The typical member of Congress is a man about 60 years old — often with a tuft of salt-and-pepper hair, or maybe none at all. He’s decades past having babies at home: Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma mused recently, and inexplicably, that the invention of disposable diapers means parents don’t have to carry diaper bags anymore. The 229-year history of the United States Congress is the history of the nation’s most prominent and enduring boys’ club, a bastion of grandfathers and — in Paul Ryan’s phrase — weekend dads.
Young mothers, weekend or otherwise, in Congress are like a good night’s sleep for new parents: highly unusual, and yet, more and more common with the passage of time. Only 10 women in history have given birth while serving in Congress: one in the 1970s, three in the 1990s, and six in the past 11 years.
Forty-five years before Tammy Duckworth made history on April 9 by becoming the first to give birth while serving as a senator, then-Rep. Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, a Democrat from Los Angeles, did so by becoming the first member of Congress to announce that she was expecting a baby. Of the 10 women who have given birth while serving in Congress, five are still in office. I talked with nine of the women — let’s call them the Labor Caucus — to find out what the Capitol is like for a working mother. For 535 lawmakers and their staffs, Congress, too, is a workplace — one that is just now catching up to changes that started taking place decades ago.
“You have policymakers that are still stuck in these sort of idealized, ‘Leave It to Beaver’ families where the wife stays home and the husband is the breadwinner,” says Rep. Linda Sanchez, a California Democrat who gave birth to a son in 2009. “The reality for my constituents is most of them are two-parent, working family households. And many of them are single-parent working households.”
“This is one of the last places in America that is just rolling into the 21st century,” says Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Republican from Washington state who gave birth to a daughter in 2013.
The Labor Caucus is bipartisan — six Democrats and four Republicans — and geographically diverse, with members from Utah, Arkansas, South Dakota, Illinois, and two each from California, New York and Washington. Each of the women I spoke with shared stories of the challenges of mothering while lawmaking — whether finding a place to nurse near the House floor between votes or having to cut short a maternity leave. Many, particularly in the 1970s and 1990s, faced questions about whether they could run for reelection while pregnant and how they would juggle their careers and their families — a question seldom asked of their male colleagues. They say they faced very little hostility and far more often, a lot of joy and attention, when they shared the news of their pregnancies. Even so, Capitol Hill is a place that’s unaccustomed to parents of young children. They all say that needs to change.
Brathwaite Burke didn’t realize she was going to make history when she announced she was pregnant in 1973. In one of the many news clippings about the historic pregnancy, she called it a “dubious” honor — a label she stands by today, adding, “It’s a natural thing for people to do.”
She recalls one constituent telling her that they sent her to Washington to work, not to have a baby. Today, she writes off that comment as a relic of an era when women were expected to choose between having a career and being a mother. Her House colleagues, she says, were enthusiastic and supportive. But they didn’t quite yet know how to trade barbs with a pregnant lady.
When she was pretty far along, she introduced an amendment to require that all the steel used to build the Alaskan oil pipeline, then under development, be made in the United States. Republicans didn’t like the amendment, she said, but no one could muster the courage to debate her. “That was really the one time that everyone went bonkers,” she says. “Who would have the nerve — debating a pregnant woman on the floor.”
A search of the congressional record shows that a few opponents did stand up, including former Rep. Sam Steiger of Arizona, who said that such a requirement would jeopardize the export trade. “I urge the members not to be swept along by the gentlewoman’s eloquence or attractiveness,” he said.
The amendment failed.
Twenty years later, most congressional members were still unaccustomed to having a pregnant woman in their midst. “It was hysterical,” says former Sen. Blanche Lincoln, an Arkansas Democrat who became the fourth member of Congress to have a baby when her twin sons were born in 1996, when she was serving in the House. “It was kind of like having 400-plus big brothers. They were always asking how I was. I was very large. They were very kind.”
Lincoln’s sons were due just as she would have been starting her third term in the House. When she first learned she was pregnant, she planned to stay in office and cart one baby around. But when she found out it was twins, the double-baby load and the idea of campaigning in the Arkansas heat while in a high-risk pregnancy caused her to reconsider. She took two years off, and successfully ran for the Senate in 1998.
Some of her opponents surmised that she didn’t run for reelection only because she thought she wouldn’t win, Lincoln says. Yet when Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican from eastern Washington state, announced her first pregnancy more than a decade later, she got a different reaction: Some people assumed she wouldn’t run for reelection because she was pregnant. Instead, she stayed in office and went on to set her own congressional record — three children while in office — while climbing the ranks of GOP leadership to become chairwoman of the House Republican Conference.
