WASHINGTON -- There were carnations, a cake and an 8-foot-tall greeting card, but what women really want from lawmakers are assurances of paid maternity leave, employment protections during pregnancy, workplace accommodations for breast-feeding mothers and other public policies to help their families' economic security.
In the walk-up to Mother's Day last week, there was plenty of talk about those kinds of policies in Washington and in statehouses across the country, but the prospects for action appear slim.
It's the kind of topical legislation promoted cyclically around key moments in the calendar -- such as worker rights bills around Labor Day and veterans bills around Memorial Day. The attention appeases interest groups but doesn't often result in meaningful action.
"Many of these issues don't carry groundswell momentum around them. People do care deeply and passionately about maternity leave and family leave -- and employer policies affect millions of women in the workforce -- but there is no single constituency group working on them," said Allyson Lowe, assistant dean for social change at Carlow University, who studies women's political empowerment. "It's hard to get that critical momentum that mobilizes people and it's hard to maintain that groundswell for the amount of time it takes to pass significant legislation."
But that doesn't mean last week's string of news conferences and stump speeches amounted to mere pandering, said Heather Arnet, CEO of the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwest Pennsylvania.
"It does move the ball forward," she said.
The Women's National Law Center seems to think so, too. Its leaders brought flowers, cake and a towering Mother's Day card to Capitol Hill last week to draw attention to the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.
The legislation would require employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers -- such as allowing workers to take more frequent bathroom breaks, to sit or to sip water on the job. Employers would be exempt if they can show such accommodations would cause them unreasonable hardship.
The requirements are reasonable, common-sense and nonpartisan, said lead sponsor, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. Still, the bill has been stalled in committee for more than two years.
Mr. Casey dusted it off Tuesday for the event, where he and a handful of other Democrats preached to a room full of advocates, pregnant women and small children coloring Mother's Day pictures.
Progress is going to take a longer reach than that. It also could take more women in Congress, Ms. Arnet said.
"There are many male legislators who care about these issues, but they aren't at the top of the agenda for the majority of male legislators," she said.
That's supported by a study last year by Vanderbilt University's Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. Researchers found that female lawmakers introduce bills on traditional women's issues at a greater rate than their male counterparts.
The study points to "a rather bleak picture of the fate of women's issues in Congress."
With more women being elected to Congress, it's likely to see more work on those sorts of bills, the researchers concluded. But, they suggested that women's issues may be more easily dismissed because Congress and state legislatures remain dominated by men.
Still, lawmakers like Mr. Casey are determined to try.
At the state level
Back in Harrisburg, state Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, is working to do his part, too. If the federal government won't move legislation, Mr. Frankel sees it as his job to do what he can in Pennsylvania.
"When you have polarization, whether it's at the federal or the state level, you end up going down to the next level of government. Local governments have been, particularly on progressive issues, moving forward aggressively," he said.
Philadelphia and New York City are examples of that.
While Mr. Casey's pregnant-worker protections have been stalled for two years in Washington, Philadelphia and New York already have passed municipal regulations requiring businesses to make reasonable workplace accommodations for pregnant women.
Ms. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., wants the Social Security Administration to establish a trust fund that could be used to provide up to 12 weeks of paid family leave for maternity or medical issues. It would be funded through a wage tax paid by both employers and employees.
But business leaders say many employers already provide great flexibility to employees when it comes to leave for family and medical needs, and that Ms. Gillibrand's proposal would rob both sides of the ability to negotiate benefit packages that meet unique needs of each company and its workers.
For now, advocates are hoping to see more work on women's issues at state levels nationwide. There appears to be movement in that direction in some states, Ms. Arnet said.
Minnesota lawmakers are working on bills to increase the minimum wage, expand parental leave, provide more protections for victims of domestic violence and encourage workforce development programs to integrate women into male-dominated industries.
