September 19, 2017

Tammy Duckworth's breastfeeding op-ed underscores need for women leaders

Source: Chicago Tribune


Today’s lesson on the importance of representation is brought to you by Tammy Duckworth.

The Democratic senator from Illinois wrote an op-ed for Cosmopolitan, published Monday, advocating for more lactation rooms in airports and outlining the bipartisan legislation she introduced recently to make that happen.

(Yep, that Cosmopolitan. The magazine has included pointed political coverage alongside its sex and beauty advice since 2014, when editors added a political reporter and started endorsing candidates for public office.)

Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran, has written op-eds for the Chicago Tribune on health care reform for veterans, the Syrian refugee crisis and efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

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In her Cosmo piece, she adds to the discussion her past experience of being a breast-feeding mother who frequently traveled for work. (Her daughter was born in 2014.)

“I had to stick to a feeding and expressing schedule, including when I was at the airport, but I quickly realized that finding a clean, accessible, private space was stressful and inordinately difficult,” she writes. “While I was comfortable breastfeeding my daughter in public, I did not want to express next to strangers using the same outlets to recharge their electronic devices. At many airports, I was redirected to a bathroom, forced to pump in a bathroom stall.

“We would never ask our fellow travelers to eat their sandwiches in a bathroom, but there I was, expressing milk for my child on a toilet seat.”

She cites the health benefits of breast-feeding: decreased risk of diseases and infections, sudden infant death syndrome, Type 1 and 2 diabetes and asthma for the baby; links to lower rates of breast and ovarian cancer, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease for the mom.

She cites airport statistics: Just 8 percent have a facility that meets the minimum requirements for a lactation room, which include a private, clean space with a chair, a table and an electrical outlet. Several of the lactation rooms within that 8 percent are outside security, which doesn’t do you much good if your flight is delayed.

And she explains the Friendly Airports for Mothers Act of 2017, which authorizes the Department of Transportation to approve a grant application for an airport development project only if the owner or operator of the airport agrees to maintain a lactation area in each terminal of that airport, after passengers have gone through security.

Would Duckworth have taken on this cause if she’d never become a breast-feeding mom? Hard to say.

In “Lean In,” Sheryl Sandberg writes about the moment she realized Google, her former employer, lacked parking spots for pregnant women. She was, herself, pregnant, battling morning sickness and painfully swollen ankles and feet, and trying to rush from her car to a meeting.

“To this day, I’m embarrassed that I didn't realize that pregnant women needed reserved parking until I experienced my own aching feet,” she writes. “As one of Google’s most senior women, didn’t I have a special responsibility to think of this? But … it had never occurred to me.”

What about some of Google’s most senior men? Didn’t they have a responsibility to think of their pregnant employees too? Sure. And male politicians have a responsibility to think of their breast-feeding constituents — both the moms and the babies.

But we all have blind spots.

Each of us is informed by the experience of walking through the world in our body, our skin color, our gender expression, our economic status. We can — and should — grow our world as big as possible by listening to and learning the experiences of others. But that’s not always enough.

We need representation.

We need voices at the table — the corporate table, the political table, the education table, all the tables — that have all sorts of lived experiences. We need fewer blind spots.

Google added pregnancy parking after Sandberg brought it up to her bosses. “Having one pregnant woman at the top,” she writes, “made the difference.”

That’s representation in a nutshell. And as Duckworth’s op-ed reminds us, its importance can’t be overstated.

By:  Heidi Stevens