Mama's Delicate Condition

Female politicians have not fared particularly well in the Commonwealth of
Massachusetts. We have sent no women to Congress in recent years and have never
elected a female senator, governor, or attorney general; the state legislature
has never been led by a female senate president or speaker of the house. So as
Republican Lieutenant Governor Jane Swift prepares to take over the office of
governor from Paul Cellucci (who's resigning and awaiting confirmation as
ambassador to Canada), she enjoys some cautious bipartisan support--either
because of or despite the fact that she's pregnant. Swift, the mother of a
three-year-old girl, is carrying twins.

Is her pregnancy a matter of public concern? It's been the subject of
discussion in the local press (and has gained a little national attention), but
commentators generally seem loath to suggest that the impending birth of her
twins makes Swift unfit to undertake the job of governor. It's not hard to
imagine people suppressing their doubts about a pregnant governor for fear of
being charged with sexism, given the delicate condition of women in Massachusetts
politics and the long history of discrimination against women on account of
pregnancy, or the mere possibility of it.

Popular notions of feminine frailty have always relied on the indisputable
fact that only women get pregnant. The logical connection between women's
reproductive roles and their presumed fragility has never been quite clear to me.
An unbiased observer, such as a visitor from another planet, might consider the
ability to bear children a sign of strength. But on this planet, through most of
our history, women have been deemed particularly weak (and sensitive) because
some of them occasionally get pregnant. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis
said in Muller v. Oregon, the famous 1908 case upholding protective labor
laws for women (three years after the Court had struck down such laws for men),
"Woman's physical structure and the performance of maternal functions place her
at a disadvantage in the struggle for subsistence."

It's worth stressing that Brandeis attributed women's natural "disadvantage"
not just to the practical burdens of wage earning and child care but to "woman's
physical structure." Citing "abundant testimony of the medical fraternity," he
observed that even if she was not pregnant, a woman was apt to be injured by
"spending a long time on her feet at work." The presumed weakness of all women,
pregnant or not, also justified their exclusion from the practice of law. In 1873
the Supreme Court took judicial notice that "[t]he natural and proper timidity
and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the
occupations of civil life." Even women's recreation was limited: in the
late-nineteenth century, doctors warned young women that vigorous exercise would
harm their reproductive organs.

The feminine mystique derived its power from medical opinions like this.
Assumptions about women's physical weaknesses were inextricably bound to
assumptions about their refined emotional and moral sensibilities, as well as
their passivity. (Feminine "delicacy" was linked to feminine "timidity," as the
Supreme Court suggested.) In fact, faith in women's moral superiority proved
more tenacious than a belief in their physical frailty, as modern feminists lay
claim to a presumptively female ethic of caring, sharing, and nonhierarchical

Today it's difficult to suggest that bearing children may even temporarily
disqualify a woman from high office, or any extremely demanding and stressful
full-time job. It's hard to ask the question "Is Jane Swift fit to serve?"
without calling up more than 100 years of crippling stereotypes about the
emotional, moral, and physical attributes of normal women. Still, it's a question
that ought to be asked.

First, it's important to separate concerns about child care from child birth.
Of course, Swift's husband can care for their infant children (and he is
reportedly planning to do so). But he can't bear them; he can't recuperate from
childbirth for her (if recuperation is necessary); he can't experience whatever
hormone swings lay in store for her, catch up on her sleep for her, or keep her
from being happily distracted by the mere thought of her two new babies. Why
would you want to become governor and give birth to twins more or less
simultaneously, anyway?

I realize that Swift didn't plan this odd confluence of events, but she could
easily have anticipated it. Anyone who paid any attention to political gossip
knew that Paul Cellucci was campaigning for George W. Bush in the hope of landing
a post in his administration. She must seriously have considered the prospect
of his resignation. If she intended to assume the office of governor when
Cellucci moved on, Swift could have postponed her pregnancy.

Some readers will consider my last remark horribly sexist, I know, but
feminism is supposed to be about women making choices, after all. The hesitancy
to question Swift's choice to become a new mother and a new governor at the same
time seems almost anachronistic. It's reminiscent of the "have it all" pop
feminism of the 1970s and 1980s. Having it all (not sequentially but all at once)
always seemed like a childish fantasy to me.

It's true that Swift appears, at first glance, to have made the fantasy come
true. She campaigned while pregnant and was elected lieutenant governor two weeks
after her first child was born. But no one seems to take the office of lieutenant
governor seriously--least of all Swift, who ran into trouble for ethical lapses
involving her personal use of state employees and resources, her questionable
acquisition of an apartment at a below-market rent, and her acceptance of an
excessively well paid sinecure at a Boston law school. Apparently Swift and
others considered the lieutenant governor's job to be a part-time position. If
she had taken a three-month pregnancy leave, it's not likely that any
constituents would have missed her.

Luckily for Jane Swift, the governor's job in Massachusetts doesn't seem
terribly demanding either. In fact, we've gotten used to no-show governors.
Bill Weld played squash for six years; Paul Cellucci went on trade missions.
Considering the record of her predecessors, it will be hard to criticize Governor
Swift if she stays home with her babies. But living down to low standards
shouldn't make her a feminist role model. Women who want to be taken seriously as
officeholders had better take their offices seriously.

Wendy Kaminer and Lindsay Sobel debate the implications of "Mama's Delicate Condition." Ann Crittenden, Alyssa R. Rayman-Read and Richard Weissbourd respond in the May 6th, 2001 issue of The American Prospect.