Playpens, Pampers, and politics. A new generation of female lawmakers speaks out on family issues

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When 900 politically active women gathered here late last month for a four-day forum for women state legislators, the youngest member of the audience was 11-week-old Austin Esposito. Austin will not be eligible to vote until 2005. But the message cross-stitched in green across his tiny yellow T-shirt hints at his family's political involvement: ``Vote for my mom.''

``Mom'' is Rep. Claire McCaskill of Kansas City, Mo., a third-term Democrat in the Missouri legislature. As the first legislator in her state to become a mother while in office, she represents a new generation of female lawmakers who find playpens and Pampers as much a part of politics as campaigns and constituents.

``This has been a new thing in Jefferson City [the state capital],'' Representative McCaskill says of her dual role. ``But a lot of constituents have been calling and congratulating me. And my colleagues have been extremely supportive. Many of my women colleagues are older and have grown children, so it's as though Austin has two dozen grandmothers.''

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Most of those surrogate grandmothers came of political age at a time when women were elected to statewide office only after decades of volunteer work in the community, when their children were almost grown.

By contrast, Ms. McCaskill is one of half a dozen state lawmakers from across the country who traveled with infants to this conference, sponsored by the Center for the American Woman and Politics, nor are they alone. ``For every mother here with children,'' says Rep. Sally Fox, a Vermont Democrat with two young sons, ``I would guess there are another two or three whose children are at home with their dads.''

In separate interviews between meetings at the Hotel del Coronado, as the legislators pushed strollers and played with their babies, they related similar stories about the challenges and rewards of combining politics and parenthood. One challenge involved is timing births to coincide with legislative recesses. ``There's family planning and legislative planning,'' Rep. Margaret Lewis, a Republican from Jefferson, Wis., said with a laugh.

Representative Lewis gave birth to her first child, Andrew, two days before the Wisconsin Legislature convened in 1985. She missed only the opening session, then rejoined her colleagues the next day. The couple's four-month-old daughter, Allison, was born during the summer recess.

Although some women live close enough to the state capitol to commute, others must set up a temporary residence there during legislative sessions. McCaskill has hired a young woman to accompany her to Jefferson City in January to care for Austin. A playpen and crib in her State Capitol office will also enable her to spend time with the baby when she is not attending hearings or floor debates.

Similarly, Rep. Julie Peterson, a third-term Democrat from Brattleboro, Vt., explains that for the past three years her husband, John Wesley, has stayed home with their son, Jack, now four years old, while the legislature is in session. This year she will take the couple's five-month-old daughter, Carolyn, with her to Montpelier, and ``the boys will stay home.''

Although Mr. Wesley, a lawyer, encouraged his wife to run for office, he admits the couple ``had to make some fairly significant adjustments in a short time. It's been a challenge. The logistics of being a two-career family with both parents committed to being dedicated care-givers can be overwhelming.''

What makes the challenges worth the effort is the women's hope that their presence in legislatures will make a difference. Beyond other qualifications they bring to their posts, they find that having children heightens their sensitivity to family issues such as child care and parental leave.

``I realized early on that if you wanted to change the system, you had to work from inside,'' Ms. Lewis says. ``If you have a tin can that's dented, how do you get the dents out? You can't pull from the outside. You must push from the inside.'' In the beginning, Lewis concentrated on ``hard economic issues'' to establish her credibility. During her first term, she recalls, ``I very rarely talked about things that might be relegated to the category of women's issues.''

Now, as a second-term representative, she says, ``I understand that if I'm not the one speaking out on day care and education issues, I can't always expect someone else will. If I have difficulty finding day care when I can pay for it, who is going to speak for those who can't pay for it?''

McCaskill agrees. ``Elected officials have refused to see we no longer have a Ward and June Cleaver family [as portrayed on `Leave It to Beaver'],'' she says. ``Most women who are working are not doing so by choice. I hope I may make a difference in the prioritization of child care [on legislative agendas].''

Within their own families, child care often involves husbands and relatives.

Hunter Campbell, whose wife, Jane, is a Democratic representative in Ohio, took time off from his position as director of city planning in Cleveland to accompany her to Columbus after the birth of their daughter, Jessica, now six months old.

``A number of years ago I set up a fairly liberal policy of parental leave at work,'' Mr. Campbell explains. ``It was time to take advantage of it myself.''

In addition to a supportive family, it helps to have a sense of humor. Peterson recalls that one day during her pregnancy, after she had spoken from the floor on an issue, an older legislator wrote her a note. ``He seemed amazed that I was still able to stand up and talk, as though that was something a pregnant woman couldn't do. I think he meant it as a compliment, but....''

Other, more indirect compliments come in the form of legislative progress. One of Ms. Peterson's recent victories involved getting funding for changing tables in rest stops along the Interstate highway in Vermont, a tourist state that attracts many young families. After ``hounding the Transportation Department'' unsuccessfully, she says, she and a pregnant colleague, both members of the Appropriations Committee, succeeded in having the committee appropriate ``around $60,000 or $70,000'' for the project.

``This is something older members wouldn't have thought of,'' Peterson says. ``One male legislator had six children, but he had never changed a diaper.''

Despite the novelty of their presence in office, the women find that their family status quickly becomes irrelevant.

``You're judged on how well you represent your constituents, and the quality of the job you do,'' Lewis says. ``That is the expectation people have, whether you're young or old, male or female.''

Still, as they break new ground, they serve as role models for others. Rep. Amy Davenport, a Democrat from Montpelier, Vt., and the mother of a 16-month-old daughter, Charis, echoes the comments of other women lawmakers when she says: ``I get asked to speak to groups of young women. They often feel very trapped by family commitments. It really helps to see others who have worked these things out. Not that it's easy, but it's possible.''

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