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Illinois Legislators Have History Of Bringing Babies To Work

Mary Hansen
NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS
State Sen. Kimberly Lightford shows a picture of her son, Isaiah, who she had while serving in the Illinois Senate.

U. S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth made history last week by being the first to bring her infant to the Senate floor while she voted. In Springfield, both chambers have been open to mothers and children.

State Rep. Litesa Wallace is a mom and foster parent. She recently led a Human Services committee while bouncing her infant on her lap. Later she worked in her office while the six-month-old slept in a stroller.

“I was not nervous,” she said. “I felt that I would be OK and supported in bringing him.”

Kids have been allowed in both the Illinois House and Senate. When overtime session lasts into the summer, parents who are lawmakers often bring their children to spend the days in Springfield. That can change the tone of debate, Wallace said.

“We're more accountable. We have to be more upstanding; we have to treat each other with more respect because the children are watching,” she said.

Wallace says she heard stories from other lawmakers who have raised babies and young children while serving in office, in particular state Rep. Mary Flowers and Sen. Kimberly Lightford.

Lightford took her seat in the Senate in 1998 at the age of 30. A couple years later, she got pregnant with her son, Isaiah.To her knowledge, she’s the first to give birth while serving as a state senator in Illinois.

She says the reaction from her colleagues, most of them men, was positive. She recalls an exchange with the late Sen. Vince Demuzio at an education hearing while she was pregnant.

“He said… ‘I'm that kid's god-grandfather,’” she said. “So I felt good about the way he responded. And all of my other colleagues responded very well.”

That included then state senator and future president, Barack Obama. A photo of Obama and Isaiah, as a round-faced baby, sits in her office.

Credit Mary Hansen / NPR Illinoi
NPR Illinoi
A photo of Barack Obama, then a state senator, holding state Sen. Kimberly Lightford's son sits in her office.

Lightford was a single mom and traveled between the Chicago-area and the state capital with her son for the first few years of his life. And while her colleagues were understanding, it didn’t shield her from sexist behavior:

“I wasn't equal, but they weren't mean to me or overly aggressive in the sense that they didn’t welcome my child,” she said. “Other things that they did was inappropriate at times.”

At the time, she says she just tried to ignore it and keep working.

“I just needed to keep moving with the things that were concerning to me,” she said, adding that was her son and her legislative work. “And if I waste time over here addressing that, then I'm losing time over here. I already felt like it wasn't enough time in the day.”

Lightford hopes women know they can be moms and legislators. And others have. State Rep. Melissa Conyears-Ervin was elected in 2016, when her daughter was six months old and still nursing.

Ervin agreed time was a challenge, but she said colleagues, staff and others helped her out.

“I think that more women or mothers need to be a part of this process. And I encourage more to pursue it,” she said. “I think the more of us that get into this position, the more conducive the environment would be.”

Initiatives to help working mothers have been introduced, including ones that would designate rooms for breastfeeding in courthouses and the state capitol.

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, who is also a mother, sponsored the measure for courthouses. She said both proposals are about making democratic institutions more accessible to mothers.

“This is the people’s house,” she said of the statehouse. “If you’re a member of the public who is here to testify on a bill or to simply learn about how we do what we do, you deserve that same level of privacy and accommodation and dignity.”

Mary Hansen is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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