And in Pennsylvania, the bipartisan Women's Health Caucus is working to advance a package of bills mandating workplace accommodations for pregnant women, sanitary conditions for nursing mothers, pay equity, better access to health care facilities, increased eligibility for breast and cervical cancer screening, enhanced protection for domestic violence victims and more.
"We're seeing a smart new strategy in statehouses: bundling pieces of legislation together instead of trying to approach each of these issues singularly," Ms. Arnet said. "Now that women are half the labor force and half the tax base, issues like paid maternity leave, paid sick leave, and ensuring that women have safe working environments are becoming critical workplace issues."
Mr. Frankel, who founded the Women's Health Caucus, said his initial goal was to stave off policies that impede women's rights to have abortions, but the mission has expanded.
"We've constantly been playing defense and we felt it was necessary to have a positive agenda as well because when you talk about women's health issues it's more than just women's reproductive rights. It's economic security. It's accommodations for pregnant women in the workplace," he said.
These issues don't just affect women, he said. They affect entire families.
Pro-family vs. pro-business
Republicans have been largely silent because a lot of the bills raise ideological conflicts. The GOP wants to support families also want to protect businesses from costly regulations.
"There's a real tension between being pro-business, being not keen to favor regulation, and at the same time wanting to be pro-family," Carlow University's Ms. Lowe said.
State Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, said the key is striking a balance. "We want to help them be wonderful mothers and we don't want to take away their ability to work but we also don't want to put people out of business" by instituting costly regulations, he said.
Larger businesses can easily bear the cost -- and many already do voluntarily -- but smaller ones may not be able to, he said.
"Everyone wants to treat mothers right. We're all for that," Mr. Stephens said. "But it's a matter of trying to make accommodations for them without severely injuring businesses."
While a handful of Republicans have joined Mr. Frankel's cause, he is frustrated that other conservatives are making only symbolic inroads toward helping women.
For example, rather than act on equal-pay legislation, they've agreed only to study the issue.
"It's an election year, and this study is being used as a way to say the Republicans are being proactive, but the fact of the matter is it's going to show what we already know," Mr. Frankel said. "We need to actually do something, not just study it."
State Rep. Erin Molchany, D-Mount Washington, agrees. Still, she voted in favor of the study, saying more research could bolster chances of action on her own legislation. Her bill would prevent employers from paying different wages to co-workers with the same levels of education, training and experience. The aim is to reduce the wage gap between men and women. "The study gives us more information to the point where the Pennsylvania House of Representatives is going to be out of excuses for not moving to action on closing the wage gap," she said.
A few statehouse Republicans have stepped out in front of women's issues legislation. They include Sen. Chuck McIlhinney of Bucks County, who is a co-chairman of the Women's Health Caucus, and Mr. Stephens, who sponsored a key bill in the package.
The Stephens bill would prohibit municipal nuisance ordinances that penalize domestic violence victims who repeatedly call 911. The bill easily passed the House but stalled in the Senate because of a controversial amendment that would block municipalities enacting paid or unpaid leave policies.
"I'm not writing it off just yet. I think there's still an opportunity to get the underlying bill across the finish line," Mr. Stephens said.
Advocates for women's rights say that would be a good start, but there's much more work to be done at both the state and national levels.
Political scientists suggest the national tide may be turning ahead of the 2016 presidential election, particularly if Republicans want to avoid a repeat of 2012's 18-point gender gap. They can frame the issues as pro-family and can more easily support pieces of legislation that have no or low cost.
"Creating time and space [for breast-feeding or expressing milk] might have some cost attached to it, but the cost is substantially different than providing weeks of paid maternity leave. So one possibility is negotiating what level of regulation [Republicans] are comfortable with in order to achieve a pro-family agenda," Ms. Lowe said.
Proponents, meanwhile, promise a sustained effort.
"We're looking at the long term. I know we're not going to have immediate passage ... but I do believe we will within the next five or 10 years," Ms. Arnet said.
Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: firstname.lastname@example.org, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.