What Happened to This Lawmaker Is the Exact Reason Working Mothers Will Never Get a Fair Shake

Imagine that you are on maternity leave. You've got a newborn baby crying for God knows what every two hours, your toddler is running around underfoot, and it's six months into a global pandemic.

Now imagine your boss calls and asks you to make an important work-related decision, and there's a tight deadline. Ooof. But, you talk yourself up. OK, OK, you can pull it together, sure. It's a quick thing, shouldn't take more than a few minutes. You ask if you can send over your thoughts in an email or talk things out over a five-minute Zoom call. Nope, you must come into the office.

That's some straight-up nonsense, right?

It cannot always require this much strength, this much character, for working mothers to do their jobs.

Well, that's precisely what happened this week to a California lawmaker. Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks had given birth to her second daughter on July 26 and was just one month into her maternity leave when the state legislature was wrapping up its work for the year. But when it was clear that there were critical votes pending on a measure — that would, ironically, remove a key hurdle that keeps new parents from taking job-protected leave — she knew she couldn't sit this one out.

Now, in July, after two legislative members tested positive for the coronavirus, the Assembly adopted a policy allowing a special voting procedure for its members who were considered high-risk for contracting COVID-19. Under this policy, lawmakers could authorize a legislative leader to cast proxy votes on their behalf.

Obviously Wicks put in a request for this remote-voting option. She was literally on a federally approved medical leave with a month-old baby who, because she is too young to get most any vaccines, is at a higher risk for complications with just about any illness, never mind COVID.

Wicks's request was denied. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said maternity leave wasn't a high-risk category.

So, as working mothers are so often made to do, Wicks — clearly unable to "have it all" — was forced to do it all. She traveled the nearly two hours from her district in Oakland to the California State Capitol in Sacramento, with her infant in tow, to cast her vote.

She took the podium to emphatically support the bill. She was clearly flustered as she spoke. After all, she was called to the floor while she was in the middle of feeding her daughter. She no doubt had a difficult time concentrating: multitasking the crying month-old baby underneath a swaddling blanket on her chest while adjusting the face mask that slipped off her nose every few seconds as she spoke. She was up on that podium for less than a minute. All of that time and effort and anxiety — not to mention potential exposure — for 45 seconds of unnecessary-yet-required face time.

It was the perfect visual metaphor of the load working mothers are carrying right now. And, it's a good thing Wicks did so. The measure passed with the bare minimum of necessary votes.

Outrage, as it inconveniently does, followed the next day.

Hillary Clinton tweeted a rundown of what happened alongside the strong-arm emoji. Gabby Giffords applauded her, noting that it was a "testament to her character" and that "strong women get things done!" The video of Wicks amassed hundreds of thousands of views.

All that is true. But it's also exhausting and unsustainable.

It cannot always require this much strength, this much character, for working mothers to do their jobs.

And, for most of the 23.5 million working mothers in the United States, there's no chance for public outrage to come to their defense, to help them rise above whatever unfair employment practice with which they've been forced to comply.

What happened to Wicks is despicable in general. Without a pandemic, she should still have been afforded the ability to cast her vote remotely. But the fact that it occurred during this crossroads in our nation's history is yet another harsh reminder that those in power do not value the work of women, mothers in particular.

The fact that it occurred during this crossroads in our nation's history is yet another harsh reminder that those in power do not value the work of women, mothers in particular.

Even during an economic collapse brought on by a worldwide public health crisis, working mothers are disposable. It's no secret that women are bowing out of the job market at a steady clip these days as they're tasked with choosing between safe child care and a steady paycheck.

It's no surprise that in many families, women earn less than men — a product of longstanding inequity stemming from the fact that women are the ones who have to leave the workforce temporarily to produce and care for children so thus end up taking lower-paying jobs with more flexibility — so of course they should be the ones to relinquish their careers.

The impact of these "choices" working mothers have had to make is multigenerational. And the choices we're forced to make now, during this pandemic, will last lifetimes. It will reduce our earning potential and our work opportunities, for certain, but it will have a harmful carryover effect on our daughters and granddaughters.

Rendon later apologized for forcing Wicks's hand. He said he never intended to be inconsiderate to "her role as a legislator or her role as a mother." He then stressed the importance of "inclusivity and electing more women in politics."

But where will we find these women? The ones who, despite being repeatedly penalized for becoming parents, are willing to give so much more than they ought to, the ones "lucky" enough to be able to do it all. If the very people who create the laws with which we live can't see by now what they are doing to us, how they are driving us out of the very rooms we desperately need to be in, then who will?

Once again, it's another burden working mothers alone will be forced to bear.