by Valerie Young
Debbie Wasserman-Schultz carries crayons in her purse. She also coordinates the pick-ups and drop-offs of her children's after-school activities. Nothing remarkable in this; certainly, millions of mothers do this every day. But this mother of three, a Florida Democrat, happens to be a member of the United States House of Representatives. And that makes it pretty remarkable indeed.
Not so long ago, mothers in the labor force were advised not to keep family photos on their desks, or the kindergarten art project tacked up over the file cabinet. Almost overnight, it seems, motherhood has emerged as an important employment asset, at least in the political arena. That's because most households in which children are being raised are run by a working mom; today 70 percent of households with children have all resident adults employed outside the home.
And so, as we celebrate what leaders of women's organizations call "Women Making History Month," we note that Nancy Pelosi's first few speeches in her history-making role as Speaker of the House were full of references to her status as a mother and a grandmother. When Hillary Clinton declared herself a candidate for the 2008 presidential election -- making history in national polls that show her as a frontrunner -- she invoked the phrase "as a mother" almost in the same breath as "I'm in it to win." Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), a single mom, is raising a 4-year-old daughter. And you just can't get more obviously maternal than Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (D-WA), pregnant and due this May.
Now that mothers are stepping into positions of political influence, hope for some real change in our public policies is spreading. Women in groups such as MothersOughtToHaveEqualRights, the National Association of Mothers' Centers, Mothers & More, MomsRising, and the Mothers Movement Online have been advocating for paid family leave, accessible and affordable child care, healthcare reform, and better family policies in the workplace, among other proposals.
Congress appears be tuning in, evidenced by a recent Senate committee hearing on a paid sick leave bill, the Healthy Families Act, and by the floating of numerous plans for universal healthcare. On March 27, the Congressional Action Day of the Women's Equality Summit, women from a broad range of organizations will converge on lawmakers to press a family-friendly agenda.
As women legislators bring the sum total of their experiences to Capitol Hill, we are certain that today more members of Congress than ever before know what it's like to have a sick child at home on a day you absolutely have to get to work; to spend way too much of your income on childcare, if you can find it; as well as other care-giving dilemmas encountered millions of times a day in households around the country. (If only they could learn what it's like to put off filling your own prescriptions so you can pay for medicine for your kids; thanks to the comprehensive health insurance they enjoy as members of Congress, they'll have to take my word for it.)
Almost three-quarters of American mothers work outside the home for money, and the majority are working full-time. With household income virtually stagnant in recent years, women's wages are critical to making ends meet. The lack of adequate support for care-giving in the United States is appalling, and mothers aren't they only once who suffer the indifference. Americans are living longer and, with pensions, savings and retirement benefits shrinking, will be working longer and caring for ill or disabled parents, in-laws, spouses and others, all at the same time. That's why we, as a nation, so badly need the paid family leave advocated by mothers' rights organizations.
The legislator-mothers currently serving in the House and Senate are singularly placed to tackle these critical public policy issues, and bring to them a certain practical expertise not typical among members of Congress. The healthcare delivery system is in shambles, with 46 million Americans uninsured. The Family Medical Leave Act is currently under threat, in the process of a review being conducted by the same Department of Labor that has implemented other cutbacks in worker protections and compensation. As it is, the act covers only half of the private sector workforce. The well-being of most Americans will depend in the future on the enforcement and expansion of the act to include all workers, and to provide paid leave, so eligible workers can actually afford to take it.
The women currently making history in Congress know this, see this, and live this. To Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, I say sharpen your crayon. It's time for some serious multi-tasking.
Young is the advocacy coordinator at the National Association of Mothers' Centers.