Archaic rules make motherhood a challenge for women in Minnesota politics

Rep. Erin Koegel holds her daughter, Clara, as she checks email.
Rep. Erin Koegel holds her 7-week-old daughter, Clara, as she checks email at her office at the Minnesota State Office Building on Jan. 23. Koegel brings Clara everywhere she goes, from the committee room to the House floor.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News 2019

When state Sen. Julia Coleman had to bring her 2-year-old son to work during the legislative session, she found herself in a bind over workplace rules. She could bring him to the Capitol, but not into the chamber. Senate rules prohibit visitors from being on the floor during a session, even a senator’s kid.

Had she been a representative in the Minnesota House, Coleman’s experience would have been very different. One chamber over, the Waconia Republican could have kept her son with her on the floor. Instead, she had to run back and forth between Senate sessions to check on him in another room. 

Coleman has three young sons, including twins who were born prematurely at the end of last session. She's been open on social media about her experiences as a new mother and the need for change in the Senate, where her party is in control.

A woman and her family
Sen. Julia Coleman and husband Jacob pose for a family photo with their three sons.
Courtesy photo

She and other women, though, say the issue’s bigger than a single Senate rule. While women are a rising force in Minnesota politics and governing, the written and unwritten rules of political life haven’t kept pace. Despite gains, Coleman and other women say they must still navigate ways of doing business put in place when men dominated politics but that don’t work now and may be keeping more women from seeking office.

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“It is not a Republican or a Democrat issue. It depends on whether or not you think having kids on the floor would take away from the prestige and honor of the Senate,” Coleman said. “Everything in this job is a sacrifice I am happy to make, I understand that, but there are little things we can do to make it easier for mothers.”

It’s heartbreaking, she said, when women who’ve reached out to her seeking advice on entering politics  decide not to run for office because they cannot balance motherhood with political rules like those in the state Senate. 

‘Very hard to change the rules’

The strain that falls uniquely on younger women in politics came into sharp focus two weeks ago when Erin Maye Quade was scheduled to speak at the Minnesota DFL Party state Senate endorsement convention on April 23 and went into labor.

Her campaign manager, Mitchell Walstad, said he wasn’t sure if Maye Quade would be able to attend the convention, but she arrived, timing her contractions during her speech and a question-and-answer session.

She lasted through the first round of voting, obtaining 74 votes, while her opponent, Justin Emmerich, got 91. While the second-round ballots were being turned in, she decided she needed to go to the hospital, before the one-on-one conversations with delegates.

That round of ballots was disqualified and the second vote was then held without Maye Quade present.

A motion to stop the proceedings would have required two-thirds of the delegates to approve, taking the candidates into a primary instead of getting DFL endorsement. Walstad,  however, said they didn’t feel like a motion was a viable option.

Rep. Erin Maye Quade speaks to a crowd at the Minnesota State Capitol
Rep. Erin Maye Quade speaks to a crowd at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul during a rally against sexual harassment on Friday, Nov. 17.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2017

“The district has been deflecting to us and asking why we did not make these motions, but we had limited ability to speak,” Walstad said. “If someone had a heart attack or seizure, I am also certain we would not be having this same conversation.”

Had Maye Quade, a former state representative, become the nominee and won the seat, she would have faced the fact that children are not allowed on the Senate floor.

While the Minnesota House formally opened the chamber floor to family members starting in 2013, change in the Senate comes slowly. 

"It is very hard to change the rules,” said Rachel Aplikowski, communications director for the Republican Senate majority. She cited a 2016 debate to allow water onto the Senate floor — food and water are banned. It did not pass.

Sara Flick stepped down from her campaign for state Senate a week before her daughter was born this year. The convention was approaching and she said the combination of being pregnant, working full-time and campaigning “took a toll on her.”  A basic question, such as where to pump breast milk, became difficult to answer.

“I was really stressed out about the endorsement convention and managing a newborn. I didn’t know if and where I could even pump,” she said.  

