|Licia Ronzulli at work with her baby girl in tow.|
A woman’s decisions about bearing children are influenced by how much social support she can expect as a mother. With that in mind, and in honor of Women’s History Month, today we consider some historical examples of support (or lack thereof) for working mothers in the US.
In 1903 Oregon made it illegal to require women in certain industries to work more than 10 hours a day. In the 1908 Supreme Court case Muller v. Oregon, the Court ruled the law constitutional, pointing out that “healthy mothers are essential to vigorous offspring” and citing a public interest in “the physical well-being of woman…in order to preserve the strength and vigor of the race.”
The flip side of forcing employees too work too much is forcing employees to take time off. In 1952 Ohio school boards required a pregnant schoolteacher to take mandatory unpaid maternity leave from the 5th month of her pregnancy until the beginning of the semester after her baby was 3 months old. The teacher wasn’t promised re-employment, only priority in being reassigned to a position. The 1974 Supreme Court case Cleveland Board of Education v. LaFleur found these requirements unconstitutional. Justice Stewart, writing the opinion of the Court, explained:
This Court has long recognized that freedom of personal choice in matters of marriage and family life is one of the liberties protected by the Due Process Clause … By acting to penalize the pregnant teacher for deciding to bear a child, overly restrictive maternity leave regulations can constitute a heavy burden on the exercise of these protected freedoms.
The Court found the Ohio requirements infringed on this freedom, and called out the Ohio school boards for “unnecessarily penaliz[ing] the female teacher for asserting her right to bear children.”
Two other 1970s cases (Geduldig v. Aiello & General Electric v. Gilbert) ruled that it was not discriminatory for insurance programs to exclude pregnant women from medical benefits. This caused an uproar and, apparently, a backlash. In 1978, Congress amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, explaining that sex discrimination includes discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions. The Act requires employers to treat their pregnant employees the same way they treat any other employee with similar abilities, including providing pregnant employees with the same fringe benefits.
Of course non-pregnant employees don’t usually receive fringe benefits like extended time off to look after their children. In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) into law. Among other things, the FMLA entitles eligible new mothers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for up to 12 weeks to care for their newborns within one year of the birth.
It’s good to look back and see how social support for pregnant women has improved over time, but we still have work to do. Many women can’t afford to go 12 weeks without pay, regardless of whether they want or need to care for their newborns. Some employers are very supportive of their new mom employees, but national averages suggest we still have a ways to go in getting working mothers more support.
What have your experiences been regarding employment and pregnancy? How can we pro-lifers help create more social support for working moms?