Editor’s Note: Anushay Hossain is a writer and political commentator based in Washington. For more, visit AnushaysPoint.com. The views expressed are her own.
Senator Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, made history this week by announcing her pregnancy. When she has her daughter in the spring, she will become the first sitting senator in US history to give birth while in office.
Duckworth, who also spoke candidly this week about the fertility struggles many Americans face, is already one of only 10 women who have given birth while serving in Congress, in the House. Her latest baby news adds to a long line of other historic firsts for the senator, who is also the first female double amputee from the Iraq war, the first female amputee elected to the US Congress, and the first member of Congress born in Thailand. The senator is also a Purple Heart recipient.
The fact that it’s 2018 and America is just now having its first ever sitting senator to give birth doesn’t reflect well on our country. To the contrary, Duckworth’s pregnancy tells us a great deal about the state of America’s notoriously bad, and in some cases nonexistent, parental leave and child care policies.
Being Duckworth’s second pregnancy means the senator is familiar with the parental leave policies on Capitol Hill, where members of Congress have the discretion to offer paid leave to their employees but there are no guarantees (Duckworth, who will continue to draw a salary as a Senator regardless of whether she takes time off after giving birth, offers her employees 12 weeks of paid parental leave). Federal employees in the executive branch are still fighting to secure paid parental leave and can currently take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave.
Despite medical evidence that mothers with paid parental leave are less likely to experience postpartum depression, with employers even reporting less turnover and higher productivity, laws in America fail the country’s mothers and fathers.
“Parenthood isn’t just a women’s issue, it’s an economic issue and an issue that affects all parents – men and women alike,” Duckworth said in a statement. “As tough as juggling the demands of motherhood and being a senator can be, I’m hardly alone or unique as a working parent.”
In fact, the lack of paid and/or sufficient parental leave, compounded by the high cost of child care, makes America one of the hardest places in the world, among developed countries, to be a mother.
Paid Leave For the United States (PL+US), a nonprofit organization that advocates for paid family leave, reports that millions of Americans do not get offered a single day off work after childbirth or adopting a child, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and 1 in 4 new moms go back to work just 10 days after giving birth. PL+US also finds that 94% of low-income working people have no access to paid family leave, and describes paid family leave in America as an “elite benefit.”
Although under the Family Medical Leave Act, passed in 1993, Americans get 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave to care for a child or other family member, many workers don’t qualify for the benefit, which applies only to employers with more than 50 employees and for which the employees have worked for 12 months and more for a certain number of hours in the period immediately preceding the leave. And even though 69% of Americans believe dads should also get paid paternity leave, most men take just an average of one week off following the birth of a child, according to a Pew Research Center Study.
Add onto all of this the high cost of child care in America, which is now more than the average cost of in-state college tuition. The think tank New America found that parents earning the national median household income need to spend 18% of their income for the full time in-center care of just one child, and the younger the child, the higher the bill – with infant care costing on average about 12% more than care for older children.
But more than anything, Duckworth’s becoming the first sitting US senator to give birth while in office puts the spotlight on how the lack of women in government in America is reflected in the country’s poor policies for working women and their families.
In the last 20 years, while women’s average share of parliamentary membership has gone up worldwide, how the US ranks among other countries has diminished. We have dropped from 52nd in the world for women’s representation to 104th, according to data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union. In 2016 alone, the United States dropped nine places, from 95th to 104th out of more than 190 countries. Even though the number of women in Congress has grown, America’s progress is dwarfed by that of other nations, whose percentages of women in government are increasing much faster.
This is a huge problem that directly impacts policies for women’s health and rights. Bad policies and legislation for women are an obvious result of the lack of women in government. There’s even research showing that women govern differently than their male counterparts, co-sponsoring more bills related to women’s health, regardless of their political ideology.
At a broader level, the dearth of women in US government affects how society views women in government and women overall, regardless of how much power they have. This hurts us today but also in the future, because it impacts what careers young women and girls envision themselves in. After all, you cannot be what you cannot see.
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The good news is that change seems to be on the horizon. Senator Tammy Duckworth may be the first sitting US senator to give birth, but with a historic number of American women running for local office in 2017 and getting ready to run for office in 2018, she will not be the last.
And hopefully by the time Senator Duckworth’s daughters grow up, America will have elected more than enough women in government to fix the country’s broken laws for America’s mothers and their families.
This article has been updated to note that members of Congress have the discretion to offer paid parental leave to their employees.