On Monday, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) announced that she had given birth to her second child. In addition to achieving an extraordinary personal milestone — Duckworth is 50 and lost both her legs in Iraq — she made history as the first woman to give birth while serving in the U.S. Senate.
This makes sense, considering how far Congress is from gender parity. Only 20 percent of congressional seats are held by women, and they “face greater challenges than men in meeting the conflicting demands of work and family,” according to a survey of female lawmakers by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Jeannette Rankin was the first woman elected to Congress in 1916. It wasn’t until 1973 that a congresswoman gave birth while in office.
That was Yvonne Brathwaite Burke (D-Calif.), the first black woman elected to the House from California.
Burke quickly made her mark as a freshman on Capitol Hill. She earned a seat on the House Appropriations Committee, a coveted role for a new representative.
When the Los Angeles Times reported on Burke’s pregnancy in July 1973, it noted that “according to Capitol Hill veterans, it is the first time a member of Congress has become pregnant while in office.” When the Times pointed this out to Burke, she laughed and said: “It’s a dubious honor. Frankly, that hadn’t crossed my mind.”
Burke was 40 at the time and had a stepdaughter from her husband’s previous marriage. “There were people who were critical, but there were people who were very supportive, and then there was curiosity. How could a woman at my age have a baby and, at the same time, be a Member of Congress?” she said in a 2015 interview with the Office of the Historian for the U.S. House of Representatives. “… It was unusual for a woman who was in business or an elective office to talk about having family and being able to carry out their duties.”
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But her colleagues were supportive, she said years later in an interview with the National Visionary Leadership Project.
“Members of Congress were fabulous, they were really great. They gave me a shower,” recalled Burke, now 85. “They’d never had a woman have a baby in Congress.”
When Autumn Roxanne Burke was born in November 1973, her mother became the first member of Congress to be granted maternity leave.
Burke received a great deal of attention for her landmark birth. She famously appeared with Autumn on the cover of Ebony in March 1974 and penned an essay for the magazine titled, “The Kind of World I Want for My Child.”
During Burke’s time in Congress, she advocated tirelessly for women and minorities. But eventually, her career came into conflict with her parenting, and she decided not to run for reelection in 1978.
“I didn’t leave Congress because I did not enjoy it. I enjoyed it very much,” she told NVLP. “But by the time my daughter got old enough to go to school in first grade, it just was going to be impossible, so I had to make some choices. And that’s when I decided to come back to Los Angeles.”
She eventually served more than 17 years on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors before retiring in 2008. She still sits on Amtrak’s board of directors after being appointed by President Barack Obama in 2012.
“I, personally, have always felt that women have a right to choose what they want to do,” she told the House’s Office of the Historian in 2015. “In my case, I was at an age where I had to have a child, or else I’d forget it. So it was a decision. I always wanted to have a child. I can’t say I always wanted to be in politics because I didn’t really always want to be in politics — but I always wanted to make a difference.”
As for Autumn Burke, she followed in her mother’s footsteps, winning a seat in the California State Assembly in 2014. And she, too, has a daughter.
This post has been updated.
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