The Fitness of Mothers
Wendy Kaminer's piece on Jane Swift ("Mama's Delicate Condition," TAP, April
23, 2001) has stirred up quite a fuss, and it is easy to see why. The underlying
assumptions of her argument are as calculated to shock as one of those tabloid TV
shows on "animals that kill" or alien invasion. Kaminer argues, essentially, that
since "some" women "occasionally get pregnant," they should time these anomalies
so as never to interfere with demanding jobs, because childbirth and its
aftermath may render a woman unfit for high office. Say that again? And why is
someone saying it again?
For starters, pregnancy is not an "occasional" occurrence. Roughly 85 percent
of working women are likely to become pregnant at some point during their career.
And the suggestion that they time these blessed events with the precision of a
moon landing, so that they never interfere with a sudden promotion, may be good
advice but is a counsel of perfection. It is equivalent to telling a spouse to
"drive carefully, dear." In real life, they never listen, and accidents do
And what about the notion that motherhood may make Swift and other high-ranking
women temporarily incompetent because of all those raging hormones, maternal
urges, and new priorities? Well, I've been there, and I don't remember that my
brain cells ceased functioning or that my reason was impaired during those first
months of mothering. It would have been strange indeed had this been the case.
Our early female ancestors would never have been able to ensure their infants'
survival if they hadn't had their wits about them, in conditions that were even
more challenging than those in the statehouse.
There is a degree of confusion in Kaminer's thinking here. She can't seem to
decide whether the governor's job really is all that difficult. At one point, she
concedes that the office "doesn't seem terribly demanding." But if this is true,
and if numerous male governors have not had to operate on all cylinders, then why
raise the question of fitness at all? Can't Swift be as mediocre as the next man?
One detects a certain judgmental pique, aimed at a female who is not living her
life in a manner that Wendy Kaminer approves of or would choose for herself.
I am glad, however, that Kaminer had the nerve to make the controversial point
that childbirth disproportionately affects women's bodies and emotions. New
mothers do experience powerful hormonal changes. They do fall in love, to a
degree many describe as "besotted." And for many, including myself, this new
relationship often does take precedence over all other preoccupations. Men, by
and large, just don't seem to be affected in the same way. Acknowledging this
reality may help us understand why the "childbirth as appendectomy" model of
maternity leave--have the baby and quickly get back to business as usual--doesn't
work for large numbers of mothers. Many want much more time with their newborns
than their jobs allow. This forces them either to quit paid work altogether or to
rush back to the office too soon, with tears in their eyes and a breast pump
clutched in their hands. As far as I'm concerned, that is unnatural, if not
barbaric, and American women are almost the only ones in the developed world who
have to make such a cruel choice.
But Kaminer fails to note that once the symbiotic love affair between mother and
infant has settled down, a maternal sensibility can be as much a qualification as
a detriment to leadership. A female governor with young children may be ideally
equipped to grasp what other mothers go through and what they need to make their
job of nurturing more successful. She might use her empathy and experience to
push for parent education, or paid parental leaves, or health coverage, or a
quality preschool education for all children in her state.
Having three small children won't disqualify Jane Swift from providing that kind
of leadership. And I plan to judge her, just as I would judge any man, on whether
she delivers on such issues--not on whether she delivers her babies--while in
Author, The Price of Motherhood
Wendy Kaminer's recent column attacking Lieutenant Governor Jane
Swift's ability to govern Massachusetts belongs in The American Spectator,
not The American Prospect. Kaminer condemns Swift's audacity (to be both
pregnant and working simultaneously), arguing that women should better plan their
reproductive choices so as not to disrupt their work lives. Couching her argument
in feminist terms ("feminism is supposed to be about women making choices, after
all"), Kaminer sounds more like the traditionalist Dr. Laura, ordering women to
prioritize and choose between work and family.
"Having it all," Kaminer reasons, "always seemed like a childish fantasy to
me." But that "childish fantasy" describes the daily struggle to balance work and
family shared by most Americans, a great percentage of whom depend on two
breadwinners and cannot afford the luxurious choice to dispense with one income.
In the real world, feminism is not "about women making [or being forced to make]
choices"--it is about having choices. A more thoughtful column stimulated by
Swift's situation would deplore the lack of social policy supports to help women
(and men) balance work and family, not reprimand individuals for the either/or
"choices" they are coerced into making.
Kaminer deems Swift unfit to serve in public office because of her recuperation
after birthing twins. She even invokes that prefeminist bogey, raging hormones.
But who else would flunk the Kaminer fitness test? Franklin D. Roosevelt presided
from a wheelchair and sometimes suffered exhaustion. John F. Kennedy took
steroids (a hormone!) for Addison's disease. Dwight Eisenhower continued to serve
as president after two heart attacks. Even Vice President Dick Cheney may stagger
through his term. How do we measure a pregnancy against chronic heart disease?
