Controversy over pregnancy and politics

June 19, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

BURLINGTON, Mass. -- This is Career Day at Foxhill Elementary School and the students have heard from the police officer, the hairdresser, the cake decorator and the soldier. Now it's Jane Swift's chance to turn them on to politics.

So, the 33-year-old candidate for lieutenant governor walks onto the stage in flat black shoes and a gray maternity dress and rattles off the basics. Then waving toward the reporters, producers and camera crew hovering around the edges of the auditorium, she asks the fourth- and fifth-graders, "Does anybody know why they are following me?"

One boy raises his hand and offers tentatively, "Because they want to know what you stand for?"

Ms. Swift nearly chortles her response, "I only wish that were true."

Then she explains, "It's because I am pregnant and all of these guys think it's a great big deal."

Ever since this ebullient three-term state senator announced that she was due to deliver another Massachusetts citizen before Election Day this has been a great big deal.

Breast or bottle?

Well into the second trimester of this campaign, her uterus is still getting more national attention than her politics.

She's been asked about morning sickness. "I'm going to write a book about the places to vomit in Boston," she says. She's had her food cravings cataloged, and her press secretary has had to explain that the coffee she's drinking is decaf.

From the right wing of her own Republican Party there have been cries to quit. She's been described as selfish and prenatally neglectful. One conservative said that if she wasn't planning to stay home with the baby, she'd be better off having a cat.

To top it all, a talk show host actually asked whether Ms. Swift was going to breast- or bottle-feed her newborn. At which point the normally bemused and friendly former state senator blurted out: "I have one word for you: Pump!"

Now, retreating to a local coffee shop with yet another chocolate milk, she muses about one of the hard "career day" lessons she neglected to share with the kids: having your private life subject to the scrutiny usually reserved for the ob-gyn.

"It's made me think that we haven't made as much progress as my generation has been led to think."

Ms. Swift was hand-picked by acting Gov. Paul Cellucci. He was trying to appeal to the independent women voters who put Bill Weld and him into office.

The pro-choice, pro-gay rights, Generation X Republican was not quite ready for a prime-time statewide race on her own, so the offer from a popular sitting governor was too good to refuse. Then, two weeks into the campaign, Swift found out she was pregnant. As they might say at Career Day, you can't always choose your political -- or biological -- timing.

Of course, Ms. Swift has had her share of defenders and Mr. Cellucci has won his share of kudos for a maternity employment policy. But, she acknowledges, "I have not said this is easy. I have not said Jane Swift is going to show you how easy this is."

She adds with a ready smile, "It's probably not the smartest political decision to undertake your first statewide campaign while undergoing something so emotionally and physically draining. But the trade-off for the electorate is they see me going through the same things they go through. Every one of my peers is going through these questions about work and family."

This is especially true of women who have thought long and hard about political "career days." As Kathy Kleeman of the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University says, "This is symbolic of the kind of questions women are wondering about: Can we do politics and do life?"

Politics and life

So far, women have made less progress in politics than other professions. In general they enter politics 10 years later than men, often because of family. At 25, Swift was the youngest woman elected to the state Senate. And if young women run, some will run pregnant.

It's not clear why politics and pregnancy is more controversial than, say, medicine and pregnancy. It's rare enough to have a baby in high office and only one other woman, Judi Dutcher of Minnesota, is known to have run a statewide campaign while she was visibly pregnant. A male candidate and his pregnant wife may be the very portrait of family values. A pregnant candidate and her husband are fodder for talk shows.

Before anybody asks again about breast-feeding, think of it this way:

If Ms. Swift gives birth in October and wins in November, she doesn't start work till January. Lieutenant governor? It's a well-paid, loosely defined job with no heavy lifting.

Isn't this what some folks like to call a mommy job?

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/19/98

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