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Sometimes the Same Rules Don’t Mean Equality

by Cathleen Lewis

I’m truly torn by the Democrats decision to not grant Rep. Tammy Duckworth a proxy vote days before she gave birth because her doctor had told her not to fly. With doctor restrictions in place, the Democrats turned down her proxy request to participate in caucus votes to determine leadership and committee assignments.
My first thought was “Seriously, Democrats ? How are you the party of the woman?”

But then I wondered if the situation would have been different if she was hospitalized for a heart attack or an appendectomy? Or had she been a man? That’s the defense Nancy Pelosi is giving — in the past, illness has not been cause for proxy votes in caucus decisions. And here is where I’m torn.

I’m all for giving women more paid leave after giving birth. In fact, I’m all for giving men more time to bond with their children after birth. But where is the line that distinguishes equal treatment from special treatment?

Childbirth is a uniquely female experience so, while equal treatment is difficult, we treat it like all other illnesses. That fact alone has always irritated me. Barring complications, a pregnant woman is not ill. Our bodies are built to do this. We may need some accommodation but we shouldn’t be treated like invalids. The fact that, in the weeks before birth, we count pregnant women as disabled in order to give them paid leave is insulting, especially when it forces woman to choose work or disability when a limited work schedule might be better for both employee and employer.

In this column, I’ve also advocated for more flexible leave laws that allow those who can to balance work and new parenthood but not every situation allows for that. For instance, public affairs work can generally be done anywhere a phone and computer are present, but a store clerk must be present to ring up customers in order to be working. How do we accommodate both? Is Congressional representation more akin to a store clerk or public affairs? I don’t have a good answer but we need to start talking more about this out. These vast differences can’t be quantified in law so we need employers to really understand how to help their employees and how appropriate leave programs can make better employees.

In this instance, maybe the same policy doesn’t make it equal. If Duckworth been given a proxy vote because travel from Illinois was too burdensome, would the same had been true of a hypothetical Congresswoman from Virginia at the same point in her pregnancy who lived within an hour of DC? And, given technology, it is important rethink some of these processes for everyone.

We expect technology to plug them in 24-7 if a person is working, so why is it no longer reliable to allow for moderate accommodation. While we should continue to wage the paid leave fight through legislation, we should also continue an education campaign to employers about how to build a stronger, more loyal workforce because, when an employee is granted accommodation that is reasonable to both sides, they are more productive and more likely to stay longer.

So now I turn it to the readers: first what do you think of the decision on Duckworth’s proxy vote and how can we continue this discussion? And lastly, congratulations to Rep. Duckworth and welcome Abigail (what a great name)!

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