
Up until Wednesday, April 18, if she decided to carry on with work, she wouldn’t have been able to bring her daughter along. The Senate had barred children from its floor, which would have also meant that Duckworth wouldn’t have been allowed to breastfeed while sitting in session — an act that politicians elsewhere in the world have long been doing. Take, for example, Unnur Brá Konráðsdóttir, a new mom and member of the Icelandic parliament for the center-right Iceland Independence Party. Konráðsdóttir has taken the podium while breastfeeding her baby daughter, delivering her remarks while her daughter breastfed undisturbed.
According to a translation by Euronews, Konráðsdóttir explained: “She has been with me at the Parliament almost since she was born, so my fellow MPs are used to her. She has attended numerous committee meetings with me over the final days of this parliament. Usually she is very calm and when we cast our votes she is sound asleep. So there have never been any incidents before.”
Fortunately, in a rare move this week, the U.S. Senate voted to change longstanding rules to allow newborns onto the Senate floor during votes too. The rule change (which was voted through by unanimous consent) intends to accommodate senators with newborn babies, like Duckworth, by allowing them to finally be able to bring a child under 1 year old onto the Senate floor and breastfeed them during votes, just as Konráðsdóttir has done.
Duckworth spearheaded the push for the rule change and, according to CNN, reportedly said her fellow lawmakers have helped to “bring the Senate into the 21st Century by recognizing that sometimes new parents also have responsibilities at work.”
And thanks to the change, Duckworth is able to take maternity leave; she’s doing so in Washington, D.C., rather than in Illinois, to be able to be on hand and available to cast her vote in the Senate if needed.
“By ensuring that no Senator will be prevented from performing their constitutional responsibilities simply because they have a young child, the Senate is leading by example and sending the important message that working parents everywhere deserve family-friendly workplace policies,” Duckworth said in a statement after the vote.
Duckworth’s dilemma has been a reflection of working mothers’, many of whom have jobs with poor parental leave policies, issues across the country.
Out of 193 countries in the United Nations, only a small handful do not have a national paid parental leave law: New Guinea, Suriname, a few South Pacific island nations and the United States. Meanwhile, mothers are entitled to 17 weeks of paid maternity leave, on average, in most advanced nations according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Under the Family Medical Leave Act, U.S. employers with 50 or more workers must allow parents 12 weeks of job-protected leave annually to care for a newborn. While this means those individuals can take the time off without fear of losing their job, in most cases, the leave is unpaid. There are a few exceptions. California, New Jersey and Rhode Island offer paid family leave through employee-paid payroll taxes. And some employers choose to provide paid maternity leave, but that affects only about 13 percent of workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The United States remains one of the few countries with no national law to provide paid parental leave. Perhaps Duckworth’s dilemma will shed light on this expansive issue; perhaps the changes she’s already brought about will stir a domino effect of changes to support working mothers across the country. Let’s hope so.
Originally published on Fairygodboss.