Politics Has Been an Unkind Place for Women With Children. It’s Time for Structural Change.

The motherhood gap in politics is for real. Just take it from these moms.

Last month in Minnesota, candidate Erin Maye Quade gave a convention speech while in active labor. (Twitter)

Last month, Erin Maye Quade was forced to participate in a convention in Minnesota while in active labor. The sight of a pregnant woman, standing and giving a speech and taking a break as she experienced contractions seems inhumane—and yet, it has happened in 2022, in front of our eyes. And while Maye Quade’s case was extreme, it was by no means an exception in the world of politics. 

Women elected officials who are mothers—especially those with very young children and those who are pregnant—often find themselves in unsupportive workplaces. It would not take much for political parties, parliaments and other stakeholders to accommodate parental needs and requirements. It would also make for a healthier democracy, according to Sarah Childs, professor of politics and gender at the University of Edinburgh: “Democracies cannot be considered fully democratic where women are underrepresented; neither should there be a ‘motherhood gap.'”

As we celebrate mothers and motherhood this Mother’s Day, let us hold space for these women, remember the motherhood gap in politics is real, and begin to mobilize for familyfriendly policies for parents in politics.

The Motherhood Gap in Politics Is Real

In 2017, when Japanese parliamentarian Takako Suzuki announced her pregnancy online, she received comments asking if she was “abandoning” her duties as a politician, telling her she “lack[ed] awareness” as someone holding public office and that this was why female lawmakers were a problem.

Two year later, British MP Tulip Siddiq had to delay her scheduled Cesarean delivery to make sure she could cast her vote against Brexit. Instead, she was in the House of Commons in a wheelchair to participate in the vote—a sight that infuriated and moved many. 

In 2020, U.K. MP Siobhan Baillie was on maternity leave when she received abusive emails and calls about how she had taken time off. A constituent wrote to her saying that maternity leave was not “an act of God—it is a normal life’s circumstance that should have been planned well in advance for.”

In April 2021, Annalena Baerbock was nominated as the Green Party’s official candidate for chancellorship in the run up to the parliamentary polls in Germany. Soon after, she faced hatred and misogyny that thwarted her chances of succeeding. Among the various tropes and disinformation narratives used against her, the fact that she was the mother of two young children was used repeatedly to question her capability to lead the country. 

Baerbock was questioned during interviews on how she would manage her duties as a mother and as chancellor. One publication, Spiegel, even published an article, “Renaissance der Rabenmutter”—or the “Rebirth of the Raven Mother.” (In German, the term rabenmutter is often used in a derogatory manner for mothers who abandon their “nests,” or in this case children, because they go out to work.)

Political Institutions Are Not the Most Sensitive Spaces for Mothers

The problem is not simply about hateful and abusive comments. Political institutions too often end up being insensitive and unsupportive to mothers, even when they are navigating difficult circumstances. 

Take the case of legislator from the U.S. state of California, Buffy Wicks, who was not allowed to vote by proxy even though she had given birth and her newborn baby had jaundice, and therefore needed to be breastfed regularly in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, Wicks was denied the option for remote voting because she did not meet the requirements for the exemption. She eventually had to bring her baby to the assembly to cast her vote.

In Australia, legislators had to push for virtual participation because quarantine rules in different parts of the country made it difficult for many—especially those who were pregnant at the time—to attend in person. 

My son is 13 weeks old, so I can’t really leave him on his own and I don’t have maternity cover, so I can’t win here. … I need to go in, I need to be able to speak.

U.K. MP Stella Creasy

While Wicks had to bring her baby along, a year ago, in 2019, Kenyan MP Zuleika Hassan was asked to leave the chamber when she brought her 5-month-old baby along. Hassan had done so due to a personal emergency and the government building did not have a nursery, so she was left with little choice but to bring the infant along. However, her male colleagues called her act “shameful.” The speaker asked her to leave and return without the baby because chamber rules did not allow “strangers” in the house.

“I have tried really hard not to come with the baby, but today I had an emergency; what was I supposed to do?” asked Hassan. 

Two years later, in 2021, UK MP Stella Creasy was told she could not bring her 3-month-old son to a Parliamentary debate, whom she was breastfeeding at the time. “My son is 13 weeks old, so I can’t really leave him on his own and I don’t have maternity cover, so I can’t win here. … I need to go in, I need to be able to speak,” Creasy told the BBC

Just months before the incident, Creasy fought to get maternity cover for herself. In February 2021, the U.K. passed a law to allow women ministers maternity cover for a period of six months. However, it only covers ministers and not all MPs, leaving out politicians like Creasy. In a statement to a Parliamentary Committee in March of this year, Creasy said this created a challenge for her, especially since she was forced to miss meetings. U.K.’s Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) told Creasy it did not “recognize” that MPs go on maternity leave.  

I have tried really hard not to come with the baby, but today I had an emergency; what was I supposed to do?

Kenyan MP Zuleika Hassan

The list of such incidents is long, but their crux is short: Despite deifying motherhood, our political culture and political institutions were designed for men. Women—especially pregnant women, breastfeeding women and women with small children—pose a problem for them.

It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way—Change Is Possible

Several countries have begun to make a positive change on behalf of women in politics.

  • New Zealand and Australia have been allowing breastfeeding mothers to vote by proxy for years now.
  • In 2019, the U.K. Parliament voted to implement a trial of proxy voting for MPs on parental leave.
  • In the USA, some states allow candidates to use their campaign funds for childcare.
  • Last year, Ireland established a forum for a family-friendly and inclusive Parliament.

In her research, Sarah Childs studied 12 different parliaments and found that most made some provisions for their members’ caring responsibilities though the provision was limited in most cases. But she also found that provisions for pregnant and nursing MPs were considerably more limited than institutional childcare, a likely reflection of  “the historical legacy of overwhelmingly male institutions.”  

If our politics has to become truly representative and be a place where women, especially younger women, can participate and prosper, then motherhood must not only be acknowledged, but designed for

Sonia Palmieri, a gender policy fellow at the Australian National University, identifies three kinds of support that can help pave way for parliaments to become more family-friendly: 

  1. Create spaces that allow mothers to breastfeed and infrastructures such as family rooms and childcare facilities: “The prevalence of each of these family-friendly arrangements is significant given that each of these was less commonly evident a mere decade ago, although it is interesting that some parliaments still considered that these were ‘not applicable.'”
  2. Support women financially, with subsidies for childcare assistance or family-related travel. 
  3. The working hours of parliaments can be long and unpredictable, and votes can happen at irregular intervals, sometimes requiring MPs to stay in parliament late into the night. Three good practices to implement on behalf of parents in politics: discontinue night sittings (outside of particularly urgent situations); align parliamentary sittings/sessions with the school calendar; and allow parliamentarians to spend longer periods in their constituency and thereby with their families

Childs suggests more research be done on parents in parliaments to understand their needs better. Furthermore, checklists on gender-sensitive parliaments must be “read through” a motherhood and carers lens. 

This Mother’s Day, we must recognize the way in which politics has excluded mothers and work to create an inclusive politics where mothers’ voices can be heard.

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Akshi Chawla is an independent writer and researcher based in New Delhi, India, and her work focuses on issues of representation, inclusion and social justice from a gender lens. She runs #WomenLead, a publication dedicated to tracking the work and journeys of women in politics from around the world. She tweets @akshichawla.