Women in Congress spotlight challenge of legislating as a new mother

A bipartisan effort to let new mothers vote by proxy after giving birth is putting a spotlight on the unique challenges congresswomen face as they weigh motherhood against the archaic rules of the House chamber.

After suffering significant complications when giving birth to her son in August, Rep. Anna Paulina Luna (R-Fla.) grew frustrated by the lack of any mechanism to vote on behalf of her constituents. She joined with Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.) to introduce a bipartisan proposal to fix that: The resolution would amend House rules to allow members, for six weeks after giving birth, to vote by proxy.

The proposal is far narrower than most Democrats would have liked — notably excluding fathers and parents who adopt — but with Republicans holding such a slim majority in the House, Luna wanted to make it difficult for either party to oppose.

“For, I think, both parties, they should be supporting it,” Luna said in a recent interview.

“If you’re hearing opposition to it, I think that it’s hypocritical of both parties,” she continued, “mainly because you have the Republican body that’s been championing family values and being a mother, and then you have really Democrats that champion women in the workforce and women’s rights, and so this is something that, I think, for members of Congress, embodies both.”

Proxy voting never existed on the House floor before the COVID-19 pandemic, but it became a useful tool to prevent a wider outbreak in the Capitol. Over time, some grew critical of the proxy voting practice, especially when members were spotted at the airport trying to skip town early, or campaigning when the House was still voting.

When Republicans won back the House, they got rid of proxy voting entirely in their rules package, but there has been some discussion among smaller groups in both parties about bringing it back in some fashion

“The pandemic showed us how to adapt and that some of these adaptations are possible, in a way that I think many people didn’t believe they were before,” Jacobs said in an interview with The Hill. And, you know, while there were some people who misused proxy voting, I think there were many others who used it as it was intended, to protect their health and the health of all of us.

Because the recently elected members of Congress “tend to be younger and from different backgrounds than Congress has historically had,” Jacobs said, “there is a desire to see some of these antiquated rules be updated for what modern families and workplaces are like.”

When Luna approached Jacobs about a possible proxy voting push, Jacobs said it was a “no brainer” to back her proposal. The Democrat has openly talked about her decision to freeze her eggs for when she is ready to become pregnant. She said “even with all of the hormone pills and injections and doctor’s visits and recovery from the procedure, that was all still easier to do than having a baby.”

In recent weeks, Luna has doubled down on her efforts to get this resolution to the House floor. She told The Hill she spoke to Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) about the proposal a few weeks ago and was hoping to hear from him soon.

Only 13 congresswomen have ever given birth while serving in office, including two in the past year: Luna had her son in August 2023, and Del. Jenniffer González-Colón (R), the nonvoting member from Puerto Rico, had twins in February 2024.

Both Republican congresswomen faced difficult recovery processes.

Luna had preeclampsia, which she said can sometimes be a “silent killer of pregnant women.” And during labor, she said, her high blood pressure could have led to cardiac arrest. She also got an infection and was bedridden for a month.

“There’s so much that our body goes through after giving birth, and I don’t think that the Founding Fathers anticipated that women would be serving in office, so we have to make necessary changes,” she said.

“I don’t ever want my constituents to think that I can’t do a job because I’m pregnant. But I also think that the House of Representatives, if we are going to be representative of what the American people are — which is of young families, of working parents — that there have to be these necessary changes,” Luna said. 

“So we need to get with the times. It’s simply unacceptable that it hasn’t been done prior.”

At 47 years old, González-Colón’s pregnancy was considered high risk. She had to induce labor at 35 weeks as a result of high blood pressure, and the twins were in the intensive care unit (ICU) for 16 days, she said. The congresswoman said her high blood pressure continues to prevent her from flying.

González-Colón and Luna both said these lived experiences reflect what many of their constituents face after giving birth, which the congresswomen say helps them better represent their voices.

“The reality is that just 13 women in the history of U.S. Congress delivering while in the House. That sends a message that this is not allowed, that the House and the Senate are not allowed for women to actually run or maintain their families,” González-Colón said.

“And I believe that we should represent our families in Congress, we should represent the voice of women that are pregnant, that are having kids, because we can actually represent more our communities, our districts, and the issues that are there.”

González-Colón is permitted to vote in specific circumstances, including in committees. She is also the only representative for all of Puerto Rico, which as an island of 3.2 million people is the largest district in Congress. She said she still participates in zoom calls and remote meetings and works out of her district office in Puerto Rico.

González-Colón’s biggest frustration with the absence of proxy voting is about representation, saying it is “taking that voice away for the people that we do represent, and we do proudly represent.”

“We should not be in the position to select between family and our people, family and our voice to represent our constituents. Because those two things should be compatible,” she said. 

By not embracing proxy voting for new mothers, she said Congress runs the risk of pushing women away from running for office, forcing them to “choose between being a wife, between being a mother or entering politics.”

Looking ahead to the next several months, the fate of proxy voting is largely dependent on which party wins the House majority in the November election. That party would approve a rules package in January 2025, almost certainly on a party-line vote, and it would specify whether or not — and under what circumstances — proxy voting would be permitted.

Democrats, many of whom are optimistic they’ll flip the chamber in November, have broader aspirations for proxy voting allowances.

Jacobs is a co-sponsor of an amendment that would allow for proxy voting in circumstances “due to a serious medical condition, including any pregnancy-related condition, or if they are the primary caretaker of a spouse or dependent with a serious medical condition if a doctor has recommended that they not travel.

“So, I know there is appetite, and those conversations are ongoing,” Jacobs continued. “I’m not sure, you know, given the current makeup of the leadership of Congress right now that it will be this term necessarily.”

Luna, however, is committed to seeing a rules change pass under GOP leadership, noting that Congress has consistently had a slim majority in recent years — even with Democrats in charge.

Luna recalled that at one point, three weeks or so after she gave birth, she received a phone call from a fellow Republican asking for her help — while she was still under doctors’ orders not to fly.

“I felt that I had to be back up here,” Luna said.

“Some members had left, and they were within one vote of not being able to pass some legislation, so they actually called me to see if I could fly up,” Luna said. “And so I was, like, packing my pump into my luggage, and I literally was on my way to the airport, and then they found a member who had shown up.”

Luna noted the challenges of motherhood for those serving in Congress is unlikely to go away any time soon.

“I’ve been told by some of the younger members of Congress that they’re trying to have kids right now,” she said. “So I know I’m not going to be the only one, so if I can champion this cause, it’s just sad that more, especially female, members aren’t speaking up even though they support it because they’re afraid of the blowback.”

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