Images of Buffy Wicks, a California politician who brought her newborn baby to the state assembly floor after being denied a proxy vote, have gone viral this week, with many saying they epitomize the pressure mothers are under to juggle childcare and careers during the pandemic.
In an interview with the Guardian on Wednesday, Wicks said she was hardly alone and that she hoped her viral moment would galvanize change and create more support for parents, especially those in the service industry and other essential industries with fewer protections.
“Every woman has been in that situation, just maybe not on the floor of the assembly,” Wicks said. “My mask was falling as I was trying to rock my baby and say what I needed to say.
“Since this all went viral, I’ve had many moms reach out about having no childcare and going into the bathroom to cry because they’re so stressed,” she added. “My hope is to get rid of this misogynist racist in the White House, take back the Senate and create better safety nets.”
On Monday, California state legislators were in Sacramento to vote on a slate of policies – including a family leave bill – on the final night of the legislative session. Wicks, who gave birth to a daughter in late July via C-section, had requested to vote by proxy two weeks prior. Her staff cited Covid-19 concerns after a Republican state senator and California highway patrol officer who had been in the capitol tested positive for the virus. On 3 August the state assembly passed a resolution that gives proxy approval to officials who are at high risk of severe illness from Covid-19.
“I asked again because my daughter doesn’t have an immune system,” Wicks, who represents residents in the San Francisco Bay Area, said.
Still, Wicks’s request was denied by the assembly speaker, Anthony Rendon. On Monday, Rendon’s spokesperson told Politico that the resolution was only intended for high-risk assembly members – so, though Wicks was on maternity leave, her circumstances did not reach the threshold for proxy approval.
“The speaker was concerned about whether the votes would legally qualify or not so I was left with the decision of staying home and not voting on bills that were gonna be close,” Wicks said.
So she packed up her daughter Elly and their nursing supplies for the almost two-hour drive. Wicks says she stayed in her office for most of the session to avoid crowds on the state senate floor, where dozens of people are often gathered. When a housing bill she was passionate about came up minutes before the midnight deadline, Wicks said, she stopped nursing the baby, “swooped her up, put a blanket on her, and ran downstairs”.
A clip of Wicks speaking on the legislation has since widely circulated on social media, and stories about her have been shared by prominent political figures including Hillary Clinton.
In a statement on Tuesday evening, Rendon apologized for the proxy denial.
“My intention was never to be inconsiderate toward her, her role as a legislator, or her role as a mother,” Rendon said. “I failed to make sure our process took into account the unique needs of our members. The Assembly needs to do better.”
Wicks says she appreciates the apology and understands that the speaker was trying to avoid legal challenges that could come from remote voting. She also hopes the incident will highlight the need for stronger paid-leave policy for women in jobs with few protections, and for more flexibility for lawmakers who are new parents.
“We have more people having children in the assembly and our institutions were not created with those types of people in mind,” Wicks said.