Recently, a reader shared an article with me by Gail Collins from the New York Times. (Click) Collins was ranting about the plight of working women who are pregnant. In one case, a female employee working at Wal-Mart’s was fired for carrying a bottle of water on the job in an effort to comply with her obstetrician’s advice that she drink plenty of liquids. In another case, a woman was put on unpaid leave while pregnant because she was unable to lift weights above 20 pounds, something her job didn’t require. This last case is currently before the Supreme Court.
What provoked Collins’ ire is that a bill languishes in the Congress that would prevent discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace. The Pregnancy Workers Fairness Act is supported by pro life and pro choice advocates and on both sides of the political aisle. So why hasn’t it passed, she wonders.
Collins attempts to answer her question by speculating that Republicans, though worried about their standing with women voters, “don’t want to go out of their way to promote something the Democrats started,” and because “there is not a lot of political or financial reward for siding with working mothers.” (Ibid)
On this last point, Collins is right to suspect someone hasn’t done the math because as she points out, the U.S. is a country “where more than two-thirds of mothers work, most of them full time and not many of them by choice but by necessity.” (Ibid) Surely, women have some political collateral.
Solving a problem with a solution to which almost everyone agrees seems a no-brainer. But, as Collins points out, universal early childhood education is also a no-brainer and a boon to working mothers. Still, it has languished in the Congress for the last 40 years.
I suspect another reason exists to explain why The Pregnancy Workers Fairness Act has gained little traction. Collins mentions it herself, in passing. “We have interesting debates about whether young mothers should opt out of the workplace, ignoring that most of them have no option whatsoever on the opting question.” (Ibid). The dark heart of the matter is that pregnant women are tolerated in the labor force because they help the economy. Beneath that gauze of tolerance, however, lies a puritanical prejudice that reaches back hundreds of years: the notion that women who work outside the home betray their children – an accusation which working mothers grapple with every day. And so, while the nation recognizes the reasons why a woman needs to work, it doesn’t want to make that choice easy. Women and their children are the scapegoats to a lingering prejudice. Why else would the country allow working mothers to fend for themselves? Why else would we ignore solutions to problems with which no sane person would disagree? Until we acknowledge our prejudice against working women with children, we’ll never fix the problem.