October 17, 2018

Women and Power: Tammy Duckworth Says Damn Straight She Fights Like A Girl

Source: The Cut


Tammy Duckworth, senator from Illinois and Purple Heart–decorated Army helicopter pilot, is in the middle of a detailed rant about identity politics and discrimination, when she comes to a screeching halt. She blinks. She’s blanked on a name. “God, he’s my friend,” she says, smacking her forehead. “I didn’t get any sleep last night. I got in late from Illinois.” Duckworth and her husband split their time between Chicago and D.C. “My older girl was watching My Little Pony on YouTube. Everything was calm, my husband was making dinner — then I looked over and she’d gone down the rabbit hole watching scary videos. She had nightmares until 3a.m. — and then my 6-month-old started waking every hour.”

“Mike Honda!” she proclaims triumphantly and barrels on to her point: Honda, the former California congressman, lived in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, and his perspective was vital during debates on, for example, Trump’s Muslim travel ban. “Or think of McCain with torture. It’s not identity politics. It’s about lived experience.”

As an Asian-American, female disabled veteran who was the first senator to give birth in office, Duckworth has had plenty of that. Motherhood has been one of her most eye-opening adventures. “Before I had my babies, I was fully supportive of breastfeeding, but I did not have insight on what it’s like to have to pump breast milk in a public toilet stall. It spurred my legislation requiring airport lactation rooms,” she says. “When I lobbied the Senate to change the rules so I could bring my baby on the floor for votes, Senator Blunt, the Republican chair of the Rules Committee, came forward and said, ‘I’m gonna make it happen.’ Roy Blunt?” She pauses and makes a who-woulda-thunk-it face. “But it turned out that he’d brought his young kids onto the floor of the House. He remembered how nice it was.”

Duckworth lost both her legs in 2004 in an attack on her helicopter in Iraq; her husband later lost his job because he took too much time off during her recovery. This year, Duckworth didn’t take maternity leave, because Senate rules require in-person votes with no exceptions for new mothers. Not surprisingly, paid-family-leave legislation is a high priority for her. “It’s an economic loss,” she says. “In the military, new mothers [often] have to report to duty after six weeks of leave — even six weeks after a Cesarean, even when they’re stationed in Afghanistan — and they get out. It took a quarter of a million dollars to train one helicopter pilot in the 1990s — it’s more now — so we’re blowing that by telling the female pilot, ‘Sorry, you have to choose.’”

Duckworth sees herself as someone able to translate progressive ideas for conservatives after her years spent in the male-dominated military. She also learned how to handle bullies, as when soldiers called her “Mommy Platoon Leader.” She rolls her eyes. “Mommy. It was meant to be an insult, and I bought into it. I should’ve said, ‘Yeah, I’m taking good care of my soldiers and it makes them more deadly. What’s wrong with that?’ But I was 25 or 30, hypersensitive, the first female commander of my unit,” she says.
“Now I stand up. ‘Damn straight I fight like a girl, and I’m going to beat you doing it.’”

Besides, as she will be the first to point out, being a real mother takes at least as much endurance as the military. “I was pumping breast milk an hour ago and I fell asleep at my desk,” she says. “As we used to say in the Army when we were in the desert, ‘It sucks, but it’s my suck. I’m going to own my suck.’”

By:  Rachel Combe