Back in the aughts, a narrative went about that professional women who left the workforce to stay home with their children were voluntarily downsizing their careers. “Women are rejecting the workplace,” the New York Times Magazine proclaimed in a famous cover story.

The reality was more complicated. Faced with a toxic stew of 50-hour workweeks, equally hard-working and less-than-helpful spouses — and societal judgment — lots of women did quit, sometimes just before they got fired. But many of them didn’t actually say that or admit that to themselves at the time. Instead, they portrayed themselves as decisive actors in a story where, actually, they were anything but.

“Their perception was all about choice, but the stories they told were all about constraints. They wanted to glorify choice and make it seem like they had left of their own volition when, in fact, they had very few realistic options,” Pamela Stone, the author of “Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home” and co-author of the just-published “Opting Back In,” told me.

This brings me to the matter of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and her elementary school teaching career back in the early 1970s. By now you almost certainly know the tale: Warren says on the campaign stump she was pushed out of her job in 1971 after her school’s principal became aware she was pregnant. But, it turns out that, in 2007, she said she decided to return to graduate school because she lacked the needed professional credentials to teach. And, on Monday, the Washington Free Beacon turned up paperwork showing the school board in April of 1971 offered Warren a contract for the following year.

“Gotcha!” the right wing screamed. Not so fast.

Warren and others have pushed back hard. She told CBS Monday night she’s “opened up” about the episode in recent years. She said the school district officials didn’t know she was pregnant when they initially re-upped her contract. When officials found out, she says, the principal of her school pushed her out. And, indeed, CBS found two teachers from the school district who said that while they did not know Warren, the school district involved routinely behaved as Warren described — and that teachers like Warren, lacking tenure or union protections, would have had little to no defense against the action.

It’s likely that’s where the story will remain. The definitive proof will remain beyond our grasp. It’s not just that memory is imperfect, the proof we are looking for almost certainly doesn’t exist. What we now understand as wrongs were not seen as such at the time. Things that horrify in 2019 didn’t arouse much in the way of comment decades ago. It was just how things were. It’s not a contradiction to discover local newspapers at the time described Warren’s departure as a resignation “for personal reasons” and that she was “leaving to raise a family.” That’s almost certainly what many people at the time believed to be true. They didn’t see these as euphemisms hiding something much more disturbing.

The Warren teaching contretemps parallels, in some ways, the confrontation between Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and former vice president Joe Biden at the July Democratic presidential debate. Gillibrand accused Biden of insulting working women in a 1981 op-ed where he proclaimed families with two working parents were often selfish, prioritizing shopping sprees and vacations over the welfare of their children and elderly parents. Au contraire, the fact-checkers claimed. Biden never specifically referred to women in the piece. True — but in 1981, he didn’t have to do that. That was “women’s work,” and that’s how it would have been read by almost everyone.

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In fact, the Republicans might want to pause the next time they push out a narrative that they believe harms Warren. Over and over again, they’ve done the opposite. In an attempt to stop her rise, they instead remind everyone of her importance. When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tried to shut Warren down on the floor of the Senate by claiming “nevertheless she persisted” despite being told to cease speaking, he simply reminded many women of the many times men refused to listen to them. Last week’s laughable attempt by a right-wing activist to claim Warren had an affair with a 25-year-old former Marine engendered much ridicule, in no small part because women are often viewed by society as unattractive as they age — when they aren’t invisible, that is.

Pregnancy and maternal discrimination have hardly gone away either, despite the fact it’s been illegal since the late 1970s. The New York Times published a heartbreaking investigative series, writing, “Many of the country’s largest and most prestigious companies still systematically sideline pregnant women. They pass them over for promotions and raises. They fire them when they complain.” Warren’s story from decades ago resonates today for a reason: It’s not just a relic of the past, it’s something that happens every day.

Maybe it’s a good thing we’ve all been reminded of that fact. The past is not as far away as we think.

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Decades before the #MeToo movement was born, local organizers were fighting for women's workplace rights, says activist Monica Ramirez. (The Washington Post)

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