Minnesota state Senate races don’t usually make national news. But that changed when candidate Erin Maye Quade went into active labor during her Democratic-Farmer-Labor-Party (DFL) nominating convention in April. Video of her enduring contractions and pausing her speech to withstand the pain went viral.
“It was really vulnerable to labor so publicly in front of 200, 300 people,” she told Know Your Value. “There was such a lack of humanity around my experience.”
Maye Quade managed to finish her convention floor speech and a Q&A session, but as her contractions intensified, she asked her opponent – Justin Emmerich – to suspend the convention and instead go to a primary. Despite her request, neither party officials nor Emmerich moved to halt the proceedings, something he has since claimed he would have supported.
As she approached her breaking point, Maye Quade headed to the hospital and withdrew from the race, effectively closing the door on the job she’d spent so long campaigning for.
But a week after giving birth, she was hospitalized again for postpartum preeclampsia, a potentially life-threatening condition. Lying in an emergency room bed with a magnesium drip, she and her wife decided that quitting the campaign wasn’t an option.
“Do I want to have gone through this whole experience and said, ‘Well, it's totally fine that I was treated this way. It’s totally fine that the reason that I am not going to be on the ballot and run for office and put forward my vision for this community… [is] because I had a baby?’” Maye Quade recalled. “That can't be what stands.”
While Maye Quade heads to her primary Tuesday, her ordeal exposes the uneven playing field that pregnant women, mothers and parents navigate at every turn in the political process, from campaigning for office to serving as elected officials. Gender equity experts say these structural imbalances keep parents of young children and pregnant women at a disadvantage, reinforcing the motherhood gap in politics.
"The reality is that by the time we're 44, 86 percent of us are moms and yet moms are being held out of these positions,” said Liuba Grechen Shirley, who ran for congress in 2018. At the time, her children were one and three years old, and she campaigned with them daily — which often meant doing phone calls while nursing.
She eventually petitioned the Federal Election Commission to allow the use of campaign funds to pay for childcare, becoming the first to win that right. The political action committee she founded, Vote Mama, supports Democratic moms running for office and an eponymous foundation is working to extend the right to use campaign funds for childcare to state and local candidates across the country.
“That is absolutely the number one thing you can do to make it easier for moms to run,” Grechen Shirley told Know Your Value. Often, she said, the lack of childcare keeps parents from even thinking they could run for office.
That’s especially true for those considering a run for their state legislature, which is commonly part-time and can pay as little as $20,000 to $30,000 a year. Only four states — California, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania — have full-time legislatures and were determined to offer a high enough salary for lawmakers to earn a living without taking on other part-time work, according to a report by New American Leaders.
The grueling schedule candidates and elected officials take on is another hurdle that hits moms particularly hard. Kelly Dittmar of the Center for American Women and Politics pointed out that most campaigning happens on weekends and at night — times when kids aren’t in school and parents typically don’t have childcare.
Once in office, state legislators can be away from home for four or five days a week. Members of Congress fly between Washington, D.C., and their home states, racking up dozens of hours in the air each month. “Think of the model: You go to Congress and you get a condo and you live with several other congressmen, you leave your family back at home and you just fly back and forth to D.C.,” said Anna Kirkland, a professor of Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Michigan. “But that's the model of a male congressman with his picture-perfect family waiting at home.”
Like many elite professions, Kirland noted that elected officials are expected to travel with little notice and accommodate a rapidly-changing schedule. “When jobs have those kinds of requirements, they're nearly impossible to do when you also have to take care of a very young child,” she told Know Your Value.
But in the U.S. and abroad, mothers in elected office have been paving the way toward enacting more family-friendly policies in their workplaces. Often, their wins are hard-fought and their losses have spurred public outrage.
At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, California state legislator Buffy Wicks was denied the ability to vote by proxy despite having just given birth. Instead, she brought her baby to the assembly floor to cast her vote.
In 2019, Tulip Siddiq, a member of the Labour Party in the U.K.'s House of Commons, delayed her scheduled caesarean section at 37 weeks so that she could cast a crucial vote against Brexit after being denied a proxy vote — and did so in a wheelchair.
In Minnesota, Maye Quade pointed out that a current rule prohibits members from drinking water on the state senate floor. When her minority leader, Melisa López Franzen, tried to have the rules changed so that she could stay hydrated while she was nursing and breastfeeding, Franzen was unsuccessful.
“The history of the Senate took precedence over an actual senator, her life and the feeding of her child,” Maye Quade said of the case, pointing out that state representatives can eat and drink on the floor of the House right across the hall from the senate chamber. She plans to offer a change to the rules again if she wins.
Over the last 15 years, a rising number of elected women and mothers have agitated for changes to make their workplaces more equitable. The U.S. Capitol building has added a women’s bathroom off the House floor, a lactation room and baby changing tables in the members-only bathrooms. “These buildings, these institutions were literally not built with women in mind,” Dittmar said.
Beyond modifying buildings to be family-friendly, paying elected officials a living wage and providing them with the funds to hire adequate staff can ease the burden on parents, Kirkland suggested matching state legislators’ meeting time to the public school schedule, offering on-site childcare, embracing predictable hours, and explicitly allowing children and especially breastfeeding in the workspaces. Allowing more remote voting or proxy voting could help cut down on travel as well, which Grechen Shirley’s organization echoed. “It's about breaking down barriers to get moms to run, but it's also just about modernizing what these seats look like and how these positions work,” Grechen Shirley said.
For Maye Quade, it comes down to creating a new norm – “parenting well while making laws” – in the hopes that increased representation and visibility will encourage other mothers to run for office.