Tammy Duckworth’s maternity leave dilemma exposes the sexism of US politics

No job for new mothers.
No job for new mothers.
Image: AP Photo/Alex Brandon
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US senator Tammy Duckworth gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Maile Pearl Bowlsbey, yesterday (April 9). Maile Pearl is Duckworth’s second child—she has another daughter named Abigail—and the first-ever child to be birthed by a serving senator.

That’s a striking statistic. Think about the math: There have been 115 congresses in the history of the US, with 1,972 senators representing their states in the past 229 years. But only 51 of those senators have been women; no wonder the Senate hasn’t historically been a place for new moms. (Ten women have given birth while serving as House representatives, including Duckworth herself.)

By itself, this says plenty about the kinds of barriers that women face when attempting to build a political career. Perhaps even more illuminating is the bind that Duckworth now finds herself in.

As 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 said she planned to take 12 weeks off and try and change Senate rules to allow her to work while on parental leave.

But the rules didn’t change, and Duckworth will now have to choose between taking care of her newborn or her constituency. It’s a conundrum that only exists because the Senate is male-dominated, and so its members have never faced the same choice.

There’s more: The Senate currently bars children from its floor, which means Duckworth won’t be allowed to breastfeed while sitting in session—an act that politicians elsewhere the world have been doing for a while now. (When it comes to women’s share of representation in parliament, the US ranks 104 out of over 190 countries.)

As a new mother in the Senate, Duckworth’s experience is exposing a harsh truth: In 2018, the US political system is still designed without women in mind. And the consequences she may face if she takes time off to spend with her newborn perfectly exemplify the problems that millions of women in the US face because their jobs do not offer fair parental leave policies.