“I don’t think I fully appreciated how much we’re still blazing the trail as far as this being a workplace” for women who are balancing a career and a family, McMorris Rodgers says.
That realization hit another Washington state Republican like a plume of smoke early in her first pregnancy, when Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler walked into a working meeting with fellow Republicans who were smoking cigars — a genuine smoke-filled back room. She realized that few — if any — of the lawmakers in the room knew she was pregnant, and that she had to decide between being a part of the conversation, skipping the second-hand smoke or making a scene by asking everyone to snuff out the cigars. She quickly decided to say what she wanted to say and then leave.
“They weren’t trying to be offensive,” she says. “But they probably didn’t have a lot of pregnant ladies coming into their meetings. It just didn’t happen,” even in 2013. Still, she went on to say, “It is changing as the younger Gen Xers come in and have a little bit different perspective,” including more fathers who are taking more responsibility for raising their own children.
Capitol Hill is just starting to experience the consequences of a trend that’s taking place in workplaces across the country: Women are starting their families later in life. For the first time, women over 30 — the minimum age to be a senator — are having more children than those in their 20s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The second trend that’s led to this — admittedly modest so far — congressional baby boom is that more women, especially young women, are running for office. There are 23 female senators and 83 female members of the House, and a record number of women are running for Congress this year, according to projections by Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics. More than 350 women — 267 Democrats and 96 Republicans — have signed up to run, with filing deadlines yet to come in more than a dozen states. One of those women is Ohio state Rep. Christina Hagan, who recently found out she is due to have twins on Election Day.
Hagan, a conservative who is facing a primary on May 8 in a traditionally Republican district, acknowledged that older female politicians have privately counseled her on how hard it is to balance being a lawmaker and having children. “There’s this thought that you can’t do it both,” she says. “I live to defy those odds. You can champion both parts of your life.”
Women like Hagan are slowly breaking the model set by an older generation — for all intents, the first generation — of women who rose to the upper echelons of Congress. Not long ago, a mother running for Congress was so unusual, it became her unofficial campaign slogan. In 1992, Patty Murray was “just a mom in tennis shoes” when she first won her Senate seat representing Washington state and became the first female senator with school-age children at home. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi didn’t run for office until the youngest of her five children was a junior in high school. “I am in awe of the young women who have babies here,” Pelosi told me, “but it is so right because they are representing women across the country who are trying to balance work and family.”
Now, Pelosi is trying to encourage more women to run for office. When she became House speaker in 2007, she established the first two dedicated lactation rooms in the Capitol. (There are now at least seven.) And she offers her staffers — mothers or fathers — 12 weeks of paid leave upon the arrival of a new child.
Repeatedly, these lawmakers told me there are several things that made parenting difficult while serving in Congress: The institution has a voting schedule that is sometimes unpredictable, with unexpected late-night votes. Several lawmakers told me of close babysitting calls when an 11 p.m. vote was held at the last minute, or of having to park children off the Senate floor when votes were called after day care had closed.
Unsurprisingly, the earliest years of a child’s life are the most complicated for new moms. Congress doesn’t have a maternity leave policy; members decide on their own how much time they should take. Many take only a few weeks off after their children are born. When Duckworth’s first daughter, Abigail, was born in 2014, Duckworth was one of 435 members of the House. She delivered her baby in Illinois and stayed there for three months. Now, she’s one of 49 Senate Democrats in the chamber of 100, and her party may need her vote in a pinch. (No one else can vote for her, and senators can’t vote remotely.) A maternity leave in Illinois isn’t a real option. She doesn’t want to end up schlepping a newborn on an airplane if a close, important vote comes up.
So she delivered her second daughter, Maile Pearl Bowlsbey, in the Washington area. Still, Duckworth plans to take 12 weeks of time, mostly off work. She will come to the Senate only to vote when needed; she’s already done so once.
Former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a South Dakota Democrat who had her son while in office in 2008, predicts that more changes will come only when a new generation of lawmaker-parents is elected. “It will take having more young members of Congress to influence some of the decisions around making it easier to raise families,” she says. “I almost think it has to be more revolutionary than incremental.”
Even so, some of the required accommodations are minor. Susan Molinari, the former Republican representative from New York, remembers, late into her pregnancy in 1996, having to get the House ethics officer to give her a waiver from a rule that said lawmakers had to stand at fundraising events — a requirement that was supposed to prevent sit-down dinners.
