A maternity leave debacle in California
By Susan Estrich
Can a breastfeeding mom vote? No. Can you believe it? This is California. If not here, where? If not now, when?
This is just ridiculous. I read the story. Of course, the poor California Assembly speaker who denied the request is eating his words now. His gender made him do it.
The lawmaker in question was a member of the California State Assembly, whose rather reasonable request to vote remotely when she had just given birth was denied because maternity leave was not considered high risk for contracting the coronavirus. Because whoever made up the form probably never enjoyed a nine-month pregnancy while working and nobody caught the error.
Instead, she brought her nursing baby to the Capitol for a vote on housing (and bringing nursing babies to the floor is yet another no-no).
Sorry, but I'm not reporting from a remote locale. This is Sacramento, California. All of this should be routine. Here's one reason why it's not.
Back in the '80s, pregnancy was constantly used to disqualify women from jobs, rendering invisible the overwhelming majority of women who are neither pregnant nor planning to be, and demeaning their integrity. So legislation was passed saying you can't discriminate based on pregnancy. After California passed maternity leave, a bank got sued for not giving it to women.
Dizzy yet? Thank the stars for Justice Thurgood Marshall, who said the law was intended to help pregnant women (I would change it to "persons," and I think he would, too) by protecting their job while they carry their child to term and spend critical weeks with that child. I'm all for paternity leave, too -- and it's coming -- but not at the expense of giving a new mother a week off.
It should go without saying that if a new mother is called upon to vote on important legislation, the rules should provide for her to do so in any manner she finds to be comfortable and reasonable. So long as that environment is secure, that is enough -- more than enough.
But here I am. Writing these words. Reminding whoever wrote those rules to remember to put pregnancy on the disability list. But more important: TAKE IT OFF WHEN THE TIME COMES.
There is an army of women who don't have the stature to walk in as the assembly member, a former Barack Obama aide, did. The army cannot afford to violate the rules. Worse, once consigned, it may be a life sentence. Some years ago, I looked at a study of women's representation in state legislatures. State legislatures are one of the important steppingstones to a higher state office. You get exposure beyond your district, maybe on camera once in a while.
Not all women take themselves out of a game that was designed by a group of guys who managed to miss pregnancy (so did the Supreme Court -- check the General Electric v. Gilbert case). And here's the thing about pregnancy: That child she is breastfeeding will, God willing, be living in a dorm somewhere 18 years from now. Will you let her in the door then?
Or will you ask what she's been doing for the last 18 years?
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