Between Pacifiers and Power

by | Dec 8, 2002


When Jacqueline van Rysselberghe was informed last November that she would have to leave her post as mayor of Concepción, one of Chile’s largest and most important cities, she fought back. She had not been accused of corruption; she had not accepted a different political position. Her “crime” was giving birth to her fifth child earlier that month, a baby girl named Magdalena. By law, van Rysselberghe was being obligated to take a nearly four-month-long maternity leave.

The labor law provides Chilean women with a generous 18-week long maternity leave paid for by the state. Municipal workers, including elected officials like van Rysselberghe, are provided this same maternity leave. Article 181 of the labor law states that women have the right to six weeks of maternal leave before they give birth and 12 weeks after childbirth. Chilean women are further protected by Article 186 of the law that prohibits employers from firing pregnant women and making it illegal to fire a woman who has taken maternity leave for up to a year after she has finished this leave. Article 187 prohibits pregnant women from doing any heavy work or taking on a night shift.

The issue of whether women mayors should be given a choice regarding maternity leave is one that has divided women in Chile and united women officeholders of different political orientations—and highlights women’s true incorporation into the democratic system. Mayors of both the right, like van Rysselberghe, and of the left are joining forces to change the law.

Since Chile’s democratic transition, there have been three municipal level elections in 1992, 1996, and 2000, and in each of these women have demonstrated slight gains. Women are now 12 percent of mayors, whereas in 1992 only seven percent of mayors were women. The percentage of women councilmembers has risen too, from 12 percent to 17 percent. With this rise in women officeholders at the municipal level, we can also expect a subsequent increase in cases like that of van Rysselberghe since many of the women entering local politics are of reproductive age.

Nevertheless, women who worked tirelessly to guarantee that women have the right to maternity leave are uncomfortable with the idea that a woman could opt out of such leave, since doing so could leave the door open for all sorts of abuse by employers. And yet many of these same women have difficulty with a law that could potentially prohibit women’s electoral opportunities due to their reproductive choices, or that defines who should care for a newborn child.

The issue goes beyond that of fair gender representation in a democracy; it also became a question of equal access to political process. One reason the mayor of Concepción wanted to avoid taking her maternity leave was political. Of the seven councilmembers of Concepción, none are of the Independent Democratic Union, the party of the mayor. Taking her maternity leave would have meant allowing these same councilmembers to choose her replacement, and as she argued, her replacement would be of a different political position.

Van Rysselberghe made it known that she would take her maternity leave if she could choose her own replacement, and argued for an amendment to municipality laws that would allow mayors to have the option of foregoing maternity leave or allow women officeholders to choose their replacements.

However, many women’s activists see the challenge as a step backwards. Adriana Deplane, minister of SERNAM, the women’s ministry, has publicly come out in opposition to allowing van Rysselberghe and women like her to choose whether or not to take their maternity leave, calling such an option dangerous for all women. Deplane argued that changing the law so that van Rysselberghe could avoid maternity leave would be a step backwards for Chilean women and a bad legal precedent.

Even the Chilean Pediatric Society got into the fray, formally expressing their concern over the case of van Rysselberghe; they argued that the children’s immune systems and intellectual development would be improved by taking maternity leave. The group intends to present a study to the government explaining their wish see maternity leave extended to six months.

Pictures of van Rysselberghe bottle-feeding her baby with her other children standing by while she sat behind her desk in her municipal office soon spread through the Chilean news, though her case is not the first of a woman mayor wishing to opt out of the right to stay home with her baby.

The mayor of Maule, Fresia Faúndez, who gave birth to her fourth child in 2001, did not face the same political opposition. Four of the five councilmembers were of her political coalition, the Concertación, though only one of these was a fellow member of the Christian Democratic party. Nonetheless, Faúndez asked for only one day of leave from her administrative duties following childbirth. She too was forced to take a full 12 weeks.

Cristina Girardi of Cerro Navia, a municipality that is part of greater Santiago, tried to opt out of her maternity leave in 1997 and so did Mirí­am Rodríguez of Chépica. The motivations for refusing to take her maternity leave are not immediately obvious in the case of the popular mayor of Cerro Navia, a member of the PPD, whose seven member council is composed of six members of her own political coalition. The seventh member of the council is an independent who joined forces with the parties of the right for the municipal elections. Mirí­am Rodrí­guez, a member of the Socialist Party, however, faced serious opposition within her own council, since three of the five councilors were of the right, and neither of the other two members were of her own party. The reasons for choosing to take maternity leave or opting out of it are potentially political, but undeniably these are also quite personal. The legal jumble that could ensue is not.

Could a woman mayor near the end of her term give birth and expect to take 18 weeks leave from her position and return even after a new mayor has been elected? Article 186 of the law preventing employers from firing pregnant women does not seem applicable to elected officials. Reelection in this case would be the opposite of firing a mayor, but we certainly wouldn’t expect that Chilean democracy would allow a situation in which voters were obligated to reelect pregnant mayors or mayors who had recently given birth. It would be ludicrous too to suggest that meetings scheduled for the evening hours violate the labor laws. It seems evident when thinking of the possibilities that new legal statutes must be written up that adequately address the concerns of elected women officeholders.

Having a baby doesn’t make a woman incapable of carrying out her duties, as van Rysselberghe proved when she showed up at work with baby in tow and tried to convert the office next door into a pseudo-nursery. Faúndez wanted to take just one day off from her duties, also indicating that she thought herself capable of juggling the demands of a newborn and her executive position.

Women in congress are exempt from laws concerning maternity leave, perhaps because legislating would be problematic if senators and deputies were absent from session for over four months at a time. But women in local-level politics are increasingly taking on more responsibility, as decentralization has given municipalities many functions that were once in the domain of the national government. The office of mayor has grown in importance, with mayors and former mayors increasingly playing a role in national politics.

More importantly for issues of women’s representation, forced maternity leave could give party leaders a reason to discriminate against all women of reproductive age, fearing that during maternity leave their seat will go to the opposition. Or fearing that voters might express their concern about women taking maternity leave, these party leaders might fear backing the campaigns of women who have taken maternity leave or are pregnant. Taking their mandatory maternity leave may give voters the impression that women aren’t dedicated to their careers and undermine women’s reelection bids or their ability to pursue higher level political positions. Watching an uphill battle forged by a pregnant mayor on this issue might convince other women to stay out of politics. Being part of such a battle might influence the reproductive choices of women like Jacqueline van Rysselberghe.

Drop here!

Fall 2002


Magda Hinojosa, a Ph.D. candidate in Harvard’s Department of Government, is currently on a Fulbright fellowship in Chile conducting her field research on women’s representation in local-level politics, and eating alfajores. Though her research is on political party processes not on maternity leave, everyone from chatty cabdrivers to university professors insisted on speaking to her about the topic. 

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