Like all the women I spoke with, Molinari said lawmakers can often be more flexible with their schedules than many other working parents can be. She recounted putting her baby in day care but also taking her into the office and onto the House floor and even, once, bringing a stroller into a hearing. “We probably have it better from 99 percent of other working moms and dads,” Molinari says. “Besides traveling back and forth from the district — and I don’t know how you’d ever change that.”
Sanchez and McMorris Rodgers say they, too, can easily rearrange their workday when something important comes up with their kids. Still, they say Congress as a workplace could make changes to make the juggling easier. Duckworth already has resolved one roadblock in the way of being a successful senator-parent: She persuaded the Senate to change its rules to allow infants on the floor until they are one year old.
During evening votes, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has left her kids in then-Leader Harry Reid’s office, “hoping they don’t break something,” she says. Sen. Chris Murphy, one of a few fathers of young children in the Senate, has run into the same problem when he has had to bring his two young sons to the office. He’s had to plop his kids on a bench outside the chamber and hope they would sit still while he went to the floor to vote. “The fact that I have to leave my kids outside of my sight to go vote seems kind of silly,” Murphy says.
One of the most difficult decisions parents in Congress have to make is where to enroll their children in school — in Washington or back home — because of the political implications of either decision. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich instructed Republicans after the 1994 wave to no longer bring their families to Washington; leaving them in their districts would, he said, strengthen their outsider bona fides. Skeptics say the trend has made Washington more partisan because lawmakers no longer get to know each other during the weekends. And one of the results is that lawmakers with children aren’t involved in midweek homework and soccer practice.
Sandlin faced questions about her son’s whereabouts during her 2010 election campaign, when the tea party wave swept her and other moderate Democrats out of office. “It was almost this loyalty oath,” Herseth Sandlin told me of a question she received from a constituent. “ ‘If you’re not going to have your son in school in South Dakota, you’re not as committed to South Dakota as you should be.’ ”
Her son was 2 years old at the time.
Sanchez and Gillibrand have enrolled their children in school in Washington, even though they’d rather their children be in California and New York, respectively. Lincoln said sending her sons to school in Washington was the best parenting advice she received. “If you want to see your children, they need to be here,” she said former Rep. Cal Dooley and his wife, Linda, told her. “You’ll catch some heat at home on it, but with the commute, this is where you work most of the time.”
Herrera Beutler and her husband and two children — Abigail, 4, and Ethan, nearly 2 — travel back and forth between the two Washingtons. “There are big challenges with that, but my husband and I have decided that for now, this is the thing we’re supposed to be doing,” she told me in her Capitol Hill office. “We should do it as a family.”
The bipartisan group of lawmaker-mothers have a shared interest: seeing more women and mothers elected to Congress to shake up the grandpa’s club. Some policy ideas start, they say, because of their experiences. Gillibrand has become an advocate for a national family leave policy — something that she says mothers and women are more likely to think about.
“You would never think about it if you haven’t gone through it,” she says. “That’s why we need more women in Congress. If we had 51 percent of women in Congress, which is our population base, we would have already passed a national paid leave plan. We wouldn’t be debating whether women should have access to affordable contraception.”
Paid family leave has been traditionally touted by Democrats, but the idea has support from some high-profile Republican moms, including Ivanka Trump. Herrera Beutler says it’s an idea “whose time has come,” even as she acknowledged that she’s still working through how to accommodate small employers that say they cannot afford to have someone out of the workforce for months. Still, she added, “If we are the pro-family caucus, if we are ‘womb to tomb,’ we have to be about the policies that allow families to make those decisions,” about how best to parent.
Duckworth wants Congress to mandate that most airports have rooms to allow mothers to nurse or pump breast milk. She got the idea because she repeatedly ran into trouble finding somewhere while traveling after the birth of her first daughter. “I’m a progressive female Dem member, and I didn’t think of it until I had my baby,” Duckworth says. “What does some other working mom do who doesn’t have a team of people around her who can call the airport and say, Congresswoman so-and-so is coming through, can she use your health unit?'”
And airports — airports! — are sometimes more convenient places to be with an infant than their own workplace. It wasn’t until 2011 that Congress installed a women’s bathroom off the House floor. There’s been a men’s restroom nearby for as long as anyone can remember.
Neither restroom, however, has a diaper-changing station. Sanchez asked for one to be installed in each restroom seven years ago, in 2011, to send a message on the importance of equal parenting responsibilities between men and women. “I’m sure the men around here think, ‘Why the hell would we need a changing table in the men’s restroom?’” she says. “I’m sure they have ashtrays for cigars and spittoons for chewing tobacco. But there’s no changing table.”