Kaminer buys into a prefeminist double standard. She revives "having it all" as a
uniquely female fantasy--women need to choose family or work, but men don't. The
truth is, no one can have it all; everyone has to make compromises. Precisely the
reason men got away with having it all was because they didn't do it all:
Their wives stayed at home to raise the kids and take care of the domestic
duties, as Swift's husband will. It's the absence of family-support policies that
compel someone--Swift or her husband--to make sacrifices and have limited
choices. This is a root problem that Kaminer's superficial feminism ignores.
We no longer tell people with disabilities that they are "unfit" to work because
they cannot enter the building ("Sorry, we haven't constructed a ramp to the
corner office yet--I guess you can't take that promotion. Not our problem."); we
think of creative solutions like elevators, fully accessible bathrooms, and
special chairs. Likewise, we can't keep telling women to give up careers because
our employers and elected officials (like Swift!) have not taken the
responsibility to find equitable practical solutions for such "disabilities" as
pregnancy. If Jane Swift wants to take a few minutes to breastfeed her new
children while in office, why not? Our president, after all, does his exercise
workouts during his breaks.
It took some doing to turn a rather feeble and conservative public official
into an object of feminist sympathy, but Kaminer perversely managed it. After
four years of trying to conceive with her husband, Jane Swift became
pregnant with her first child in 1998 when she was running for lieutenant
governor. Amid a barrage of press coverage about her publicly pregnant role,
including interviews with The Washington Post and 20/20, a fed-up
Swift hoped that "someday people will transcend my uterus." If Swift were
serious, she would be a crusader for policies to bring about that day. And if
Kaminer were serious, she might fault Swift not for having children but for
failing to lead on work-family policies for working women who find themselves
pregnant--the very policies that Swift herself deserves.
Writing Fellow, The American Prospect
Dad to the Rescue
Wendy Kaminer's recent denunciation of Lieutenant Governor Jane
Swift for electing to stay in office while bearing twins doesn't make sense.
Kaminer argues that exhaustion, hormone swings, and recuperation from childbirth
will compromise Swift's ability to perform her job; she further suggests that
this compromise does not perturb Swift's conscience because Swift does not take
her job seriously.
But mothers have traditionally met great challenges, despite mood swings and
exhaustion: They have taken on the complex, demanding responsibility of
simultaneously raising an infant and managing a household. Why assume that Swift
can't carry big responsibilities or make important decisions? It's also a huge
stretch to argue that Swift has low standards or takes her job lightly simply
because she might cut back at work or not function at her highest level the first
few months after childbirth.
If political leadership is about taking responsibility, breaking from encrusted,
harmful conventions, and modeling exemplary conduct, then Kaminer is right that
Swift is not a political leader in this case. But Swift's husband is--and Kaminer
trivializes this crucial point.
We should not make a big fuss about Swift's husband or give him a trophy. (And
he has had the decency not to ask for one.) After all, he is doing only what
women have typically done for centuries. But it is at least worth noticing that
he is putting his spouse's career before his own and becoming the primary
caretaker of his children. Only about 20 percent of men care for their children
while their partner is working--a percentage that reflects a modest increase over
the past 20 years. Our public leaders need to be saying that Swift's husband
merits admiration and they need to put the issue of Swift's decision to rest.
Harvard Graduate School of Education and JFK School
Wendy Kaminer Responds:
I'm flattered that the editors at the Prospect assigned three people the
task of attacking my column on Jane Swift, and I'm grateful to them for making
one of my points: Anyone who merely raises questions about the feasibility of
assuming high office and giving birth more or less simultaneously is likely to be
dismissed as a sexist or assailed as a right-wing scold.
The extreme sensitivity of this subject is reflected in the hyperbole of these
comments. I did not denounce or condemn Swift for getting pregnant and agreeing
to assume the governor's office. I did not argue that women should plan their
reproductive lives around their careers (I only pointed out that they can; after
all, many do). I did not pronounce Swift unfit for office. I said that questions
about her fitness were legitimate. Personally, I have no strong opinion, or
prediction, about how childbirth will affect her initial performance as governor.
I don't approve or disapprove of her choices (although, as a citizen of
Massachusetts, I'll be affected by them). My intent was simply to open a
discussion that I sensed the press was avoiding, and to air concerns that I've
heard in private conversations with other professional women and mothers.
I stand by my article. I refer readers interested in my response to criticisms
of it here (and elsewhere) to my dialogue with Lindsay Sobel on the
Prospect's Web site, www.prospect.org. And I remind people who think
there is one correct feminist response to Jane Swift's situation that feminists
have been arguing about how to balance work and family life for more than 100
years. I don't plan to stop now.