The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Baby steps in the Senate are just that

Greg Nash

On April 9 Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) became the first senator in the United States to give birth while in office. Concerned about being able to vote while on maternity leave, Sen. Duckworth proposed babies be permitted into the Senate chamber to “bring the Senate into the 21st century.”

Despite some senators’ concerns, the rule change passed unanimously on April 18. Ten days after giving birth, on April 19, Sen. Duckworth and her new daughter Maile Pearl made their first appearance in the chamber. Many are lauding this development as “a historic change.” Perhaps now that a sitting senator is a new mother, Congress will pass more family-friendly policies.

{mosads}However, as an academic and a mother, this event is a staggering reminder that when it comes to gender parity and reproductive health, the United States lags behind every other wealthy nation. It is nowhere near the 21st century.


In 2015, the United Nations published a damning report outlining just how far women in the U.S. lag behind in terms of equal rights. Women have more rights in Jamaica, Rwanda and Cuba than in the U.S. According to the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Index, the United States ranks 45th in gender parity.

There are many robust studies and statistics showing just what women go through to be able to work and have a family in the United States. None of it paints a promising picture.

The U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world and is the only developed country in which maternal mortality is rising, with minorities disproportionately affected. Among wealthy countries, the U.S. also boasts the highest infant mortality rate. This, in the country that spends more on health care than any other country in the world.

If a woman in the United States survives pregnancy and childbirth, she will face significant additional challenges: no guaranteed paid maternity leave, no affordable child care and a persistent gender pay gap.

Paid maternity leave is law in every country in the world save three: Papua New Guinea, Suriname and the United States. While the U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows leave for up to 12 weeks, the leave is unpaid and is only available for individuals working for public agencies, elementary or secondary schools, or companies with over 50 employees.

That is, you have to be able to afford to take the time off in order to actually take it and work at a company or organization that qualifies under the FMLA. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 15 percent of American workers have access to paid family leave through their employers.

If a woman goes back to work after having a baby, she’ll have another daunting hurdle to overcome unless she has access to considerable financial resources: childcare in the U.S. costs an average of $9589 per year, per child. Annually, the lack of access to paid family leave and affordable child care costs working families $28.9 billion in wages. Despite enormous profits and a huge tax break, American companies only cover 1 percent of childcare costs.

Women encounter a significant and pervasive gender pay gap. While April 10th marked Equal Pay Day, the date when women would earn as much as men had made in 2017, women of color won’t catch up to the wages men earned until much later this year.

While a gender pay gap exists for nearly all working women, a new study out of Princeton demonstrates that women’s earnings take a significant hit after the birth of their first child and those earnings don’t catch up later. Men’s earnings, by contrast, remain unaffected by having children.

Women make up over half of the U.S. population and almost half of the workforce. Yet, according to the Pew Research Center, women make up only 21 percent of the U.S. Senate, 19.1 percent of the House, 24.8 percent of state legislatures, 8 percent of state governors, 5.4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and 26.4 percent of college presidents.

With the exception of state governors, these figures are at the highest they’ve ever been. I suppose I should celebrate that things are getting better. But how many moms and babies have to die, or families have to be taken to the brink, before things improve at more than a glacial pace?

When I look at the Senate’s new family-friendly rule in light of the situation for working women and mothers in the United States, I see little reason to celebrate and a whole lot of reasons to agitate. In the world’s largest economy, there is no excuse for women in the United States to be worse off than in every other wealthy country.

Noelle Sullivan is an assistant professor of instruction in Global Health Studies at Northwestern University. Twitter: @ncsullivan. 

Tags Child care Paid Family Leave Tammy Duckworth Tammy Duckworth

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

More Healthcare News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video