She and her husband began discussing what would happen if their baby was sick, or she could not make the drive from Rochester to St. Paul.  

“If there has been a guarantee that I could do a lot of the committee work remotely or if I could bring my newborn onto the floor, it would have been easier for me to serve,” she said. 

Held to a higher standard?

Women in the Minnesota House applaud the chamber’s flexibility around family.

Rep. Erin Koegel, DFL-Spring Lake Park, said her 3-year-old daughter Clara grew up on the House floor. She said she asked human resources if Clara was allowed to accompany her to work and they said yes, as long as she did not use state staff as child care. 

Koegel said bringing her kid to the chamber wasn’t a political statement; it was because “day care is really expensive.” 

“I see the House as a really family-friendly place,” she added. “I have always felt supported here, but I think that is the difference between the culture of the House and the Senate and I really hope the Senate can get out of the Dark Ages. It is not the end of the world to have kids running around.” 

A young girl sips from a cup
Clara watches her mother, Rep. Koegel, work from home. Clara has grown up on the floor and has a first-row seat to the Minnesota House.
Courtesy photo

Koegel said that with the COVID-19 pandemic, she has been able to work from home more and spend time with Clara. She wants to see the Legislature continue to allow remote options for working parents. 

While the state Senate does allow remote options, she doesn’t see herself switching governing bodies. She said she was asked to run for state Senate in her district as her senator was retiring but because of the Senate rules, she knew it would not work for her family.  

“I want the flexibility to have my kid around on a Saturday session when we are going for 12 hours,” she said. “It is disappointing the Senate does not allow for that kind of flexibility and it plays into who makes up the Senate as it is predominantly older and more men.” 

Rep. Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn, DFL-Eden Prairie, said that without the remote option the House has offered during the pandemic, she would not have been able to spend as much time with her newborn. 

After adopting three children, Kotyza-Witthuhn, who had trouble conceiving, became pregnant during her second campaign. She says she had an extended labor of almost 30 hours and many healing challenges post-pregnancy. She says seeing Koegel bring Clara on the floor “paved the way” for her to bring her son when she felt comfortable.  

This doesn’t mean these acts come without criticism from other legislative members or the public. Minnesota House and Senate members shared that they are often held to a higher standard than their male counterparts when it comes to parenting, such as being asked if their child misses them or who is looking after them.  

“There is still the societal idea that mothers have to be home whenever their kids need them, but we know that is not the reality,” Kotyza-Witthuhn said. “Women have vastly different lived experiences than our male colleagues and we need women where decisions are being made because we bring fresh ideas to the table.” 

A woman holds her son on the Minnesota House floor
Rep. Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn and her newborn son on the Minnesota House floor.
Courtesy photo

‘Shameful what happened to Erin’

While many women in politics share stories of their challenges, Maye Quade's experience at the DFL nominating convention seemed to strike a nerve, becoming a national story for a short time.

Women should not have to make those kinds of choices, said U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar.

A close friend to Maye Quade, Omar said that her labor represented visually what a lot of women of color in Minnesota fear: being required to be “superhuman.” 

“It is incredibly shameful what happened to Erin, and accommodations should have been made,” she said. 

“We all have our own horror stories of what has happened to us as we have given birth but it is important for Black women to use our stories and those of the people we represent to change societal views on how Black women are seen,” said Omar, a member of the U.S. House’s Black Maternal Health Caucus, which works to support Black mothers and lower the Black maternal mortality rates. 

“I watched the video of Erin having contractions and having to pause, and then the response from the crowd was clapping. I was just really appalled,” said state Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, and a member of the recently launched Minnesota House Black Maternal Health Caucus.

Moran has seven children and 10 grandchildren and, although she was not elected while her children were young, she has seen the ways the House has changed through the last decade to be more accessible to mothers. She said more needs to be done. 

“We have to align policies and practices that are supportive of women doing what we do in the 21st century and not see it as a deficiency, but a strength, particularly for women of color, that we are a part of this nation and that is building and creating strong possibilities and opportunities.”