Rep. Cynthia Lummis was in the throes of her reelection campaign in Wyoming last October when her husband, Alvin Wiederspahn, died suddenly. He was just 65 years old.
Lummis couldn’t even find his will as she took on a new load of responsibility. She had to shore up her husband’s businesses and pull together a memorial service. Her daughter was grown, but Lummis says she still felt a push and pull between her personal life and Congress.
As Wyoming’s only member of the House, she felt an obligation not to fall short in serving the state even as she grieved. There was a lame-duck congressional session to attend, and she served on the steering committee responsible for appointing a new incoming class of freshmen to committees.
“I really did not have any choice, so I just kept up the pace,” Lummis said in an interview with National Journal.
Like many women in Congress, Lummis has been reluctant to take a step back from work in the face of family obligations—or even personal tragedy. She continued flying between Washington and Wyoming on weekends, a journey that takes a minimum of eight hours because there are no direct flights. That’s the job, she said.
When men in politics publicly mourn or seek more time with their families, their decisions are applauded, praised, and held up as examples of why they are well-suited for public service. A touching interview between Vice President Joe Biden and Stephen Colbert left viewers aching for a Biden run at the White House. On the campaign trail, Sen. Marco Rubio seldom misses an opportunity to talk about his devotion to family life. And now, Rep. Paul Ryan has drawn a line in the sand for work-life balance.
But many women in Congress—just like women across the workforce—haven’t felt comfortable publicly addressing the toll their jobs take on them and their families. Most have dismissed the notion that their jobs are more demanding than other women’s. And speaking out has carried risk. That is until Paul Ryan.
“To have someone like Paul Ryan, who is clearly Mr. Gravitas, say ‘I am going to put my kids first on the weekends’ is going to bend the curve for other people in politics, particularly women,” Lummis said. “Now, they won’t feel that it is a sign of the inability to balance your life or some sort of weakness when they say, ‘Hey, I am going to need time for my family.’ ”
When Ryan stood before his conference a week ago and laid out what he was and was not willing to do as House speaker, the 45-year-old was not only ensuring his three children would see their dad on weekends, he was beginning to change the expectation for working women in Congress, too.
“If a woman had been the first one to say that, I just don’t think it would have gone over well at all,” Lummis said.
Rep. Martha Roby, a 39-year-old mother of two, was on the way from the Capitol to the airport Friday afternoon when she spoke to National Journal. It had been a marathon week for Roby, an Alabama Republican who serves on the Select Committee on Benghazi. She had appeared on CBS This Morning, CNN’s New Day, Fox’s The Kelly File, and MSNBC’s Morning Joe in the span of a few days, endured an 11-hour hearing with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and kept up with GOP conference meetings and votes.
Roby usually tries to hold meetings early enough on Friday mornings to get out of town to pick her kids up from school on Friday afternoons in Alabama. Last week, she missed that treat.
She has been trying to find ways to balance her work and family since she got to Congress in 2011. On spring break, her kids come to Washington. In the summer, each child—Margaret, 10, and George, 6—visits Mom by themselves for a week. Still, she said it always helps when a fellow legislator stands up and acknowledges how hard it is to raise a family and serve.
“I respect any of my colleagues prioritizing their families—male or female. This job that we do is very important, but it is not more important than our families,” Roby said, before apologizing profusely for cutting the interview short so she could catch a flight.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who as chair of the House Republican Conference is the highest-ranking Republican woman in Congress, says Ryan’s demands last week set a new precedent not just for women in public service, but for men too. With Boehner in leadership, the expectation had been that the speaker fundraised year-round. That left his deputies following in those footsteps. With grown children, Boehner has managed to make that schedule work, but McMorris Rodgers says Ryan has now opened the door for a new generation of leaders.
“You look around our leadership table, and there are several of us who have young families: Steve Scalise; [Kevin] McCarthy still has a daughter in high school; Patrick McHenry has a baby; Luke Messer has young kids; and me,” says McMorris Rodgers. “It is an important discussion as we see how this place can operate more effectively in this modern age.”
One thing members say constituents and voters may not understand is that the workweek for members of Congress seldom ends on Thursday afternoon or Friday morning, when they board flights back home. In their districts, there are meetings, town halls, and community events to attend.
“My wife gets really infuriated when she sees television reports saying we are on recess,” says Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican from Florida. “What I try to do is bring my son and my wife along to stuff.”
Still, not everyone has been supportive of Ryan’s stance. Some members of his own party say his family obligations may be too demanding for him to serve as speaker. And Democrats have criticized him for making the case for family time when he has not supported mandated paid family leave. Rep. Marcia Fudge made the case that former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi never could have asked for what Paul did.
“I don’t think she would have ever gotten up and said that, even though she is very close with her family and understands family time,” Fudge said. “She also understands the challenges and the responsibilities of being the speaker of the House.
“I think the real proof is going to be in the pudding,” Fudge added. “If his conference, once they elect him speaker—if in fact they do—decide they want a full-time speaker.”
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who was a sponsor of the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, said she wished Ryan would recognize that he could do more to help people outside of Congress find a better work/life balance. But she added she’s happy he has sparked a broader debate on the subject.
“These are issues that used to be on the fringes,” DeLauro said. “They are now the center of our public discourse.”