Wednesday, October 23, 2019
Elizabeth Warren reported that her contract as a teacher was not renewed when she was visibly pregnant at the end of her first year. The crowd went wild—not with sympathy for her plight, but with accusatory disbelief. Why would she get fired just for being pregnant? Because that’s what happened to pregnant women until 1978, when pregnancy discrimination became unlawful. Warren’s pregnancy was in 1971. But the public’s reaction to Warren’s report about her experience suggests that this country’s long history of legal and widespread pregnancy discrimination may need to be excavated. After all, if we don’t believe that women were discriminated against in an era in which such behavior was overt and commonplace, what is the likelihood that we will believe women who continue to experience discrimination today? We have come a long way, but there is still much work to be done.***
Pregnant women were subject to a particular set of whims. The idea of pregnant women doing paid work triggered a few common reactions, ranging from a paternalistic desire to protect them from the perils and demands of paid labor, to stereotypes about their physical capacity or willingness to service the “ideal worker” norm, to concerns about “lewdness” because pregnancy resulted from sex. These reasons, though varied, all led to the same outcome: the partial or full exclusion of pregnant women from the workforce. Actual and potential pregnancy was the justification for innumerable laws and policies that disadvantaged working women.***
In the first half of the twentieth century, many states imposed special limits on working women, most designed to protect and preserve women’s reproductive function. The Supreme Court upheld such a law in Muller v. Oregon (1908), permitting the state of Oregon to restrict the number of hours women, but not men, could work per day in a factory or laundry, notwithstanding having struck down a New York law that restricted the hours of all bakery employees under the now-defunct theory of economic substantive due process. Workers in general had a constitutional right to negotiate the terms of the labor, but women could be subject to special “protection” required by “her physical structure and a proper discharge of her maternal functions.” A brief filed in that case recited four ways in which a long work day was incompatible with womanhood: “(a) the physical organization of women, (b) her maternal functions, (c) the rearing and education of the children, (d) the maintenance of the home–are all so important and so far reaching that the need for such reduction need hardly be discussed.”***
At the height of the second wave women’s rights movement, pregnant women were in dire straits. There was only one shining light during the first half of the 1970s. During the same year it rejected an equal protection-based right against pregnancy discrimination in Geduldig, the Supreme Court invalidated aspects of public school mandatory leave policies for pregnant teachers. At issue in Cleveland Board of Education v. LaFleur were policies from two school districts forcing pregnant teachers to leave work early in their pregnancies. One school district also forced teachers to wait three months after childbirth before returning to work, regardless of their individual condition or capacity. The Court invalidated both rules under the Due Process Clause, which is the home for privacy-based rights related to reproduction—contraception, abortion, and childrearing. The Court’s concern was not that pregnant women were being singled out for adverse treatment, but that they were presumed to be incapable of work based on their condition without regard for their individual capacity. The Court thought it arbitrary that a pregnant woman who was not disabled by pregnancy would have to leave her job nonetheless just because other pregnant women might have been disabled at the same point in pregnancy. The oral arguments in that case revealed some of the bizarre notions that animated these rules. The lawyer for one of the districts explained that pregnant teachers had to be removed from the classroom because their swollen bellies would be confusing for the students, who might think their teacher had “swallowed a watermelon.” During the same term, the Court invalidated Utah’s unemployment compensation rules that prohibited a pregnant woman from collecting benefits because of presumed incapacity. These rulings ushered in an anti-stereotyping principle that meant it was fine to fire pregnant women who actually had some level of incapacity due to pregnancy or childbirth, but unacceptable to presume their incapacity simply from the fact of their condition.