Maryland gubernatorial candidate Krish Vignarajah’s new campaign ad presents a choice: You can be shocked that she’s breastfeeding on camera, or you can be shocked that in 2018, Maryland has not one female representative in Congress, nor any women in the top-four statewide positions. What’s more, 22 states have never had a woman governor, Maryland among them. “We are not talking about the need for women in office as identity politics,” the 38-year-old — and only woman vying for the Democratic nomination in a field of eight men — tells the Cut. “We are talking about the need for women and moms in politics and the importance of having a diversity of viewpoints in elected office.”
As excitement around the wave of women running for office this year continues to grow leading into the primaries, candidates like Vignarajah are gladly showing the realities of their lives. In posting the video, which was released today, Vignarajah says, “I wanted to be true to my experience and message and why I am running, and at the core of that is my daughter.” It’s after 8 p.m. and Vignarajah is finally home after a fundraiser, her 9-month-old daughter, Alana, crying in her arms. “Part of that is also me breastfeeding. I know sometimes people shirk away from that part of it, and I just thought, Why?”
Vignarajah, the former policy director for Michelle Obama and a graduate of Yale College and Yale Law School, isn’t the only gubernatorial candidate to breastfeed in a campaign ad. Earlier this month, Kelda Roys, a former state lawmaker running for governor in Wisconsin, released a video that shows her nursing her son while talking about her success banning the use of BPA in baby bottles in the state. As Roys told Today, “People are craving authenticity and they want candidates who are real people, you know, warts and all.” They’re not the first to mix politics with breastfeeding: Last year, Australian senator Larissa Waters made headlines for nursing her daughter in the parliament’s chambers, and politician Willow-Jean Prime became the first person to do the same in New Zealand. In 2016, Icelandic PM Unnur Bra Kondradsdottir breastfed during a televised speech.
It’s possible that some voters will be turned off, says Vignarajah, but this is what her life looks like, and she’s not interested in hiding it. The first-time candidate announced her bid for governor last summer, less than three months after giving birth, and spent the first few weeks of her campaign traveling around the state with Alana in tow. “I would literally walk around feeding her,” says Vignarajah. “I’m tasteful about it, but I want people to understand what it is to be a mom who is a candidate. It’s not like once I’m feeding her I’m not focusing on the issues.”
Part of Vignarajah’s comfort around the issue of breastfeeding stems from her time working with the former First Lady. “What I learned from her is that she owned it, right? She very explicitly declared that she viewed herself first and foremost as Mom in Chief, and that her priorities were taking care of her children while also raising them in the public eye, while also taking on some of the most challenging, most important issues that our nation faces.”
Campaigning with a baby has its perks — Vignarajah says Alana is her “secret weapon” when talking with voters (who doesn’t love a baby?). But sleepless nights followed by long days also come with the territory. This week, Alana is getting over a cold, which kept Vignarajah and her husband up most of Sunday night. “We had a shift schedule where we sloppily said, ‘It’s your turn. I’m exhausted. I’m going to try to get some sleep,” she says. (Her spouse, Collin O’Mara, is CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.)
Still, breastfeeding is the bigger hurdle on the campaign trail. Vignarajah nurses Alana when they’re together, or she travels with a pump familiar to many working moms: the Medela “Pump in Style” breast pump — a pump, cooler, and bottle kit that fits into a backpack. The trick is remembering to bring all the pieces. “There have been a couple of times where I’ve been like, ‘Where is there a Babies ‘R’ Us to get the part I missed?’” she says.
And then there’s the issue of finding a clean, private place to pump on the road. Vignarajah has campaigned at venues where there’s no outlet in the bathroom (not an ideal place to pump to begin with), making the task impossible. Or she’s had to pump in the car at the far end of a parking lot, or in the corner of a room as wait staff move around her. When she gave the keynote speech at the Young Women’s Leadership Conference at Yale University last month, an on-site lactation room felt like Disney World. “I messaged my husband when I saw it,” says Vignarajah. “It had couches. It had curtains. I was actually warm and had rugs and a refrigerator and pictures of babies. I felt so welcome in a way I just never felt before. I have pumped in airport bathrooms with people waiting in line. And here, you’re like, Wow. What a difference it makes. You feel like what you are doing is not strange or on the margins of what’s acceptable.” Vignarajah is hopeful that by being more open about her own experience, “we can change what the norm is.”