Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign is on the offensive against a report that questions a compelling piece of her origin story: her account of being pushed out of her first teaching job because she was six months pregnant.
Although the reports don’t contain evidence that Warren is lying, they show there is no written evidence she was fired from her elementary school job and they open the door to the possibility that she voluntarily resigned to raise a family.
What’s missing, though, is a crucial fact about the time period when Warren says she was shown the door: In 1971, teaching wasn’t just another profession where women experienced pregnancy discrimination. It was the national model for how employers could systematically discriminate against pregnant workers and get away with it.
School districts around the country followed plain-as-day policies that terminated pregnant teachers or forced them to take unpaid leave, usually around the fifth month of pregnancy when they were obviously pregnant. A National Education Association survey in 1970 found that a majority of school districts had such a policy, and that most of those policies came with no guarantee that a teacher would get her job back after giving birth.
That placed school teachers on the front lines of the fraught legal and cultural battles for better protections for working women, writes legal historian Deborah Dinner. National women’s groups took up the treatment of pregnant teachers as an organizing cause. Women’s legal advocates recruited teachers as civil rights test cases. The Supreme Court’s first pregnancy discrimination case, argued in 1973, pitted three pregnant teachers against a “five month” policy. That case, and the questions it left unanswered, became the basis for the landmark Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978.
In other words, when a pregnant Warren left her teaching job, pregnancy discrimination against teachers was rampant, controversial and inextricable from the much larger battle on the overall status of working women. The question isn’t why her school board would lie about forcing her out — it’s why wouldn’t it?
Warren’s story of being shuffled out of her first teaching job goes like this: In 1971, she was a teacher — her dream job — at a special-needs school for public school students at Riverdale Elementary in New Jersey. In April, when she was pregnant but not obviously, the school renewed her teaching contract for another year. By the summer, she was six months pregnant — “visibly pregnant” — and the job was no longer hers.
“The principal did what principals did in those days: wished me luck, showed me the door, and hired someone else for the job,” she said at a recent town hall. In some recent appearances, she has dropped the “showed me the door” line, but she defended her characterization in an interview with CBS News.
“When someone calls you in and says the job that you’ve been hired for for the next year is no longer yours, ‘We’re giving it to someone else,’ I think that’s being shown the door,” Warren said.
The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative outlet, cast doubt by noting that Warren had once described her exit differently: “[I] said, ‘I don’t think this is going to work out for me.’ I was pregnant with my first baby, so I had a baby and stayed home for a couple of years,” she said in a 2007 interview. (Warren told CBS that she wasn’t comfortable opening up about the discrimination aspect until recently.)
And it pointed to contemporaneous reports from 1971 that also paint her exit as voluntary. A local news item said Warren was “leaving to raise a family,” while another said the school board hired Warren’s replacement after she “resigned for personal reasons.”
“The question isn’t why her school board would lie about forcing her out — it’s why wouldn’t it?”
Of course, what really matters here is whether Warren had a choice to keep her job at all. And to read just those two news items is to miss the reality that in 1971, it was the de facto or actual expectation in the majority of American school districts that a teacher who became pregnant would resign. “Voluntary resignations” were many teachers’ only alternative to automatic dismissal — and Warren’s school district was reportedly no exception.
“The rule was at five months you had to leave when you were pregnant. Now, if you didn’t tell anybody you were pregnant, and they didn’t know, you could fudge it and try to stay on a little bit longer,” Trudy Randall, a retired Riverdale Elementary teacher, told CBS. “But they kind of wanted you out if you were pregnant.”
Certainly, by 1971, Warren’s principal would have known that to openly fire her because she was pregnant was to court trouble. “In the early 1970s,” the country at large was embroiled in a “major cultural and legal debate over the rights of pregnant workers,” according to a history of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act published in the Yale Journal of Law & Feminism.
The American Federation of Teachers denounced mandatory pregnancy dismissals at its annual convention in 1970. By the next year — the year Warren left her job — the federation and the National Organization for Women were coordinating local name-and-shame campaigns against school boards with retrograde policies.
