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On Mother’s Day, here are seven instances when politics was unkind to mothers, and other stories
#WomenLead (Issue 97): Your weekly round-up on women in politics
Hello, and welcome to Issue 97!
A huge and warm welcome to all new subscribers who have signed up for #WomenLead this past week! We hope you’ll find the newsletter worth your time (though heads-up, there’s going to be a fair share of some very frustrating news updates every week!).
This week has been particularly grim for women in the US and in Afghanistan. While American women are bracing themselves for a tough fight to prevent their healthcare rights getting undone by the Supreme Court, in Afghanistan, the Taliban have ordered women to cover themselves from head to toe, and have prescribed punishment for the male guardians in case women fail to do so. Our thoughts are with all of them!
In this week’s edition, we bring updates from Northern Ireland and the Philippines, and the spotlight is global, with a Mother’s Day special focus on women politicians with children (and soon-to-be-mothers). In case you missed last week’s edition, you can read it here.
👩 SOLITARY WOMEN: On Monday (May 9), the Philippines will hold Presidential elections which will give the country a new leader. Incumbent Rodrigo Duterte is not contesting as the country’s constitution permits only a single six-year term for Presidents. In addition, the country will also elect members of Congress, governors and thousands of local politicians including mayors and councillors.
But all eyes are on the Presidential race, where current Vice President Leni Robredo is the only woman candidate. While Robredo is unlikely to win (polls suggest Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in the lead), she has put up quite a fight with a “pink revolution” of a campaign, and has built a dedicated support base. Read more in this profile from the BBC. Sara Duterte, the president’s daughter, is the only woman running to be Vice President. Both women have seen their share of misogyny in the run-up to the election, this report in the Rappler notes.
Also read: Phenomenally Pink: Robredo’s Campaign for the Presidency Bucks Gender Terrorism in the Philippines, Women’s Media Centre
💥 LANDMARK WIN: Legislative elections were held in Northern Ireland, UK, on May 5, and the Sinn Féin, a nationalist party, emerged victorious for the first time. The election saw the highest number of women (87) ever running to be members of the legislative assembly - of whom 32 are likely to become MLAs, 50:50 NI estimates. That would represent a share of 35.6 percent, up from 30 percent in the previous assembly. Michelle O’Neill, deputy leader of the party, is all set to become the First Minister. Read more about her in this profile from the BBC.
Spotlight: GLOBAL 🌐🌐🌐
Every now and then, a picture of a parliamentarian bringing her baby to work goes viral. In 2017, Australian senator Larissa Waters breastfed her daughter during a vote. In 2018, New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern took her baby along to the UN General Assembly. Former Member of the European Parliament, Italian politician Licia Ronzulli, frequently brought her daughter to work. (see some adorable pictures here).
However, beyond these bubbles lies a less adorable picture. Despite the fact that mothers are celebrated, even deified, in several parts of the world, politics remains a rather unkind place for women with children and for soon-to-be-mothers. (Just last week we saw the shocking case of US politician Erin Maye Quade who had to deliver a convention speech while she was in active labour!)
For this Mother’s Day, we remember seven incidents when women politicians with children have found themselves in harsh and unsupportive work environments:
I. In 2017, when Japanese parliamentarian Takako Suzuki announced her pregnancy online, she received comments asking her if she was “abandoning” her duties as a politician, telling her she lacked awareness as someone holding public office, and that this was why female lawmakers were a problem. Three years later, in 2020, UK MP Siobhan Baillie was on maternity leave, and she received abusive emails and calls filled with anger for taking 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".
II. British MP Tulip Siddiq had to delay her scheduled Cesarean delivery to make sure she could cast her vote on Brexit in January 2019. Instead, she was in the House of Commons in a wheelchair to participate in the vote - a sight that infuriated and moved many.
III. Later in the same year, Kenyan MP Zuleika Khan was asked to leave the chamber when she brought her five-month-old baby along. Khan had done so due to a personal emergency and the Parliament did not have a creche, so she was left with little choice but to bring the infant along. However, her male colleagues thought her act was “shameful”, and 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?” Khan asked.
IV. In the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, California legislator Buffy Wicks 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. 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.
V. Months later, legislators in Australia had to push for virtual participation in Parliament 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.
VI. 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, misogyny was unleashed in full force to thwart 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, went as far as publishing an article titled “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” i.e. children because they go out to work.
VII. Later in the year, UK MP Stella Creasy was told she could not bring her baby to a Parliamentary debate when she brought her three-month-old son, whom she was breastfeeding, to the House of Commons. “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,” she told the BBC. Just months before the incident, Creasy fought to get maternity cover for herself. In February 2021, the UK 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 this year, Creasy listed out how this created a challenge for her, and how she ended up missing out on meetings.
This is a shorter version of a piece we wrote for Ms. Magazine which looks at the issue in more detail, also offering some suggestions on what can be done. A big shout-out and note of gratitude to Professors Sonia Palmieri and Sarah Childs for their comments, insights and diligent work on how politics can become more sensitive to the needs of parents!
Reflections and Reads (Mother’s Day special)
Realizing Gender Equality in Parliament: A Guide for Parliaments in the OSCE Region, via the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe
Necessary baby steps towards the Good Parliament: proxy voting in the Commons, LSE Blog
This Mother's Day, envision a Legislature that welcomes moms to public service — instead of Laborgate, via The Star Tribune
What moms in politics really want this Mother’s Day: campaign-funded childcare, via Ms. Magazine
Politics of motherhood: Why the political arena is not the kindest place for mothers, via The Standard
Video of the week
This video of Elizabeth Warren, shaken and angry, and determined, had inspiration and courage written all over. As the account that shared the video wrote, that is the energy anyone fighting for health rights in the US needs right now.
That’s a wrap for this week! Loved this edition? Then press the ❤️ button! And please, please do share this with a friend or on your social media accounts. There’s frankly nothing quite like reader love and endorsement, so please keep it coming! We’ll see you next weekend with Issue 98!