Women

08.22.13

The Broken-Water Ceiling

Sally Kohn asks: Why do we see a pregnant woman running for office in negative terms, rather than praising her multitasking abilities?

You’ve heard of the glass ceiling. Maybe even the lavender ceiling. But what about the broken-water ceiling?

Last week, New York City Council candidate Raquel Batista gave birth to a baby girl—making Batista one of only a small handful of women to run for public office while pregnant, let alone (as Batista hopes) to win. Yet throughout the gestation of her political run, Batista has been dogged by questions—and doubts—surrounding her pregnancy.

Earlier in August, at a debate featuring Batista and other candidates in the Bronx council district, a local newspaper wrote:

Looking only slightly uncomfortable at almost nine months pregnant, Raquel Batista, the former housing and immigration rights activist, somehow managed to hang in there for the full two hours.

In fact, that was the only mention of Batista—even though, as a lawyer, former Executive Director of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights and former community organizer with the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, Batista is arguably the most well-known and qualified candidate in the race. And she arguably would be seen as such, were she not female and pregnant.

Following the birth of her daughter, one of Batista’s opponents, Joel R. Rivera, supposedly congratulated Batista, saying, “I hope she’s able to have the time-management skills to be there for her child and run her campaign.” It’s hard to imagine a new father facing such barbs running for office.

I spoke with Batista a few days after she and her newborn baby girl, Carmen, got home from the hospital. “I’m not going to lie,” said Batista. “Campaigning has been hard. It’s been a physical challenge. There were days when I just wanted to go home.” But, she adds, “every candidate has their challenges.” What’s noteworthy is that Batista’s pregnancy was never seen as a positive—a sign that if she would fight this hard to get into office while pregnant, imagine how hard she would fight for her constituents while in office. The whole thing reminds me of the infamous Gloria Steinem essay imagining if men could menstruate. If men running for office could be pregnant, it would be a badge of honor plastered on every campaign flyer and yard sign.

It’s especially hard for women of color running for office to be pregnant or have young children, said Maya Wiley of the Center for Social Inclusion during a discussion on pregnant women in politics on MSNBC’s Up with Steve Kornacki. “Particularly if you don’t have a partner,” adds Wiley, “you’re stigmatized by virtue of being a single mother—as if something is wrong with you.” In a story announcing the birth of Batista’s daughter, the New York Daily News twice mentioned that Batista, a single mother by choice, “declined to answer questions about the child’s father.”

Voter attitudes don’t help much. When a pregnant woman or mother with young children is running for office, “voters wonder, ‘Who will look after the kids?’,” says veteran pollster and political watcher Celinda Lake. “No one ever asks that about a man. They just assume a wife will be there.”

Batista isn’t the first woman to run for political office while pregnant but it’s not exactly a large alumna network. In 2012, Shemia Fagan won a seat in the Oregon State House; Sheila Calko lost her bid for the Ohio State House; and Mande Wilkes dropped out of the race to represent South Carolina’s 7th congressional district in the U.S. Congress. But according to Emily’s List, which supports women running for office, prior to 2012, the last woman to run for office while pregnant was Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Jane Swift—who won election while pregnant in 1998, giving birth just two weeks before the election. Then in 2001, Swift was appointed Governor of Massachusetts when her predecessor joined the Bush Administration and Swift then became the first sitting governor ever to give birth, this time to twins. Unfortunately, Swift’s tenure was in part plagued by allegations that she used state funds for personal purposes, including having government employees watch her children. Nonetheless, according to The New York Times, Swift helped ignite “a swirl of local debate about pregnant women in politics and in the workplace.”

Indeed, the debate that Batista is re-igniting in politics still rages with a daily vengeance in workplaces across America. Today, almost two-thirds of first-time mothers work while pregnant—versus less than half in the 1960s. And almost 90 percent stay on the job during the last two months of pregnancy. But especially in the case of low-wage workers, who can’t decide when to take breaks or how to accommodate their job duties, pregnancy can mean discrimination on the job or even worse. In a June 2013 report, the National Women’s Law Center documented story after story of women fired because they were pregnant or overworked to the point of miscarriage. Complaints of pregnancy discrimination in the workplace have risen by 65 percent since the 1990s.

And, adds Kristen Rowe-Finbeiner, Executive Director of MomsRising.org, “Right now maternal status is a greater predictor of wage discrimination than gender.” Whereas research shows that men benefit from a “fatherhood bonus” in the workplace in terms of wages and other gains. A 2007 Cornell University study found that moms get offered $11,000 lower starting salaries than non-moms, even when they have equal resumes. But dads? They get offered $6,000 more.

Batista is fighting an uphill battle to win her race in the Bronx’s 15th District. The Bronx political establishment has largely thrown its weight behind Ritchie Torres, the hand-picked protégé of another council member from the Bronx, James Vacca. In the ultimate sign of establishment-heavy nepotism, the other main candidate is Albert Alvarez, chief of staff to Councilman Joel Rivera who currently represents the district. Batista has done more than give birth to little Carmen. She’s trying to give birth to a new era of real democracy and egalitarianism in Bronx politics.

“For me, it’s really important to do this regardless of the naysayers and all the perceived barriers,” says Batista. “Sometimes you’ve just gotta go for it.” Whatever happens, Batista is paving the way for future pregnant women and new moms to run for office, hopefully without unfair scrutiny or discrimination—a change that is way past its due date.