Well before Senator Tammy Duckworth welcomed daughter Maile Pearl Bowlsbey earlier this month, questions swirled about how the Senate would handle a new mother in its ranks.
Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, is the first U.S. senator to give birth while in office. Not only is there's no official parental leave policy for senators, Duckworth explained during an interview on Politico's Women Rule podcast that maternity leave wasn't an option for her given that senators have to be physically present to vote on the floor. Moreover, Duckworth explained that the current rules would make difficult for her to even do that, seeing as votes can involve long hours of debate (20 hours for the healthcare bill) and late night dealmaking that can run past midnight.
“You are not allowed to bring children onto the floor of the Senate at all,” Duckworth told Politico. “If I have to vote, and I’m breastfeeding my child, especially during my maternity leave period, what do I do? Leave her sitting outside?”
Needless to say, these were not rules made with the consideration of new mothers in mind. Fortunately, a change in times also calls for new rules: On Wednesday, the Senate unanimously agreed to allow senators to bring their babies to the voting floor until the age of 1. (They had some interesting questions leading up to the decision.) While it may not be practical to bring a baby to work, for senators, the punishing hours make it a necessary reality for new parents.
In a statement, Duckworth thanked her colleagues for bringing "the Senate into the 21st Century by recognizing that sometimes new parents also have responsibilities at work."
“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. These policies aren’t just a women’s issue, they are a common-sense economic issue,” said Duckworth in the statement.
The new policy is significant, as governments and companies realize that family friend policies are crucial for both gender representation and retaining high-ranking women. Currently, just 20% of seats in Congress are held by women, and the proportion of women in state legislatures is 25%. The numbers are worse for the private sector: Just 5% of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are women. In politics, being a mother has traditionally been seen as a risk. But that image is changing, both among the ranks of women currently in office and those aspiring to be.
Around the world, women in office have been pushing for change: Last year, Australia Senator Larissa Waters made headlines when she breastfed her baby on the floor of the parliament. (Waters later resigned for reasons relating to her citizenship.) Yuka Ogata, a Japanese politician, spoke out after being kicked out for bringing her baby to the Kumamoto municipal assembly. Not to mention Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand's prime minister and the youngest female leader in the world at 37, who is pregnant and fully intending to take maternity leave.
As women in office continue to push the issue of family friendly policies, women running for office are arguably doing so as well. Krish Vignarajah and Kelda Roys, both Democratic candidates, both breastfed in their campaign ads. Many applauded them for doing so, and in some ways, it's smart to get ahead of harmful narrative and double standard candidates will eventually face while campaigning.
Thankfully, Duckworth, along with a new generation of women running for office, are challenging the script. This year, a record breaking number of women are running for office. According to Politico, 575 women have declared they're running for the House, Senate, or governor in the fall midterms. With those numbers, it's no wonder that a reckoning on motherhood and civic office is coming to a head.