Chavez: Attacking Warren’s Pregnancy Story Ignores the Pregnancy Discrimination Many People Still Face


Sen. Elizabeth Warren has faced scrutiny after sharing her experiences with pregnancy discrimination. (Courtesy Flickr)

By Paij Chavez, Opinion Writer

Sen. Elizabeth Warren continues to rise steadily in many polls for the 2020 Democratic nomination. But even as her campaign soars, Warren continues to face heightened, and often sexist, criticism from media outlets. This can most recently be seen by the immense scrutiny that Warren’s personal story about being fired in 1971 while visibly pregnant has come under.

On Twitter, Warren shared a New York Times article about pregnancy discrimination in America along with her own experience while working as speech pathologist in 1971. “After I became visibly pregnant, I was told that the job I’d been promised for next year would go to someone else,” Warren said. “Pregnancy discrimination is real, and it still happens today — but telling our stories is one way we can fight back.”

The aggressive backlash Warren’s story has faced is part of a subversive political strategy to undermine Warren’s credibility as a woman, a mother and a leader. The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news outlet, reported that county records of school board meetings from 1971 “contradicted” this story that Warren has told many times before. The documents showed that Warren’s teaching contract was renewed in April 1971, but by June 1971, “Warren’s resignation was ‘accepted with regret.’” Many critics took this phrasing as ‘proof’ she was lying or exaggerating, but Warren’s supporters and colleagues, like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, appreciated her speaking out about this problem.

U.S. Senate Photographic Studio,
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is one of the public figures who has defended Warren after she faced criticism from conservative press outlets. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Warren’s story occurred seven years before the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed, during a time when it wasn’t illegal to fire a pregnant employee. Legal or not, it is hard to imagine that Warren’s school officials would have explicitly documented that Warren was fired because she was pregnant. This affected women in the past and continues to affect women today, and academic research, investigative reporting, and decades of anecdotal evidence support the pervasiveness of pregnancy discrimination in the workplace.

Although pregnant workers are not fired outright for their condition, they are often seen as less committed and are given less accommodations, responsibilities or opportunities for advancement. They may also be ongoing victims of harassment. Pregnant women are in need of protection from this discrimination, and it is a constant battle.

In 2015, the Supreme Court narrowly upheld the Pregnancy Discrimination Act over a case of a UPS driver who was forced out of her job while pregnant. Peggy Young claimed her employers refused to make accommodations for her physical condition, even as other employees got similar benefits.  Young was denied a light-duty assignment that she requested after her doctor gave her a lifting restriction due to pregnancy and a history of miscarriages. Despite UPS making other accommodations for employees with various eligibilities, even for one losing their commercial driver’s license after a DUI, Young was unable to safely work until after giving birth.

Young’s story is just one of thousands in the United States, and the Supreme Court ruling in Young v. United Parcel Service still allows a lot of pregnancy discrimination cases to be determined by lower courts. Young’s case was initially dismissed before she could present her argument for pregnancy discrimination. The Supreme Court ruled that she should have been given that chance, but they did not unanimously reinforce the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

The way pregnancy in the workforce is handled today is a direct reflection of the control and objectification that American society feels entitled to hold over those it considers to be subordinate. This includes women, but I also want to note that while most people who experience pregnancy are women, not all pregnant people identify as cisgender women. Trans and gender non-conforming folks often face additional levels of stigma and discrimination in the workforce and that only worsens with pregnancy.

The policies will not improve until lawmakers can approach the problem either with empathy or the desire to listen to the experience of others. What is happening instead is that (mostly male) lawmakers are trying to legislate what happens inside of a person’s uterus. Rights granted from Roe v. Wade could be in jeopardy in 2020. Society has taught us to obsess over social constructs like the gender of the unborn baby while ignoring the human needs and emotions that rise and fall over the course of a pregnancy. Bodies are expected to look and act a certain way when pregnant, and women especially are expected to “lose the baby weight” or “get your body back” as soon as possible after giving birth.

In addition to the social control and objectification pregnant people have to deal with, they are also blamed when they can’t “do it all.” In Western culture, especially in the United States, there is a prominent belief that each person controls their own destiny and, that with enough hard work, anyone can do anything they put their mind to. If you aren’t succeeding, the conventional wisdom goes, it is all your fault and discrimination within society is not to blame ⁠— even if it is the reason you were forced out of a job.

Personally, I can tell you it is exhausting living in a female body in today’s society. There is so much cultural pressure to look, act, talk and walk in a way that is pleasing or acceptable to others. These definitions are already rigid, and adding additional pressure to a person whose body is literally bringing new life into the world is deeply unfair.

The saying “It takes a village to raise a child” did not just come out of nowhere. In our evolutionary history, parenting and childcare used to be a far more communal act, and the burden was not solely placed on new parents. In today’s world, insufficient healthcare, elusive maternity leave and a lack of affordable childcare are incredibly powerful detractors to the health and happiness of American families.

How can we claim to be a country that values the unborn, yet abandons those who carry them? How can we spout values of prosperity, innovation and freedom when we do not support the working bodies that give us those things? And how are we ever going to elect a competent leader who understands these issues if the media lashes out at women who tell their stories?


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