“At the end of that first year, I was visibly pregnant,” she said. “And back in the day, that meant that the principal … wished me luck and hired someone else for the job.”
“This was 1971, years before Congress outlawed pregnancy discrimination — but we know it still happens in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. We can fight back by telling our stories,” she wrote Tuesday on Twitter, days after questions about that claim surfaced.
The quick backstory: A reporter for the socialist Jacobin magazine raised the specter of doubt about Warren’s claims in a tweet last week. Then on Monday, the conservative Washington Free Beacon reported that documents show that the school board in New Jersey where Warren worked had approved a second-year teaching contract for her, thus supposedly contradicting her claims that she was asked not to return to teaching because of her pregnancy. Political adversaries have circulated a newly surfaced video of Warren saying she left public school teaching after taking a few graduate school courses and determining that teaching was not “going to work out” for her.
Conservatives on outlets such as Fox News have compared the inconsistency to Warren’s past claims that she had Native American ancestry, which eventually led to her apologizing last year to multiple tribes after recognizing that they determine their membership, not DNA tests.
However, the attention critics are paying to this story has led some people to view it as an attempt to smear the leading woman in the 2020 campaign in ways that seem similar to the conservative media’s coverage of Hillary Clinton in 2016. For them, not only is Warren’s story to be believed but so are all of the other stories from women about a workplace discrimination issue that has gotten too little attention: employment insecurity for expectant mothers.
Joshua Zeitz, a historian and author, wrote a thread of tweets describing a long history of discrimination against pregnant women across multiple industries, leading to the need for legislation to address the issue.
“To believe Warren is lying, one need be blind to the history of discrimination in ‘pink collar’ professions like teaching where pregnancy was a fireable offense, so much so that Congress passed Title VII in 1978 to outlaw the practice of dismissing pregnant professionals,” he tweeted. “Teachers arguably had it good: in some professions — notably, flight attendants — airlines imposed strict age caps and prohibited married women from holding their jobs. These practices persisted into the 1960s and 1970s.”
The type of discrimination Warren claims she experienced in the 1970s existed across socioeconomic classes, although it manifested in different ways, said Joan C. Williams, founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law, an advocacy organization at the University of California Hastings College of the Law that focuses on gender equity issues in the workplace.
“Among low-wage women, the classic form of discrimination based on family responsibility was that a woman tells her boss she’s pregnant and the woman is fired 15 minutes later,” Williams said. “For white-collar women, the classic form of discrimination is not typically just for getting pregnant. The problems they encountered typically are triggered after they come back to work — promotions are stalled.”
Perhaps most notable is how differently pregnant mothers are treated from fathers. In 2014, Michelle Budig, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts, wrote “The Fatherhood Bonus and the Motherhood Penalty: Parenthood and the Gender Gap in Pay,” a paper about how women are discriminated against in the workplace when they become mothers. Budig argues that the wage gap between men and women exists in part because women are discriminated against when they enter parenthood.
“While the average penalty for all women in the full model is about 4% per child, the penalty ranges in size from 6% per child among low-wage workers to no penalty among the earners at the 90th percentile or above,” she wrote.
“Might employer discrimination lie behind the motherhood penalty that is unexplained by measurable characteristics of workers and jobs?” Budig wrote. “It is difficult to obtain data on discrimination. However, evidence from experimental and audit studies support arguments of employer discrimination against mothers in callbacks for job applications, hiring decisions, wage offers, and promotions.”
A Harvard Kennedy School study found the recommended starting salary for mothers was 8.6 percent lower than the recommended salary for fathers. Williams suggested that women are financially punished when they become parents, unlike fathers, who are celebrated.
“Being a father actually enhances a man’s career prospects while it sharply hurts women,” she told The Fix. “And for single women, they often trigger the modern pathetic-spinster stereotype — someone who is lacking and not quite whole because they haven’t fulfilled the biological destiny of women.”
There has been significant improvement since the 1970s as a result of legislation such as the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 and data revealing just how different the experiences of pregnant women are in the workplace, Williams said. However, some companies have found less direct ways to treat pregnant women differently. Her center produced a report titled “Poor, Pregnant, and Fired: Caregiver Discrimination Against Low-Wage Workers,” sharing the experiences of working women.
“The discrimination is a lot less open than it was,” Williams said. “It has not disappeared, and it will not disappear until we stop defining the ideal worker as someone who takes no time off for child-rearing and childbearing.”
For many women following the issue, Warren’s experience reminds them of their own stories and the ways the issue persists.