Senator Tammy Duckworth on her History-Making Strides for Working Moms

Badass Woman spotlights women who not only have a voice but defy the irrelevant preconceptions of gender. 

Tammy Duckworth
Photo: Tammy Duckworth. Photographed by CQ Roll Call/AP Images.

Illinois State Senator Tammy Duckworth has made a habit of succeeding at the seemingly impossible. When a rocket-propelled grenade shot down the helicopter she was piloting during the Iraq war, resulting in the loss of both her legs and partial use of her right arm, Duckworth moving forward. After returning from combat and adjusting to her new life, she became the first woman with disabilities elected to Congress and the first Asian-American woman elected to Congress in Illinois. “I re-learned how to walk, eat, bathe, and do everything else again by falling, crawling, and pulling myself back up,” she tells InStyle. “I realized I needed to allow myself to fail and that having to learn how to brush my teeth again didn’t make me less of a person.”

Duckworth recently made headlines for being the first U.S. senator to give birth while serving in office, a major stride forward for working moms. The Senate Democrat also took a break from maternity leave to go back to the capitol and vote on the Senate floor all while carrying her newborn daughter. “I’ve been able to do more than I ever thought I was capable of, not because I was smarter, stronger, or faster than anyone else—it’s how I’ve responded to hardship and failure that’s defined me,” she says.

Overcoming obstacles: Duckworth has always transformed difficult situations into learning experiences, even before Iraq. When she was a teenager, her father lost his job and her family nearly became homeless. But she says she learned a lot back then about persevering through difficult times. She credits the experience with helping her stay focused on recovery after her injuries. “I promised myself that to honor my buddies who saved me, I would do more than I could before I was wounded. They gave me a second chance at life, and I spend every day trying to prove that I am worthy of their sacrifices.” Duckworth has since completed four Chicago Marathons on a hand-crank bike.

Proudest achievement: Adding to her many firsts, Duckworth became one of the first female helicopter pilots for the Reserve Forces, oversaw the creation of one of America’s first 24/7 veteran crisis hotlines, and passed legislation to help employ veterans and reduce veteran suicide. But, she says, building her family has been her greatest joy. “I’m proud of that all, but I’m most proud of becoming a mom and finally getting to have the family I always wanted with both our girls.”

The work/mom balance: Finding a work-life balance wasn't easy while she was campaigning for public office, raising a young daughter, and undergoing IVF to have a second child. “When I was campaigning for the Senate, it was so hard to be separated from my husband and my daughter all while going through IVF cycles,” Duckworth says. “I absolutely love my job, though. And my experiences as a mother have made me a much better legislator.”When it comes to finding that tricky balance between time at home and time championing change, Duckworth says coming to terms with imperfection is a must. “You have to give yourself permission to struggle and be frustrated and tired. It’s okay to feel inadequate because no one is perfect.”

Tammy Duckworth
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Being a badass: For Duckworth, badassery stems from finding meaningful ways to serve her country, first in combat and now in politics. “Being a badass is about being proactive and giving back to our local communities, working to advance the American ideals of equality and inclusion and standing up for yourself and for those around you to make sure every voice is heard.”

Career advice: Though exceeding expectations has become a Duckworth trademark, it hasn’t always been easy. She’s faced opposition for everything from her ethnicity to her gender and beyond. As a soldier, she remembers feeling underestimated by people from other nations while often serving as the only woman in all-male units. “People would raise their eyebrows in disbelief when they found out that I was the person in charge,” she says. “I didn’t let that stop me, though, and those who underestimated me very quickly figured out their mistake.”

—Reporting by Leigh Belz Ray

For more stories like this, pick up the August issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download July 6.

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