What Tammy Duckworth’s Pregnancy Reveals About Gender Representation

Senator Duckworth is set to be the first senator to give birth while in office…what took so long?
Tammy Duckworth addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2012 (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Tammy Duckworth addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2012 (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

On Monday, Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth penned an op-ed calling for paid family leave. The article was pegged to her announcement of her second pregnancy late last month.

Duckworth, who could be the first U.S. Senator to give birth while in office, is no stranger to historic firsts; the Illinois senator is not only the first disabled woman to join Congress, but also the first Asian-American woman from her state. Duckworth has overcome a good deal of interwoven racism, sexism and ableism just to get to the Senate, and her latest announcement promises to foster a greater cultural and political dialogue, as well.

After all, while news of Duckworth’s pregnancy in the wake of a miscarriage is exactly the sort of heart-warming, inspirational news that unites across party lines, it’s also a potent reminder of how the personal is the political.

“Her ability to meet the demands of work and family is inspiring,” California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said in a tweet. “As a country, we need to do more to help all mothers do the same.”

Duckworth’s pregnancy is, obviously, at its core, about her—but it also raises important questions about why she’ll be the first senator in U.S. history to give birth, and if this would be the case if our Congress weren’t 80 percent male (historically, this number has often been much larger).

While we’re talking about representation of women in politics, across the country, three-quarters of all members of state legislatures are male, and the current presidential administration is notably the least diverse in recent history.

There’s plenty of reasons why this is the case. Enduring misogyny’s overt and implicit effects on media coverage and voter attitudes is just one example. But in addition to this cultural phenomenon, there’s also barriers ingrained in workplaces across every industry as well as state and federal laws that enable the punishment of pregnancy and maternity, and make female advancement in any field—whether that’s politics or engineering—if not impossible, then certainly difficult.

Representation of women as well as policies and culture that heavily constrain this representation are deeply interconnected. Electing male allies is important, but can only do so much to ensure a focus on laws that enfranchise women in the workplace; giving women greater representation and decision-making power is a necessary factor in crafting better policies for women.

In the same vein, better representation for women will be difficult to foster without laws and cultural values that support and empower women, that bring female journalists to newsrooms for fairer coverage, that bring gender parity to the distribution of opportunities in workplaces.

Duckworth’s pregnancy encompasses all of this. That’s why celebrating it is just as crucial as recognizing the announcement as a starting point for critical dialogue, and working toward a society where pregnancy is destigmatized, and women are represented.

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America’s Problem With Pregnancy

In 2016, a study by Cornell University revealed women were 8 percent less likely to receive raises and promotions in their careers following the passage of a law protecting women’s rights to maternity leave and flexible hours post-birth in 2013.

Paid maternity but not family leave isn’t just culturally harmful for women by reinforcing patriarchal gender roles—it’s also economically harmful for women, not to mention heteronormative and potentially damaging to same-sex couples.

Overall, the assumption seems to be that not only do employers sweepingly expect female employees to become mothers, but they also believe pregnancy and motherhood will consume women’s time and derail their ability to be effective employees, while somehow, simultaneously, fatherhood will have almost no impact on male employees. Almost 38 percent of heterosexual households boast female breadwinners, and that statistic will likely only increase; maternal rather than family leave policies are becoming increasingly reflective of an America that simply doesn’t exist anymore.

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Notable in the underwhelming gender-neutral family leave policies on federal and state levels, this is a norm most lawmakers are at least partially responsible for, either through rejecting family leave policies in favor of maternal leave or rejecting both.

In either case, one thing is for certain: Pregnancy denies women opportunity.

While the gender wage gap, as well as gender gaps in fields like politics, or leadership in general, are often attributed to women making active choices, research has shown that the wage gap persists across STEM fields, as well. Even when education and choice of field are accounted for, a gender wage disparity of roughly 11 percent exists in STEM jobs. Other research has shown women negotiate at roughly the same rates men do, making it seem more likely women are overlooked or dismissed due to gender biases rather than lack of initiative.

If the only object of discussion on the table were the gender wage gap, there would be much more to say—how the feminization of certain lines of work provably leads to their economic devaluation as well as a decline in prestige, or how gendered perceptions of who is more experienced, senior, and deserving of higher pay perpetuate economic inequity.

The United States currently ranks 49th for gender economic parity, according to the 2017 Global Gender Pay Gap. There’s nothing to suggest that women lack for initiative or qualification, not when women are more likely to obtain college degrees than their male counterparts, as of 2015.

