In a historic change, the US Senate voted last week to allow members to bring their babies into the chamber. The new rule was prompted by the birth of Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth’s second daughter on April 9. Duckworth, the first sitting senator to give birth, said the vote would “bring the Senate into the 21st century,” making the historically male-dominated chamber a more welcoming workplace for women and new parents, the Associated Press reported on Wednesday.
No Senators objected to the rule change, but effecting it still took some convincing. Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar told the AP that she had spent nearly two months “privately reassuring Republicans and Democrats that the new rule would not mean diaper-changing or nursing in the Senate chamber.” Quartz’s Heather Timmons followed up with Klobuchar about the questions she had fielded from her colleagues:
Will there be an infant dress code?
“No, we’re not going to have a dress code for the baby,” Klobuchar said. While that sounds off the wall, what women wear in the Senate in particular has been closely policed—it was not until the early 1990s that pant suits were allowed.
Can’t Duckworth just vote from the Senate cloak room, while holding her baby?
Both Republicans and Democrats have a room, originally quite literally a room for cloaks, that is outside the Senate chamber, where a small handful of aides sit to keep senators informed of voting. The chamber was built in 1859, and the cloakroom is difficult to access from the outside for Duckworth, who lost both her legs when she served in the Iraq war. “She can’t get from there to the floor without a wheelchair,” Klobuchar said, and she has to go across the floor to get into it anyway.
Duckworth and Klobuchar are both Democrats, but support for the rule change came from both male and female Senators across party lines. Although some of the men in the chamber expressed concerns about babies violating the Senate’s decorum, most were on board. “Why would I object to it? We have plenty of babies on the floor,” Florida Senator Marco Rubio joked.
There are currently 22 women serving in the Senate. While the first woman was elected to the hundred-member chamber in the 1930s, women Senators were not elected in significant numbers until the 1990s, and the Senate has been slow to accommodate its growing female membership.
For Duckworth, the right to bring her baby to work was much more than a matter of personal convenience, however: It directly impacted her ability to do her job. Appearing on Politico’s “Women Rule” podcast back in February, she explained that she couldn’t technically take maternity leave under the existing rules, because Senators must be present on the floor to sponsor and vote on legislation. Duckworth fought for last week’s rule change so that she might be able to participate in Senate business during the 12 weeks of leave she is taking.
Until Wednesday, Senate protocol had made it absurdly difficult for mothers of babies to fulfill their Senatorial obligations, Timmons’s Quartz colleague Annabelle Timsit pointed out
Back in 2009, senator Kirsten Gillibrand was asked to preside over the Senate from 5 to 7 pm, which was when she needed to nurse her son. In her memoir, Off the Sidelines, Gillibrand wrote: “I tried to explain to the young male Senate staffer who issued my orders that these hours were impossible: I had an infant whom I needed to nurse at that time, and if I didn’t feed him, I’d be extremely uncomfortable. … The staffer didn’t care.” Because of Senate rules, she couldn’t hand her child to a staffer while she voted, nor could she bring him onto the Senate floor with her. So Gillibrand got permission to hover at the threshold of a door to the Senate floor, holding her son while leaning her head in to vote.
Coincidentally, women in Japan’s local legislatures are also making a push for more accommodations for their pregnant and nursing colleagues. Assemblywomen throughout the country recently formed an information-sharing network as a support resource for legislators who give birth while in office, the Japan Times reported last week:
Women accounted for about 10 percent of all assembly members across Japan in 2016, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. Their ratio to the child-rearing generation is much lower, and many assemblies have no precedent for members giving birth.
[Hiroko] Nagano was the first assembly member in Toshima Ward to give birth and has two children, born in 2008 and 2010. In both cases, she worked until her due date and returned to work a month after giving birth. Even so, she was criticized for “lack of self-awareness as a lawmaker,” she recalled. …
Earlier this year, the Toshima assembly unanimously passed a revised regulation that allows its members to be absent from assembly sessions due to childbirth and nursing care duty for elderly parents.