Maternity Leave: History of the Debate and Current Status 

With every claim, no matter how impactful or trivial, we try to put the claim into context compared to history and the world. Other than perhaps Abortion, Maternity leave is among the most hotly debated topics in the American political debate. The debate touches everything from healthcare policies to economics to three waves of feminism. We’ll give some of the historic background and then place the United States in context with the rest of the world while attempting to remain objective as possible.

History of Maternity Leave

As recently as the 1960s, just 14% of women returned to work after their pregnancy. Women in America were just beginning to go to college in large numbers (as were the non-wealthy). The likelihood of returning to work after pregnancy was, and still is to some degree, very much predicated on educational attainment and work experience prior to the beginning of pregnancy. First wave feminism, which came to a close shortly before WWII, was successful in gaining voting rights for women and, to some extent, set the foundations in normalizing the pursuit of College and advanced degrees for women. However as the 1960s arrived, women were not making significant contributions in the corporate sector and (as the 14% stat showed) were frequently “retiring” from the workforce before the age of 30 in the name of starting a family.

Enter Betty Friedan. 

In 1962, Betty Friedan was asked to conduct a survey of of Smith College (an all woman’s college) classmates who were approaching the 20th anniversary of graduating. The results, she discovered, were revealing. She found her classmates had abandoned their careers to begin families, and self reported that they felt extremely unfulfilled. With these results she wrote a series of essay’s that evaluated the current predicament of women. She saw women going to college, but taking classes in subjects such as “home economics” and majoring in fields with limited potential upside. Friedan, who herself gave up a promising career in Psychology to start a family, was unable to find a place to publish her essays so instead turned the work into a 239 page book titled The Feminine Mystique. It was published on February 19, 1963 by W. W. Norton and Co, and is widely credited with igniting the second wave of feminism.

Women’s College Attenance and Work Force Contributions Sky Rocket

This is crucial to understanding the history of maternity leave because for there to be an issue regarding maternity leave, two things have to happen: a) women have to be part of the workforce and b) want to remain in the workforce after a pregnancy. Prior to second wave feminism, women returning to work after pregnancy was exceedingly rare (14%), however that would begin to change ultimately igniting the debate. As a highly cited report published by Household Economics Studies puts it “The proportion of women 25 to 34 years old who had completed 4 or more years of college increased from 8 percent in 1960 to 12 percent in 1970 and further increased to 21 percent by 1980. These years closely correspond to the development of the women’s movement and issues related to the family and the working environment. By 1995, this proportion again increased, but only slightly to 25 percent.” As of 2020, women now account for more than half of all college degrees (including graduate degrees).

In 1978, 15 years after the publication of The Feminine Mystique, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed which paved the way for legislation that protected women who become pregnant on the job. The act dealt with matters regarding the hiring and firing of employees based on sex but did little to protect pay of pregnant or nursing mothers and included this addendum which has been every year since it’s addition:

“This subsection shall not require an employer to pay for health insurance benefits for abortion, except where the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term, or except where medical complications have arisen from an abortion: Provided, That nothing herein shall preclude an employer from providing abortion benefits or otherwise affect bargaining agreements in regard to abortion.”

States, as well as private companies, began forming their own policies which vary greatly based on the requisite state and company being addressed. At the federal level, the current law only guarantees mothers the right not to be fired (due to pregnancy) during pregnancy and gives them a minimum of six weeks of unpaid leave. However, and this may stun some of our overseas readers, it’s not uncommon for one company (such as Google) to have two months of paid Paternity leave and another company in the same city offering only the federally guaranteed six weeks of unpaid leave.

Maternity Leave Around The World

If we narrow down the list to just OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) members, the U.S. is the only country without some form of paid maternity leave or paid part time off for nursing mothers at the federal level. However the pay, the time off and the payment rates vary tremendously from country to country. See the following table pulled from a 2018 OECD report which shows the breakdown of maternity and paternity leave laws by Country. Also note that these variations provide great use cases for all the different ways and ideas of implementing paid leave.


Gender Pay Gap and Maternity Leave

It is impossible to discuss the debate over maternity leave, without talking about its relationship to the gender pay gap. A classic Freakonomics episode (episode 232) took on the issue and it’s relationship to the debate through the lens of long time economist and Harvard professor Claudia Goldin. Goldin, who coincidentally became the first female professor to be tenured at Harvard in 1990, stated “Women often take jobs that have different characteristics, different amenities.” Here Goldin is arguing that women often take different types of jobs (even within the same industry) because of the flexibility the job allows for as far as schedule is concerned. The reason they do so, Goldin believes, is because that flexibility is needed if they want to raise a child. A point she summarizes wonderfully in the following example:

“They (women) will go to small (law) firms where the workload is somewhat different. They may work in fact the same number of hours, but they may work hours that are their hours rather than the hours imposed on them by the firm. The woman will then begin to make — if she’s the one who did this — she will make considerably less than the man.  And a lot of what we see — not all of it — but a lot of what we see is this choice to go into occupations that have less expensive temporal flexibility, that allow individuals to do their work on their own time.”

Ben Shapiro On Maternity Leave

Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro has been opposed to government enforced maternity leave because he believes it to be an infringement of personal rights, but it’s a little more complicated than that. 

Jordan Peterson on Maternity Leave

The Canadian clinical psychologist has argued “for” maternity leave but with some caveats. 

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