The Tokyo Olympic committee opted to restrict family members in the context of the unique challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic. Yet the incident is a potent example of how working parents, and particularly nursing parents of young children, are routinely overlooked in policymaking and have carried an additional burden during the pandemic. Despite a half-century of feminist activism on behalf of working parents, policymakers still fail to consider their unique needs. While this is true nearly everywhere, it is particularly striking in the United States, where support for working parents remains extremely limited.
Several decades of supposed progress in workplace culture and policy have left the vast majority of women — particularly low-income women, women of color and single mothers — struggling. Looking back at this history can help us understand how to better support not only Olympic athletes, but all parents who are compelled to choose between their livelihoods and professional identities and caring for their children.
Campaigns for greater support for working parents in the workplace began with the 20th-century expansion of women’s paid work. In 1950, only 10 percent of American women with children under 6 worked for pay. By 1970 that figure had reached 30 percent, and by 1993 it had soared to 60 percent. Working-class women, women of color and single mothers had long combined paid work with child-rearing, but increasingly, middle-class women joined their ranks, driven by economic need and new aspirations for meaningful work. But by the late 1970s, little about the structure of work had changed to accommodate the reality that mothers continued to bear the overwhelming burden of caring responsibilities in families.
The discrepancy between women’s hopes and the realities of the double shift sparked a new wave of feminist activism in the United States and elsewhere in the 1970s. In addition to campaigns for equal pay and an end to workplace sexual harassment, feminists also mobilized for everything from wages for housework and on-site child-care facilities to job-sharing and extended paid maternity leave, all aimed at reducing the overall burden on women and redressing the gendered division of labor. Initially, activists focused their hopes on the state and targeted the government as an employer. But in the United States, the Reagan era eroded what little progress they made. By the 1980s, feminists had largely turned to private-sector employers for solutions.
It was in some ways a good moment to look to the private sector. Over the course of the 1970s and ’80s, corporations became increasingly dependent on recruiting and retaining mothers in the workforce. In the mid-1970s, at the behest of feminist activists working with them — in some cases from within the company — pioneering employers such as Rank Xerox, Hewlett-Packard and Citibank, which employed large numbers of women, instituted new policies of flexible hours, remote work and short-term maternity leave. These policies created a basic infrastructure for women returning to work after having children. But in the process of compromising with employers, feminists pared down some of their grandest aims. And the most vulnerable female workers — non-White women, and those employed part time without benefits or in shift work — were generally unable to access these programs.
When it came to the issue of nursing parents in paid work, activists encountered major obstacles. By 1985, nearly half of mothers of children under 1 in the United States were in the workforce. Nursing, meanwhile, was rising in popularity as awareness of the physical and emotional health benefits to infants and mothers alike increased. Pediatricians encouraged exclusive nursing until six months, and nursing along with solid food for at least one year — and if desired, up to two or more. In 1975, just 33 percent of American women initiated nursing their babies, but by 1984, nearly 60 percent did so. Growing numbers of mothers both wanted to nurse and needed or wanted to work for pay.
Yet most working mothers had few options beyond hand expressing (manually squeezing milk from the breasts) while at work, and intentionally increasing night feeding to shift babies’ feeding patterns, at the expense of their own sleep. In the face of these onerous options, activists advocated for extended paid leave to accommodate nursing mothers.
But while policymakers in Europe introduced paid maternity — and later parental — leave to support parents, in the United States they failed to do so. Instead mothers who needed or wanted to return to work while caring for babies were forced to make tough compromises. Ultimately it was the market rather than the government that furnished a solution of sorts.
In 1991, the Swiss company Medela’s first electric-powered, vacuum-operated breast pump intended for everyday use was introduced to the U.S. consumer market. Electric pumps allowed women who wished to nurse, and could afford the new pumps, to continue doing so by expressing milk while at work.
In the absence of paid leave for the vast majority of women, workplace pumping took off. By 2009, sales of the Medela pump had quadrupled. Yet enormous obstacles remained, even for the most privileged female workers. It wasn’t until 2010 that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) legally mandated that some employers (of a certain size) provide reasonable breaks and a private space for women to express milk. Much was made of the new provisions. In practice, however, the ACA has increased the average duration of breastfeeding for American mothers by just two weeks.
In many cases, that’s because employers just aren’t complying. According to one 2015 study, just 40 percent of working mothers of babies had access to a break for pumping and a private space to do it. Only 14 percent of Black and Hispanic mothers did. Lack of facilities, inflexible schedules, a culture that discourages breaks, an inadequate understanding of the time and work it takes to pump (and nurse) and off-site work and travel make pumping extremely onerous. On top of it, pumps are marketed as being as discreet as possible, a feature which, if anything, allows employers to avoid truly reckoning with the realities facing working mothers who are also trying to do their jobs.
As of 2015, 58 percent of American mothers with infants under 1 were in paid work, and a full quarter of women were back at work within two weeks of childbirth. Just 56 percent of workers are eligible for the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which since 1993 has required large employers to provide unpaid leave under some circumstances. But FMLA excludes part-time workers who are more likely to be women, never mind those who can’t afford to take unpaid time off. Despite some state-level paid-leave provisions, only 17 percent of full-time workers have any paid family leave.
There is no single, right way to feed a baby, but in the United States, many women who wish to nurse simply cannot under these circumstances. Whether women nurse is less often about choice than it is about the profound lack of social support.
Workplace spaces and time for pumping, and policies supporting flexible and remote work, are critical ways to support working mothers. Where they exist, they are at least in part the achievement of 50 years of feminist workplace activism. At their best, they enable women who need or want to return to paid work or, say, Olympic competition to do so while also caring for their young children. But by themselves, for most women, they are not enough. It will take extended paid parental leave and a new wave of feminism to write the next chapter of this history.