Detroit Free Press
Published 4:00 AM EDT Oct 13, 2019
I know this seems wild. But it's true: I'm 44, and within my lifetime, it was legal to fire women because they were pregnant.
It's difficult to imagine. But a few short decades ago, it was an unquestioned reality that pregnant women didn't belong at work, a conjunction of cultural norms that strictly defined women's priorities as domestic, regardless of the circumstances of that woman's life. And in some workplaces, because of even harder-to-understand ideas about sex.
My mother is 87, and she taught school in the 1950s, one of few professional options for women who wanted or needed to work. At the schools where my mother taught, she told me, it was simply understood that you wouldn't be able to keep teaching while pregnant, and the same norms applied in other professions.
Firing pregnant women was normal
Why are we talking about this now? Because some media reports have questioned a story Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren tells on the campaign trail, about being "shown the door" at her first teaching job in 1971 after becoming pregnant with her first child. Some outlets have dug up school board meeting minutes that show Warren's contract was extended (Warren says that happened before she revealed her pregnancy), and a politely phrased district announcement of her departure as evidence that this story just can't be true.
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But that's kind of the point, my mother said. Firing a pregnant woman wasn't an extreme or objectionable act.
"They didn’t want pregnant women in the classroom," she said. For folks who lived through this era, that was as clear as it was unremarkable.
"When someone suddenly was missing during the school year, or the word came out that this year that so-and-so wouldn’t be back, it was because she was pregnant," my mother said. "I’m quite sure they didn’t say 'Now that you’re pregnant, you’re being fired.'"
Things hadn't changed much by 1971.
Private vs. public spaces
"In the late 1960s and 1970s, you have all this legislation pouring out that’s trying to address political equality, social equality, economic equality, but you still haven’t dislodged all these unwritten norms that try to nudge people into behaving in a certain way," said Janine Lanza, an associate professor of history at Wayne State University.
And most of these norms were aimed at constraining the agency women could exercise, whether in the workplace or with regard to their own sexuality.
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"They didn’t have to write it down. It would be a very clear subtext of this conversation that if she was pregnant, her place was to be at home with the child, and not in the workplace. That was the assumption."
Women's connection to work was presumed to be tenuous, Lanza said, and secondary to their responsibilities to their husbands and families.
"It was this idea that men belong in public space, and women belong in private space," she said.
There was also, my mother said, a weird sex thing.
Victorian holdovers and hangups
Unmarried women who had obvious sexual relationships faced steep social and economic penalties. But it was also dicey for married women, particularly women who taught young children, during an era in which most couples on television were shown sleeping in separate beds, and a ground-breaking episode of "I Love Lucy" written to accommodate star Lucille Ball's second pregnancy couldn't use the word "pregnant," considered too vulgar for the airwaves.
"Pregnancy would have brought up the question of sex, and at that point there were no sex ed classes, none of that," my mother said. "They didn’t want married women flaunting their marriages by being pregnant. They really didn’t want the word 'sex' ever mentioned.
"It was weird. It wasn’t as horrible as the Victorian age. But there were a lot of holdovers."
After the U.S. Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978, women who had lost or were at risk of losing a job because of pregnancy had some legal resource.
In a way, I suppose it's good that things have changed so much — that an absolute fact of life for women a half-century ago is so outrageous now that we struggle to grasp it.
But it's also true that in some ways, we're still laboring under the assumption that men belong in public life, and that women are there on tolerance.
That's why female candidates like Warren have to defend their own stories. And why it's so important not to let the bad old days fade from memory.
Nancy Kaffer is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press, where this column originally appeared. Follow her on Twitter: @nancykaffer