Even though a record number of women are running for office this year, barriers remain even if they win. Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth gave birth Monday to daughter Maile Pearl Bowlsbey, becoming the first U.S. Senator to have a baby while in office. Duckworth jumpstarted the conversation about America’s world-lagging accommodations for new mothers, at her workplace and others, by pointing out that she technically can’t take maternity leave from the Senate.
She plans to work with her Democratic colleagues to change the rules so that she can bring her baby onto the Senate floor. In publicly voicing her frustration, she brought renewed attention to the fact that many mothers in the U.S. have been making do with miserly treatment.
And she’s got company elsewhere; the U.S. isn’t the only place with lousy or nonexistent maternity leave policies for legislators. In Canada, members of parliament don't receive parental leave benefits because they don't pay into the employment insurance system. They're not allowed to vote while they’re absent. They have to use their sick time, and if they miss more than 21 days, their pay is docked at the rate of $120 a day. In the U.K., members of parliament similarly don't get parental leave and lose voting rights when absent.
When many legislatures wrote their rules, they didn't conceive of a situation where members would be giving birth. But some things are changing. In the U.K., the House of Commons agreed in principle to let new parents nominate a colleague to cast votes in their absence. (Currently, the absent member is not allowed to vote — and a member of the opposing party also can agree not to vote, in what is called “pairing,” a quirky and informal arrangement to balance things out.) Canada, too, now says its parliament will develop a parental leave plan for its members.
Closer to home, U.S. states are making some progress. Delaware lawmakers are considering a bill that would give 12 weeks of paid parental leave to full-time state employees. The new Virginia Speaker of the House of Delegates recently extended paid family leave to House employees. And last year, Missouri granted paid family leave to many state workers, including House members. (Illinois offers four weeks of paid parental leave for state workers.)
It isn’t clear what will happen with Sen. Duckworth’s proposal. “Senator Duckworth is hardly the first parent to juggle caring for a child with the demands of a job, nor does she wish to remain the only sitting Senator to give birth while in office,” said her spokeswoman, Kiera Ellis. “She is committed to tearing down barriers that make it harder for any working parent to succeed, wherever they may be.”
Duckworth’s comments are a reminder that the U.S. is the only wealthy country that doesn’t mandate paid parental leave for its workforce. Federal lawmakers are a privileged group; Duckworth plans to take 12 weeks of paid leave, though she notes that under current rules, she is unable to vote while away from the Senate, making it hard for her to actually take time off. Many other new parents have little power at their jobs and no financial cushion.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York, first introduced the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act all the way back in 2000. She keeps bringing it up — the last time she reintroduced the bill was in 2017. It’s still sitting in committee. “With the new spotlight on the lack of parental leave given Sen. Duckworth’s pregnancy, I’m hopeful that my colleagues will be more open to discussing and moving forward with this legislation,” Rep. Maloney said in an email.
Compare that with Europe, where many countries have had paid maternity leave policies for decades.
Duckworth raised the issue of potentially needing to vote while breastfeeding, and a few female politicians have made a point of feeding their children in public to raise awareness. (Meanwhile, a former Senate parliamentarian suggested — perhaps he meant to be helpful — that Duckworth could use a bathroom near the Senate floor.) In 2016, a Spanish legislator caused a backlash by fulfilling a campaign promise to breastfeed in parliament (the acting interior minister called it "lamentable"). Last year, an Australian lawmaker became the first to breastfeed in her parliament. In the U.S., Kelda Roys, a Democrat running for Wisconsin governor, received a largely positive reaction after she released a campaign ad showing her breastfeeding her infant daughter.
But despite all the attention given to examples such as Jacinda Ardern, the new prime minister of New Zealand and a mom-to-be, overall progress for female politicians has been very slow. Worldwide, women make up only 23.4% of national legislatures, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. That’s a meager increase from 22.1% in January 2015. The U.S. is slightly lower, at 19% in the House and 22% in the Senate. Compare that with the Nordic countries—Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden—at 41.4%, and America looks pretty retrograde. (In Denmark, possibly one of the best places in the world to be a parent, members of parliament get up to a year of paid parental leave.) But even the rest of Europe, excluding those Nordic countries, reaches only 26%.
The numbers could look better in the U.S. after the 2018 elections. Sen. Hillary Clinton’s candidacy in 2016 inspired many women to run for office. Only 51 women have ever served in the U.S. Senate—but 22 of those are in office now, an all-time high.
Even though there are plenty of fathers in politics, women often are the loudest voices advocating to make legislatures more family-friendly with arrangements such as rooms for breastfeeding and daycare centers. If more women win elections, more policies like the ones Sen. Duckworth is promoting could advance.
“Women across the country are asking—not just asking, but demanding—to have environments where they can have full participation,” says Clare Bresnahan English, executive director of She Should Run, a nonprofit that trains women to run for office. “Voters really respect when women call [sexism] out. Senator Duckworth is doing this beautifully right now.”
Update: Duckworth has decided to take an informal leave from the Senate, her spokeswoman said Tuesday, so that she can be available for critical votes in the coming weeks. The Senate is split 51-49 in favor of Republicans.