One district that found itself under fire was a school board in New Jersey, the state where Warren had worked. In 1972, the state civil rights commission slapped down a policy forcing teachers to leave school at five months pregnant. An Associated Press story from that time reported the ruling to mean “pregnant teachers can no longer be automatically forced out of New Jersey’s classrooms.”
“‘Voluntary resignations’ were many teachers’ only alternative to automatic dismissal — and Warren’s school district was reportedly no exception.”
Because teaching was one of a few career options reliably available to women, the treatment of pregnant schoolteachers was at the heart of the broader societal clash over pregnant workers. Schools were also a special battleground because teaching jobs were mostly government jobs — it gave pregnancy discrimination against teachers the sheen of authority.
Among the very first federal cases against pregnancy discrimination was brought in 1973, by a Minnesota teacher named Margo Seaman, who sued her school district for forcing her, when she was seven months pregnant, to take a semesterlong leave of absence. Seaman was able to stay in her job but lost her fight for back pay, in no small part because her teacher’s union had capitulated in 1971 to a policy “providing for permanent ‘termination’ of a teacher after five months of pregnancy, with no guarantee of reinstatement.”
And in 1974, the Supreme Court took up its first pregnancy discrimination suit, which the legal professor Nicholas Pedriana called “a typical early pregnancy discrimination case”: “Public school teachers who became pregnant were required to take maternity leave beginning in the fifth month of pregnancy.”
The case, Cleveland Board of Education v. LaFleur, involved three teachers from two school districts in Ohio and Virginia who were pregnant in 1970 or 1971 and were forced to take many months of unpaid maternity leave with no guarantee of getting their jobs back. In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the five-month rule was arbitrary and unconstitutional.
The questions that case left unanswered — namely, whether pregnancy discrimination was a form of gender discrimination and subject to an even wider array of civil rights laws — led eventually to the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
At the heart of all of these legal fights and retrograde school board policies were traditional ideas about gender, Dinner writes: the notion that pregnancy, a visible sign of women’s sexual activity, wasn’t classroom-appropriate; that pregnant women couldn’t work without endangering their health and their pregnancies; and that new mothers shouldn’t work but focus on their families.
Those ideas started to crumble in the 1970s. But they still persist, and, making it all the more difficult to dismiss Warren’s story, they still result in routine pregnancy discrimination against professional women today.
“Pregnancy discrimination remains pervasive, especially for women in low-wage and physically demanding jobs.”
Today, the idea of putting a visibly pregnant CEO on the cover of a magazine is still considered trailblazing. Today, the idea that pregnant women place special burdens on their co-workers is still pervasive. Pregnant women often find themselves “mommy tracked,” and paid or promoted less than their peers for equivalent work based on the assumption that their futures belong to their families.
“Pregnancy discrimination remains pervasive, especially for women in low-wage and physically demanding jobs,” said Dina Bakst, co-founder and co-president of A Better Balance, a national legal advocacy organization for women’s rights. “It is a key barrier to gender equality in the workplace, often snowballing into devastating economic consequences for women.”
And it is still prevalent in the teaching profession. Religious schools, for instance, have fought for and often won the legal right to fire pregnant teachers who are unmarried or who conceive using methods, like IVF, opposed by some faiths.
Denine Hasan, who is a New Jersey schoolteacher like Warren was, said she wasn’t at all surprised by Warren’s account. Hasan says that she, too, was shuffled out of her position when she became pregnant — during the 2012-13 school year.
Like Warren, she wasn’t outright fired. Instead, she says, she was assigned to a new school, given unprecedented negative reviews and treated with hostility or punished when she asked for medically recommended accommodations for her high-risk pregnancy. Officials informed Hasan, who was not tenured, that her contract would not be renewed when she went on maternity leave.
(The Asbury Park School District has not admitted wrongdoing, and didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.)
“I don’t think I would get pregnant again. Because you’re just fearful. What’s going to happen? Am I going to lose my job?” Hasan told HuffPost.
“Women are always viewed differently than men,” she continued. “Its natural for us to bear children, and then to be put in situations where now we’re losing jobs because we’re doing something that’s natural. It’s like we can’t win.”
Emily Peck contributed reporting