Last week, in a move that seems acutely blind to basic political optics, House Democrats denied Rep. Tammy Duckworth’s request to vote by proxy in this week’s House Democratic Caucus leadership elections. Duckworth, who lost both her legs in the Iraq War a decade ago, is now eight months pregnant and her doctor has forbidden travel until she delivers her baby. So why won’t her colleagues let her vote by proxy? According to Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the Democrats are reluctant to give exceptions to the in-person voting requirement for leadership and committee chair elections because if one person gets one, everyone will want one. “There are many meritorious situations where the argument could be made for a waiver, including Congresswoman Duckworth’s,” DeLauro’s spokesperson told the National Journal. “The question is, how do you choose?” As ABC News notes, Rep. Gwen Moore was also denied a proxy vote to attend a funeral. No request for a proxy vote has been granted in the more than four decades for which they have records.
This is a sticky situation. Though the principle of fairness in doling out exceptions is compelling, as Nia-Malika Henderson of the Washington Post points out, Democrats “have framed themselves as the party of working women” and this “does put them in an awkward position,” particularly as the Supreme Court will soon be hearing a case over whether or not UPS should have given one of its pregnant employees a temporary accommodation, moving her to light work duty during her pregnancy. Making matters worse, the denial of Duckworth’s request might be political. Duckworth supports putting Rep. Frank Pallone on the Energy and Commerce Committee, but Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who objected to Duckworth’s request, is campaigning for Rep. Anna Eshoo to get the job instead.
Duckworth may be in an unusual position, but the experience of losing esteem and power at work because you got pregnant will feel awfully familiar to all too many ordinary women. Particularly since pregnancy is seen as a “voluntary” condition, it becomes very easy for employers to deny rights and guilt trip women for needing even the smallest accommodation. The problem with that kind of thinking is that there’s no such thing as a good time to get pregnant. Even if you can control exactly when it happens, which is a laughable expectation, there’s always some job duty or responsibility that will end up being neglected for a short period to have a baby. Women have babies and women work. Sometimes exceptions must happen to make both things—both things that we should all want to happen—possible.
This entire situation generally illustrates exactly why employees need strong protections when it comes to life events—from sickness to death to pregnancy, or even just vacation—interfering with work. Standardized, generous, and explicitly defined rights help minimize the impact of workplace politics and power struggles on who gets time off or other accommodations on the job, whether you work in Congress or drive a truck for UPS.