When Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) spoke about the need for paid family and medical leave last March, only C-SPAN seemed to care. But since her announcement last week that she’s pregnant, making her the first member of the Senate building a central nervous system inside her body while reviewing documents and attending meetings (yes, we do that), people are paying attention.
For better or for worse: The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have run pieces in the past week supporting a Washington lawyer’s plan that fails to relieve the pressure on those who are most burdened, by linking the benefit to future Social Security earnings. The Times op-ed supporting that plan as a strategy to win the support of independents ran with the headline, “How Trump Can Be More Trumpian” (editor shade, anyone?). Thus, it’s not hard to imagine why we heard the words “paid leave” in the State of the Union, despite their absence on the teleprompters. There has been a far better plan repeatedly proposed in Congress, but no Republican on Capitol Hill ― and few Democrats, either ― even blinked in its direction. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who have been fighting for years to bring that bill to the attention of lawmakers and the public. But now there is a pregnant senator, and a story to chase.
In other words, it takes a senator who will ― knock wood ― give birth while still in office to call on us to get anyone to talk seriously about our shameful lack of decent family policy. This matters far beyond family leave. It’s about the very politics of representation in our representative politics. But the particulars of it expose a peculiar and unforgivable blindness in our country regarding who is visible to lawmakers, and who never registers. Here’s a hint: It’s only the face in the shaving mirror. (Or one that threatens it.)
Every other government in the world, except for Papua New Guinea’s, has passed laws ensuring that parents can take leave to care for their families without risking financial ruin. Everywhere except for here and that one tiny nation in the south Pacific ― whose big headlines this week are a deadly measles outbreak and what journalists are calling a “sorcery problem.” Most of these nations are not led by women, nor do women outnumber men in their legislatures. Yet somehow, the rest of the world has agreed that caring for a newborn is something one should be able to do without officially stepping out of the workforce.
But in our country, we seem to elect a lot of individuals who will only support policies that reflect their own personal needs. So, because we overwhelmingly elect affluent white men, we are governed by laws that benefit affluent white men ― no matter the gender, race or socioeconomic status of those they are elected to represent.
Washington has long taught us that the issues that will rise to the agenda are those that affect the people who set the agenda. If you’re a male lawmaker, you apparently need a daughter to care about women. A study by a Yale professor found that when members of Congress have daughters, they vote more favorably on policies like fair pay and insurance-covered birth control. (A Vanderbilt-led team of researchers defines “women’s issues” in Congress as civil rights, education, health, law and family, labor and immigration, and I see where they’re coming from.) It’s a variation on the male inability to imagine the experience of sexual abuse unless he can cast his own offspring in the role of the victim.
Not that such empathy for daughters has resulted in equal pay or necessary abortion access. Even needing to terminate a mistress’s pregnancy is not personal connection enough to make some men support legal abortion.
That’s why we need our elected representatives to be, well, representative. We need the people who write our laws to mirror the people who’ll live by them. This isn’t only a matter of fairness or of building a government that’s truly of, for and by the people. It’s a pragmatic necessity. If we don’t have a government that mirrors our makeup ― in terms of class, race, religion, disability, sexuality and gender identity ― we can’t hope to develop legislation that serves all of us.
In the case of paid family leave, that means we need women. Not just because women who govern work harder, but because women on Capitol Hill have told us innumerable times that without more of them, we simply will not get the policies we need. A couple of years ago ― when Gillibrand, who famously gave birth to her second son while serving in the House, introduced her paid family leave bill for a second session ― we had lunch to talk about the policy and the climate she was operating in. Mind you, this was when we had a secretary of labor who was a champion of paid family leave and a president who supported it.
“Without enough women in Congress to explain it, it’s not going to happen,” she told me.
What would they need to explain? That paid family leave has repeatedly been proven to be better for business? Why not having it keeps our society unequal? We know the data on this; I’ve written about it over and over, as have many people.
But Gillibrand believed none of that research would matter as much as personal stories. And not just the stories her staff had collected across the country about the dire realities of new parenthood without paid leave, many from struggling families, but the stories of women in Congress about their own experience with the strain of motherhood.
It’s maddening that the rest of the world doesn’t need to elect women so they can tell their personal stories to convince their male colleagues that something is a good idea for the economic and personal health of their nation. All those “shithole countries” have paid family leave. And Norway, should that serve as our example of what a non-“shithole” looks like, has the most progressive policy anywhere. Not only are parents entitled to 46 weeks at full salary, or 56 weeks at 80 percent pay, but every parent has a 10-week quota. That means fathers are required to stay home for at least two-and-a-half months to care for a new child.
The result is that Norway has the second smallest gender income gap. Parents of both genders work if they want to, and they both raise their children. The policy is written to ensure that family leave is not, as it is here, a “women’s issue.”
Which is something that Duckworth herself pointed out when she announced her pregnancy. “Parenthood isn’t just a woman’s issue, it’s an economic issue and an issue that affects all parents ― men and women alike,” she said.
I felt tremendous relief reading those words from a senator. Our cultural insistence that parenthood is synonymous with motherhood is at the very root of patriarchy itself. We have built and maintained social structures so men don’t need to raise their children and their power extends beyond the family, while a mother is simply a mother foremost. This thinking goes far beyond the literal family and into our larger world, telling girls what they should become and women who they should be, whether motherhood is something they choose or not.
The reality of American politics has proved Gillibrand’s point: that without women in Congress — and in power everywhere — telling their tales and insisting on the basic rights that essentially every other country guarantees, we won’t even be talking about the fact that we lack such rights to begin with. Now Duckworth has started a conversation, not just in her renewed calls for family leave, but with her pregnancy itself. “If we had more women serving, I think this would not be so pioneering,” she said this weekend.
It’s madness that such policies could be considered pioneering at all, when we’re ranked dead last alongside a nation in which 80 percent of the population lives without basic modern facilities. But she’s right. The way out of our own antediluvian state of inequality is to elect more people who can tell stories that represent all of us, until we don’t have to rely on these stories at all.
Lauren Sandler is a journalist and the author of Righteous, One and Only and a forthcoming book about a year in the life of a young homeless mother.