More women than ever hold seats in their state legislatures (yay!), but the outdated family leave policies in their workplaces remain stubbornly unchanged, making it harder for them to do their jobs (boooooo!).
Recently, Mallory McMorrow, a Michigan state senator who took office in 2019, experienced the cruelty of this paradox firsthand. Earlier this year McMorrow became only the second woman in the Michigan state Senate to ever give birth while in office. When she tried to take time off to spend with her newborn, she discovered she wasn’t eligible for the 12 weeks of paid family leave guaranteed to state employees because, technically, she isn’t a state employee—she’s an elected official. According to NPR, there is no family leave policy in place for Michigan state lawmakers; this remains the case for lawmakers in Ohio and Pennsylvania as well.
“The rules of the institution, that people hear about all the time, are arbitrary. And they are clearly set up by men who don’t have those shared responsibilities,” McMorrow told the outlet. “It’s either been their wives who have stayed home with kids, or their grandkids, and they just haven’t had to think about it.”
She’s hardly alone in this experience. To start, there’s her colleague, state Senator Stephanie Chang, who was actually the first to have a child while serving in Michigan’s state Senate. Chang told NPR she and her partner “did actually try to time it” so that she would have her daughter during the legislature’s summer recess. “... We knew that the legislative work would be lighter at that time,” she said.
But if this story sounds familiar perhaps you remember what happened when Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth became the first sitting U.S. senator to give birth during her term. Not only did Duckworth have to fight for the right to bring her newborn onto the Senate floor—where family members are typically banned—the same archaic Senate rules nearly prevented her from breastfeeding on the floor, too. When I worked at Newsweek, I called a retired Senate parliamentarian (they interpret these silly rules!) who told me that Duckworth would likely have to nurse her infant in a bathroom off the Senate floor; technically, not even a nearby cloakroom would do since it is governed by the same Senate protocol.
Senators later agreed to pass a rule change to accommodate Duckworth and other parents, but that doesn’t discount the fact that these rules still existed as recently as 2018.
This is all to say that the bullshit policies—as well as the lack of actually inclusive, humane ones—go all the way to the top.
“I can’t vote remotely. I can’t proxy vote. I have to physically go to Lansing. And I have a newborn who naps for 20 minutes, and then is up again and ready to eat and be changed,” McMorrow told NPR. For now, she plans to take 12 weeks off anyway, even though it won’t be classified as family leave.
“Are we comfortable with the idea that we don’t want working moms in the legislature?” McMorrow said. “Because that’s the message unless we change the system.”