The stigma against pregnancy and female biology seems to underlie all of this—so much so that whether or not a woman becomes pregnant, our current laws enable a culture in which she’ll likely be punished, anyway, so long as pregnancy and motherhood are a possibility. The consequences of this are tangible in every workplace across the country, where women find themselves at the very least being removed from projects or overlooked for raises and promotions, and at worst losing their jobs altogether if they announce a pregnancy.

And while certainly not everyone is as extreme as the author of a letter to the editor about how menstruation disqualified Hillary Clinton from being president, from discrimination toward breastfeeding women to the perception that female hormones somehow render women too weak, unstable and emotional to govern or lead, misogynistic outlooks on female biology continue to result in their exclusion and disenfranchisement.

With mixed results, lawsuits alleging workplace discrimination toward working mothers who feed their newborns continue to take place regularly. An official study was required just to assure us women’s menstrual cycles don’t influence their politics and decision-making—or, in effect, their competence—because apparently, that’s a viewpoint so widely held we needed research and scholarship to disprove it.

And, of course, the aforementioned stereotyping and workplace inequality affect women of color even more deeply than their white counterparts. Notably, for every dollar a man makes, a black woman makes $0.63, and as for the role of cultural perceptions yielding discrimination, writer Ijeoma Oluo discusses being denied opportunity for being perceived as too loud and angry in her book, So You Want to Talk About Race. For all the stereotypes affecting women in general, race and ethnicity-specific stereotypes will hold back women of color even more.

Ultimately, despite how pregnancy and parenthood should be viewed as equal responsibilities among men and women, we continue to understand pregnancy and its perceived burdens as exclusively affecting women. It’s this cultural belief that shapes our laws and the opportunities women have available to them.

The Gender Pay Gap Begins At Home

As a society, we still understand pregnancy as an emblematic symbol of femininity and weakness, and lack of representation of pregnant women in politics or positions of authority helps to maintain this status quo. It’s a dismal scene, but of course, there are solutions.

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Only Through Actively Empowering Women Will We See Change

Last May, Australian Senator Larissa Waters made history by becoming the first senator to breastfeed on the Parliament Senate floor. In November, a photo of two members of New Zealand’s Parliament breastfeeding in the debating chamber widely-circulated on social media for its empowering message. And less than a week before Duckworth’s groundbreaking announcement, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced her second pregnancy. Asked by a reporter how she managed to set up a government while simultaneously dealing with morning sickness, Ardern seemed unfazed: “It’s what ladies do,” she said.

Australia and New Zealand both have generous parental leave plans, and while more progress could always be made, the existence of young mothers and pregnant women in their political forays, as well as their comfort with pregnancy and breastfeeding, should be aspirational to the United States. The United States remains one of the only industrialized countries in the world without paid parental leave as a right.

The United States is one of the few industrialized countries that does not mandate paid parental leave

The United States is one of the few industrialized countries that does not mandate paid parental leave

Political science research has shown that not only are female lawmakers more productive, often far surpassing their male counterparts in sponsoring and introducing bills, but the bills they work on are more likely to directly benefit women’s rights—in addition to civil rights, health, education and other crucial domestic issues. Representation matters because direct experience with an issue often translates often translates more effectively into advocacy and reform, on a political level, and sends an empowering, consequential message to those in marginalized groups, on a cultural level.

As tired as this statement has become, change has to start with electing and appointing more women, and notably, more women who may be directly affected by the policies they introduce and pass. Awareness of what it’s like to be disadvantaged by unfair maternity laws and gendered perceptions makes female lawmakers more likely to push for real, effective reforms.

Women of all ages can be sympathetic to younger women’s needs for reproductive health care access, and protections from maternity and pregnancy-based discrimination. But greater inclusivity of millennial women in politics is arguably important, too. However controversial this idea may be, the normalization of reproductive age in workplaces and positions of leadership could be crucial to ending the phenomenon of pregnant or young women unfairly generalized as potential, future mothers being dissociated with competence and leadership.

Until pregnancy, maternity, and just being a younger woman in a workplace are destigmatized through representation at higher levels, it’s dubious how much political change we can make without real cultural shifts, too.

To support paradigm shifts in politics and culture and really affect change in women’s lives, this, again, goes back to better political representation for women—which we can all be a part of by supporting and electing more female leaders. On a cultural level, representation changes how we see pregnancy and maternity when we see more women in politics and leadership, and understand raising children is a family issue that should equally affect people of all genders, rather than disadvantage and pigeon-hole women. And on a political level, electing more women will more likely produce laws that make more opportunities for women possible.

Giving women a seat at the table, whether at Capitol Hill or an office in Silicon Valley, to make decisions and represent their own interests is an important starting point, and one that Tammy Duckworth’s pregnancy will hopefully bring us closer to.

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