Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift’s political career began when she was young — just 25 years old. She was a rising star in the Republican party, running for State Senate in Western Massachusetts. On her first press tour, a reporter asked her if she had a boyfriend. He followed that with another question male politicians never hear: If you get married and start a family, what will that mean for your career?
Swift was taken aback. She wasn’t married. And the idea of motherhood felt very far away. Of course, she wound up winning that state senate seat, then later became the first female Governor of Massachusetts. And, while she was at it, she became the thing that nosy reporter had been so concerned about during her state senate run: a working mom. In fact, she was the first governor ever to give birth while in office.
It was Senator Peter Webber who first encouraged Swift to run for his seat, after she’d proven herself working alongside him. “But I have to say that, had I known at the time the gender barriers, and the degree to which people would find it odd that a young woman would have an ambition to serve in an elected political office, or how difficult it was perceived to be, I may not have done it,” she told Hillary Frank, host of parenting podcast The Longest Shortest Time, who interviewed Swift as part of a series of episodes devoted to the challenges of working motherhood.
“And so the real gift that Senator Webber gave, me beyond his terrific support and some great advice, was he made it seem like a normal thing to do for a 25-year-old woman to run for their first political office, to be the State Senator from my hometown.” A gift, indeed, and one that can still feel like it has to be given to women, and at great expense.
Ahead, some standout takeaways about her experience with working motherhood — and how much and how little has changed since then — from Governor Swift’s interview.
On running alongside Governor Paul Cellucci to be Liutenant Governor of Massachusetts, at 34, while secretly pregnant with her first child:
“[The choice was easy, because] I was so stupid. I, you know, just assumed, Oh I'm pregnant no big deal, as only somebody who's never been pregnant before can. How hard could it be? The famous last words from a woman who preceded within about eight days of that to throw up every single night for almost the rest of my pregnancy.
"First let me say I was very healthy, I just threw up every night. I also had a gluten intolerance which sounds so incredibly normal sitting here in 2017, but in 1998 there was not a McDonald's on the planet who could serve a hamburger without a bun, without having to consult, like, supervisors three stores away. So traveling around Massachusetts pregnant trying to eat food that didn't have gluten in it, being sick to your stomach and not being able to chew on Saltines wasn’t easy.
"And then there was a St. Patrick's Day parade in Holyoke, where I almost lost the election because, in the gathering beforehand in this smoke-filled bar with the firefighters’ union, I almost blew the endorsement because I wouldn't drink a beer — both because I had a gluten intolerance and because I was pregnant.”
On landing in the middle of the “mommy wars,” as the first woman to give birth while holding public office:
"I was a title IX generation kid...I believed if I worked hard enough, I could do pretty much anything I wanted to. I hadn't hit a glass ceiling yet, because I hadn't risen high enough. All of a sudden, all of those things that I believed and, frankly, a lot of debates, like the 'mommy wars' that I had not paid a lot of attention to, I was right in the middle of and totally unprepared.
“When people would encounter me in my mother role, they would be so surprised that I enjoyed being a mother. And it was just so striking to me that they couldn't seem to reconcile that I could be this successful in my professional life and still embrace my role as a mother. That vexed me personally, and I think sometimes it really hurt my feelings. But I think it really impacted me publicly and my ability to do the job. It was like you had to either choose to be perceived as the competent leader or the caring mother. But so many times people couldn't believe that you are both.
"But I just felt this really strong sense, as someone who was achieving some firsts, that I shouldn't ever say something that implied there is one way to do this because that would have just made it worse for everybody who came after me, but potentially would have just not advanced the issues that I had come to realize still needed to make a lot of progress.
"When I see things now that are unfair [to women in the public eye], I say it, because I know they can't say it themselves."
On the fallacies of perfection and “having it all”:
“So, I was not perfect every single day. There were definitely days when I was not 100%, s0 if the measure was 'Is Jane Swift 100% today?' then the criticisms [of me] might have been valid. But what isn't valid is nobody ever applied that to guys for that or other reasons. There are a lot of guys who show up hung over for work, or who take times off to golf, or who frankly, here's a better one, guys who openly leave [work] for family events and actually get credit for it because they're not giving 100% that day to their job. And our perception of that and how we evaluate that is totally different.
"So, I hate if what you're getting at now is this, 'Can you have it all?' I hate that question. I will never engage nor will I ever answer that question except privately to my own daughters, when they asked me for advice, because nobody ever asks a guy whether they're having to sequence their career, or if they have to make a decision based on 'having it all.' It is a false premise. It's a sexist premise, and I wish women would stop answering the question.”
Discrimination against working moms is a real mother of a problem, and it affects parents and non-parents alike. Tune in to The Longest Shortest Time for the rest of Governor Swift's interview about what it’s like when discrimination doesn’t come from your boss…but the voting public, plus listener stories (like trying to find a place to pump when your office is full of dead animals). Comment below or use #itsarealmother to share yours. For more about our many paths to, through, and away from parenthood, head over to Mothership.